“The Authors of Our Own Educations”: High Schoolers Reimagine New Haven History

Kapp Singer

“We hope that you notice, with sites on this tour spanning […] from the 1700s to the 2010s, that history never stops being made. What history is being made today, right now, around us?” Narrating the virtual walking tour they titled New Haven’s African American, Indigenous, And Latinx History, student creators invite listeners to engage with the lives and resistance strategies of local communities of color, who continue to write their own histories. The virtual walking tour took shape as a podcast, created earlier this year, that grew out of Metropolitan Business Academy students’ desire to reimagine New Haven history through the lens of high school teacher Nataliya Braginsky’s African American and Latinx History course. A coalition of students from around the state, led by Students for Educational Justice, CT Students for a Dream, Citywide Youth Coalition, and Hearing Youth Voices, lobbied for African American studies and Latinx studies courses in 2019. However, after learning that curriculum changes wouldn’t be mandated until 2021, Braginsky and her students decided to forgo the wait and co-create a history class for Metropolitan high schoolers. Recent Metro graduates E’moni Cotten and Dameon Dillard, joined by Braginsky, opened up to Professor Quan Tran’s, GRD ’15, Comparative Ethnic Studies Seminar last Thursday, September 24, about the process of researching, compiling, and recording the virtual tour and their vision for embodying anti-racist education. 

Zoom in on the map to explore specific sites on the walking tour in context. Map adapted from An African-American, Indigenous, and Latinx Peoples’ History of New Haven: Virtual Walking Tour.

Professor Quan Tran: I think that questions of access are part and parcel to how one dismantles a particular dominant history or a particular dominant narrative about the community, about space. So I wanted to ask E’moni and Dameon, if you each could just talk a little bit and share about your process in this project and maybe some of the insights that you were able to gain having gone through the creation of these tours.

E’moni Cotten: So, basically, the process of this project was that we as students got to choose sites that were interesting to us around New Haven. Then we had to find credible sources that taught us about the sites. One of the sites that I found was Bregamos. It’s a community theater here in New Haven, and I actually worked with the founder of that theater for a summer camp three years in a row. So I got to use them as a primary source when going about researching my personal site.

Dameon Dillard: I’ve always been very into learning about my own culture and learning about my people, so it was very eye-opening. I did not know New Haven had so much Black excellence and accomplishments. It was really good to see that the city I grew up in has so much built up by my people. It just made me want to research even more.

Yale holds on to their elitism through that kind of gatekeeping that's rooted in eugenics. And we just need to say that aloud over and over again.

Nataliya Braginsky: Yeah, and we were going to share, each of us—or Dameon and E’moni—share two of the sites that especially stood out to them. If you want to do that next, you wanna keep going, Dame, with two of the sites that stood out to you?

DD: Yeah, the two sites that stood out to me most were the Black Panther Trials that happened on the Green and also the Oak Street Connector being built. I’ll start off with the Black Panther trials. In the Black Panther Trials, they went on trial for murder, and the Yale community, a lot of the city, came and actually helped fight and advocate for them to not be arrested or locked up and everything like that. And it was cool to see that, oh, Yale and people in the community came out to support something like this. I didn’t even know New Haven had Black Panthers, so that was also really good. And it was to the point that they couldn’t even convict them because they knew it wouldn’t be fair at all, so that’s a little note on that one. The Oak Street Connector—the school I went to, out some of the windows you could literally see the highway they built, and it was built over a Black community and it was built there on purpose to kind of drive out Black and Puerto Rican people away from the Yale area so it could be a less diverse community and everything like that.

NB: Yeah, and the Black Panthers actually published a pamphlet speaking out against the Oak Street Connector and against the ring road and other freeways that were separating the center of New Haven and Yale and the hospitals from Black and Puerto Rican communities in particular.

EC: For me, too, one of the sites that I did had to do with Jane Matilda Bolin and Pauli Murray. Jane Matilda Bolin was the first Black woman to graduate from Yale Law School in 1931. She was also one of the first Black women to become a judge—she served on the domestic relations court in New York City. And Pauli Murray graduated from Yale Law School also. She was the first Black person to graduate from Yale Law School with a Doctor of Judicial Science degree. She was also openly gay, she was a teacher, she was a civil rights activist. At Howard, I actually learned that she was part of the legal team for Brown v. Board of Education, so that was kind of interesting that I learned that at my school. And the other site was New Guinea, which was a little neighborhood founded by William Lanson. That was interesting to me just because it showed he was really progressive in New Haven. He had a diverse neighborhood primarily for people of color. But sadly it was subsidized by white people, so when the economy began to change and that land became profitable to other businesses, they switched up on Lanson. So they sold all his land and everyone lost their homes. So that was just kind of sad to read about because I know that things like that still happen today with gentrification. So I think this is something that’s been happening for years, even before I was born, and all of us here.

Nowadays, it’s really up to us to be the authors of our own educations, because a lot of the time, we don’t learn these kinds of things in school. And it wasn’t until that group of kids went to the Capitol that we were able to get this class. So I just think that we can be examples to kids everywhere that if you want something, now’s the time to go get it. It’s really been a pleasure to be in this class. And it’s also thanks to the teachers at Metro. I know that this is the first year that we had African-American and Latinx history, but it’s not the first time that we learned about our own history. The teachers make sure to incorporate all of that into our curriculum, so I’m really thankful for the teachers as well.

Nowadays, it's really up to us to be the authors of our own educations, because a lot of the time, we don't learn these kinds of things in school.

DD: I’m glad the kids went out there and that we’ve taken a hold of our own future, instead of waiting for other people to let us do things. I’m glad about that because if we kept sitting back, who knows, we might never have been able to have a specific class to learn about ourselves. I don’t get how communities that have 90 to 95% Black or Latinx kids have no classes from K to 12 learning about themselves at all. Except for slavery and three people: Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King, Jr. I’m glad that last year, I basically made history. So I appreciate our school. Like E’moni said, we’ve been learning about ourselves since freshman year even though we had no specific class, but I appreciate Nataliya for working hard to let us have that class too.

EC: One of the reasons why we did this map is because a lot of the time, we’re taught that Yale makes New Haven. Yale doesn’t even pay taxes. Out of all the buildings that Yale has in New Haven, they pay no taxes. They don’t contribute to our education. They don’t contribute to anything having to do with the people of New Haven. They’re literally self-centered around their own stuff. But the part of this project that we wanted to get out to people is that New Haven and the people are the ones who make Yale. We make history at Yale. It’s not just white people who make history. It’s not just men, it’s Black women, it’s Latinos, it’s everybody else. New Haven is what made Yale what it is today. Without the people, without this city, Yale would be nothing.

NB: I know that the HBCU that they attempted to build here in 1831, it would’ve been the first one in U.S. history—and I know that that’s really personal for you two, Dameon and E’moni.

DD: Yes, I go to Alabama A&M, an HBCU, and I don’t think I would have gone as far away as I did from home if we had an HBCU in New Haven. Well, obviously that didn’t happen. I don’t know why throughout history, society has not allowed Black people to educate and provide for themselves. I could think about Wall Street. They wouldn’t let us provide for ourselves, they wouldn’t let us be by ourselves, but they don’t want us to grow, either. So I’m glad that HBCUs have happened, period, even though the first one isn’t in New Haven. I’ve seen a quote that says something like “why do you go to an HBCU, why you gotta be around diverse communities all the time.” But you got your whole life to be a minority. You might as well go where you got your culture, at least for four years or three years or however many years you’re going to school. So that’s the reason I went to an HBCU. And I really do wish New Haven had one. That would’ve made the city really grow, I think.

EC: I’m going to Howard University. It was a struggle for me to actually go that far away from home. I actually wanted to stay close to my family, but there was no option for me out of all of the Connecticut schools. I know that I come from a diverse city, but when you look at the demographic of the schools around the state, they’re like 90% white. So I’m gonna go from a 98% minority school to a 90% white school, and it didn’t feel comfortable for me. So Howard, I applied, I actually didn’t think I was going to get in, but I did. So now I have to go five hours when I could’ve just gone right downtown to school. But, it didn’t work out like that. Yale literally robbed New Haven of the history of having the first HBCU. So thinking about it like that, it’s just like, wow, I could have been here. The Yale that made New Haven is the same thing that’s pushing me away from home. So it’s just kind of sad to think about. But I’m still thankful for an opportunity to go to Howard.

New Haven is what made Yale what it is today. Without the people, without this city, Yale would be nothing.

NB: I would just add that a lot of New Haven students don’t even really see themselves at Yale, don’t even believe that that’s a possibility, or they apply and they don’t get in. And the main reason that New Haven students are rejected from Yale is SAT scores. I studied with Professor HoSang in the Yale New Haven Teachers’ Institute and he does some great lecturing and teaching about the eugenicist roots of standardized tests and also the location of this right here in New Haven, and right at Yale in particular. Yale holds on to their elitism through that kind of gatekeeping that’s rooted in eugenics. And we just need to say that aloud over and over again. It’s still at play right now, it’s having the exact same type of impact. Obviously, there are exceptions, but [these tests are] having the exact same kind of impact and [they’re] just pedagogically not a measure of anything but wealth. Our walking tour attempts to counter the racism that is in K-12 schooling, but also the elitism that goes on in higher ed. The goal was really for it to be a people’s history and written in a language that is accessible. I wanted students to feel like they could share this with their younger siblings but also with their grandparents and everyone in between, and just how important that anti-elitism is to this project. E’moni, do you want to talk about the second point about the changing of roles in the classroom around this work?

EC: Yeah. So before [the class] started I remember Miss Nataliya asking us what we want[ed] to learn. She gave us the autonomy to choose the kind of topics that we wanted to learn about, which I also really thank her for. We’re learning our own history, the roles got reversed, and we got to teach other people about our history. It’s the switch between student and teacher, not only for Nataliya, but for us. You know, learning never stops, but it’s just really cool that we got to be the teachers. Not only to our own classmates, but also to broader New Haven. Because this isn’t our first time talking in front of people about this project. So as we keep doing more interviews, everything expands, and it feels good to know that this project is bigger than us at this point.

DD: No matter how many times [we] do this I [am] still nervous. But from my point of view, the dominant narrative taught in school—not even just in New Haven, but around the country—is mostly whitewashed history or fixed history. I’m glad that we’re able to show the whole story and also show untold stories that nobody thinks about. Like 90% of the stories nobody really knows about or heard about ever before. […] The way it was set up, me and E’moni actually were going to be partners for the walking tour. I think it would have been a better experience for me personally because being able to walk by and see where things either are or look like in person like it would have [given me] flashback visions of like, “Oh this is what it was like in…” I feel like it would have been more personal for me if I were able to walk and see all of these places. [But] I’m glad we did it the way it is, because more people are able to see it.

EC: Yeah, I feel the same way. It would have been powerful in a way to take people who probably live and work here but don’t really know the city, who maybe don’t want to go to certain parts, and show them my history. I would have felt really good to see that people were learning from me.

DD: If I’m not mistaken, for part of the tour, Ms. Nataliya, actual Black Panthers were supposed to go with us. […] So that would’ve made [the experience] even more deep for me.

NB: One note to make is that these six students recorded this during the height of the pandemic, when [five of them] were supposed to be finishing their senior year of high school. They were home and recording these audio pieces and doing the research and all of that. That’s just powerful to me. Whenever I hear them I just think wow, what a historic moment. So shout out to the other four students, Darlaney, Angel, Kaleeah, and Flor. So we were going to do these tours through arts and ideas, but then we also got connected to Artspace [New Haven] and they were doing a 50 year anniversary of the Mayday protest for the Black Panthers. And then there was a connection made with not an actual Black Panther, but Warren Kimbro’s son who still lives in New Haven. And so Dameon and E’moni were going to actually do the tour with him and highlight a lot of the Black Panther sites. So that would have definitely been really cool. You would’ve gotten to meet him and be in conversation with him.

EC: Back in the day [the Black Panthers] probably wouldn’t have even imagined something like this could happen. So the fact that we, as young Black kids from New Haven, get to teach other people about our city and their history […] Knowing that my ancestors couldn’t have even dreamed about [it] and I get to live it out for them would have made it even more personal.

QT: Last question: [let’s have] our guest speakers think about the ways in which Yale is structured as a kind of exclusive space that is heavily gatekept, and the environment that Metro is situated in. […] I’m wondering if you could say a little bit more about how [you] see the potential of collaboration should these university and town spaces [be] collapsed and brought together more often.

I’m saying: Yale, give more back to the community.

EC: I think [students should] break the barriers between Yale and New Haven, maybe if we got the students to collaborate with us, they can protest and get y’all to start paying some taxes to clean up the city a little bit, make it a little bit better for us. I think that that would be beneficial just to know high schoolers and elementary school people everywhere. It would break the idea that Yale is what makes us.

DD: I’m saying: Yale, give more back to the community. You could […] have more opportunities for high school kids to take classes […] and also pay some taxes. Even 10% would go a long way. […] Be conscious of what the city looks like. […] And [it] shouldn’t look like that with so much money supposedly [coming] into the city because of this giant university.

NB: We face a deficit every year in New Haven Public Schools. I’ve read different statistics about how the amount of money that [Yale’s endowment] profits in one single day is enough to close this deficit—this deficit that means teachers get laid off, that means we don’t have books for our students to read […] and so much more. Our class sizes are big; we could be in our schools right now but our ventilation is horrible. And so many of these things require money […] Yale paying taxes would make a huge difference […] I think Yale is really good with their PR and so they convince people that Yale is giving a lot to New Haven, like “look at all these programs.” People don’t even realize that they’re viewing New Haven as a charity case instead of realizing that there’s a parasitic relationship and that Yale really owes a lot to New Haven.

Listen to New Haven’s African American, Indigenous, and Latinx History here.

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