Beyond My Ken

The statue of Henry Ward Beecher in Columbus Park in downtown Brooklyn. The figures at his feet are grateful freed slaves. Despite her important presence on the blocks nearby, the memory of Elizabeth Gloucester stands unrecorded. A group of students is trying to change that.

“When you go outside of UAI, what do you see around Downtown Brooklyn?”

It was a simple question, but one that many of the girls within my senior civics class never took the time to consider. Immediately outside, there was Shake Shack to the left and the Brooklyn Bridge on the right. Yet what Ms. Suzannah, our civics teacher at Urban Assembly Institute of Math and Science for Young Women (UAI), was digging at was not what we saw in the Downtown Brooklyn community, but who we saw.

The following day my class embarked on a tour around the Downtown Brooklyn community. Our first stop was Remsen & Clinton Street. The whole block was full of brownstones and an apartment complex that was being constructed. With a wave of her arm, Ms. Suzannah stated, “This was the block that Elizabeth Glouster owned.” As we stared at the scaffolding and chipped brimstone, there was no trace that Elizabeth Gloucester even existed.

On the last stop of our tour, we visited Columbus Park, where in the middle was a statue of a man. He stood noble as people cried and prayed at his feet. I had passed this statute on my way to school many times and had never thought much of it. I looked at the statue, contemplating Ms. Suzannah’s question. The statue was not just a man, but it was Henry Ward Beecher. And it was not just people by his feet, but black slave children.

You see, Henry Ward Beecher was a white abolitionist whereas Elizabeth Glouster was a freed black woman who was once arguably the richest black woman to ever lived in America, especially at a time when in certain states she was not even considered to be a human.

After both lessons it became clear to what it means to be an American citizen that is underrepresented. To be an underrepresented American citizen means to be reminded, just like your ancestors, your voice is miniscule. In fact, it means that your footprint does not stain the Earth, but instead is washed away by the frequent waves of oppression. I was shocked to only first learn about black abolitionists in the twelfth grade. Shouldn’t I have first learned this in the fourth grade, when I started to learn about American History? I have learned that Black History is deemed to be less separate from American History, despite black culture and many other ethnic cultures being the foundational layer of America.

It is important for low-income, children of color like myself to know that not only did white American allies helped fight racial injustices but so did people of color. It is vital that the black girls who attend UAI know that literally three blocks away from their school, lived the richest black woman in America. Representation is important because it shapes our communities which affects our history.

Now the nation faces an issue of preserved history through the debate over the removal of Confederate statues. This debate continues to ask which type of history should be remembered.

My class decided that we should not minimize history but instead add another perspective – that Elizabeth Gloucester and other Black-Abolitionists are a part of history and should be remembered. My peers and I were inspired and decided to set the goal for our Generation Citizen advocacy project to create a plaque celebrating Black Abolitionists, especially spotlighting Elizabeth Gloucester.

First, we created a petition and survey about the creation of the plaque. We asked questions, such as are you aware of Black-Abolitionists in Downtown Brooklyn, and do you feel like your history is represented, in order to receive a general census of the community’s opinion. A majority of the survey responses to both of the two questions were “no,” so my peers Nabihah Begum, Queentiye Clarke,and Dionne Johnson began contacting various NYC officials, such as Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and aides in Mayor Bill De Blasio’s office to discuss this issue. Dionne in particular managed to secure us a meeting with Michaela Daniel, Senior Policy Advisor at the Office for Strategic Policy Initiatives, which she was an Adviser to Richard Buery, former Deputy Mayor. Michaela then invited Carl Rodrigues, the fellow Senior Policy Advisor to Alicia Glen, the Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development, to the meeting.

During that meeting, Carl advised us that not only would this project take years to become tangible, but that we should not settle for simply a plaque but for a monument. He put it best, “Tell her story to the whole wide world by showing it with a monument; never silence it with just a small section of space or the plaque.”

We still continue to advocate for this project by allowing the current Seniors at UAI to take the reins over the project. Furthermore, we continue to advocate through the She Built NYC! Contest. According to the description on Women.NYC website, until August 1, 2018, She Built NYC! invites New York City residents to submit nominations for women or events in women’s history that should be considered for future public commemorations.

All of these actions would not have been possible without the Generation Citizen advocacy project encouraging and enabling us to bring our project to life. With this project we are telling the message that in American History, we cannot only paint the story of abolitionists of slavery being white Americans, but that Black-Americans were also the agents of their own emancipation. We want to be provided an opportunity to become agents of change from our ancestors’ emancipation. Generation Citizen reminded us that advocacy is the pivotal force behind history and justice. We also learned that no matter our age, civic participation is a birthright and the hope for a better future is a primal instinct.

As my classmates and I enter our college years, we will continue with this project. With this project, we aim to give a message to all of the low-income young people who view the monument. We want them to know that their voices are not miniscule due to the lack of representation of their history but instead, their voices are amplified by their ancestors who advocated for the future. Overall, this project voices what it means to be an American citizen and to be one is to be an advocate who uses their voice on any and every platform.

Tiara Coleman is a member of the Class of 2018 who graduated from Urban Assembly Institute of Math and Science for Young Women. She will be entering Vassar College in the fall for a prospective double major in Film and Education.