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The Insider's Connection

African American History

Influential Voice in Music & Culture: Marian Anderson

Who are the most influential voices in music and culture? Whose stories have shaped New York City legacies? How did Marian Anderson make history with resilience and a great singing voice? Marian Anderson was born in 1897 in Philadelphia. Her mother worked in childcare and her father sold coal and ice – both were devout…

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April 16, 2021

Off-Broadway Producer Ellen Stewart and the La MaMa Theater

When the risk was high and the funding was non-exist, who made space for experimental art in New York City? How did a young black woman, designing clothes at Bergdorf Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Lord & Taylor become the first off-off Broadway producer to be inducted into the Broadway Theatre Hall of Fame? How…

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April 5, 2021

The Inventor of Tap Dancing

Who invented Tap dancing? How is self-expression shaped and developed? When does the geographical proximity of different cultures influence art? Williams Henry Lane was born free in Rhode Island in 1825. As a child, he moved to New York’s Five Points district–today, a section of the Financial District–where a lot of Irish and African Americans lived. The Five Points bustled with performance, drinking, gambling, and dance. It was a poor area, quickly becoming a “melting pot” as immigrant groups found their way to Lower Manhattan to live and work. Lane was initially a performer in minstrel shows, a popular form of American entertainment between 1830 and 1890. In minstrel shows, white performers (usually Irish men) appeared in blackface, imitating hideous stereotypes of African-American speech, music, and dance. Usually the skits and jokes made fun of slaves, and only white people…

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March 11, 2019

Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”: The First Great Protest Song of the Civil Rights Movement

What happens when protest is propelled forward by music? How do people in power silence artists who have the courage to speak against injustice? What is the cost of resistance through art?  Billie Holiday, the legendary jazz singer, challenges the injustice of lynching with her iconic rendition of the song “Strange Fruit,” the first great Civil Rights Movement protest song, but she paid a high price. Billie Holiday had a tough childhood. At 9 years old she started working as an errand-runner in a Baltimore brothel and was sexually assaulted. At the age of 10, she was sent to The House of the Good Shepherd, a Catholic reform school for “troubled” African-American girls. When she was released from The House of the Good Shepherd at age 10, Holiday moved with her mother Sadie, the only consistent support system in her…

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February 25, 2019

The Great New York Conspiracy of 1741: Slave Rebellion

Why are historians still debating an event that happened in 1741? What do rumors, trials, conspiracies, and fears reveal about a shifting public consciousness amongst 18th century New Yorkers? Why is The Conspiracy of 1741 particularly resonant in 2019?  Enslaved African-Americans in New York City first rebelled for their freedom in 1712, setting fires to buildings and killing 9 whites before the rebellion was violently crushed. The whites in New York City feared a second rebellion and placed severe restrictions on the enslaved population. On March 18, 1741 an enslaved man named Quaco set fire to Fort George. The Fort was a political and military center of the northeast, and the damage was significant. Over the course of the next 3 weeks–at the end of a particularly cold winter– 10 fires were to other buildings in Manhattan leading to outbreak…

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February 18, 2019

Enslaved Woman Hiding in Plain Sight: A Story of Daring Escape

What did it take to escape from slavery? How was it possible? No matter how many accounts we gather about the creativity, courage, collaboration involved in escape, we know some pieces of the puzzle will always be missing. When we encounter these stories, we must remember that there are many more that we’ll never know. Ellen and Williams Craft were enslaved in separate households in Georgia. They got married, and shared the trauma of being separated from their families at a young age. Ellen and William did not have children while enslaved, fearing that they’d be taken away. William was allowed to keep a small fraction of the wages he earned as a cabinetmaker in a shop where his owner collected the rest of the money. He and Ellen planned to leave around Christmas, coming up with an elaborate plan….

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February 11, 2019

African American Heritage: The Businessman Who Set People Free

 How do the stories of buildings and people reveal secrets of the city’s history? How did New Yorkers get involved in the Underground Railroad? How is it possible that significant secrets to the history of New York hid for so long in plain sight? When you stand at the corner of Broad and Wall Street, you’re overwhelmed with iconic buildings: Federal Hall on the north side, the New York Stock Exchange across the street, Trinity Church on the west side of Broadway. It’s a vibrant intersection, rich with history. You could spend the day considering who has stood right where you’re standing. Where were they going? What were they talking about? What crises and triumphs might they have been facing? Visitors seldom stand on that corner and consider Downing’s Oyster House, a swanky restaurant that catered to New York’s elite between…

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February 4, 2019

The Forgotten Liberator

What does it take for one person to oppose an international system as insidious and devastating as racism? On Martin Luther King Day, we consider the courage, risk, and profound effort involved in the fight for equality. Martin Luther King challenged the system. He suffered devastating losses and celebrated remarkable victories, changing the course of American history during the Civil Rights Era. 120 years earlier in New York City, David Ruggles did the same thing. New York abolished slavery in 1827, and a free black community slowly began to form in Manhattan. Enslaved people fled the south seeking freedom in New York, but it wasn’t that simple. Fugitive slaves and black New Yorkers could lose their freedom at any moment; southern enslavers flooded New York City, seeking fugitives and free blacks to sell into slavery. The threat of kidnapping and…

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January 18, 2019

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