History Detectives

The History of New York City, in class and on foot

Seniors in the History of New York City acted as history detectives this week, investigating a series of ten fires that blazed across Manhattan nearly three hundred years ago.

“Were the fires related? Was it a slave rebellion? To this day people are not sure what happened,” social studies teacher Tricia Murphy said to her students. “Let’s look at the facts. Tell me what you think happened.”

Murphy gave the challenge to seniors in her History of New York City class, a popular social studies elective. “It’s student driven,” said Murphy. “Students tell me what they want learn about New York City and I shape the class for them, with two to three field trips each semester.”

Presenting Theories to the Class

Exploring Lower Manhattan, Where Slavery Once Thrived

This year’s choices included Lower Manhattan, the oldest section of New York City, where slavery once thrived. “There was a slave market on Wall Street from 1711 – 1762,” Murphy reminded the students. They would see the site, along with Wall Street—which slaves helped build—and the African Burial Ground, on a field trip in March.

Drawing on diverse resources including “New York Burning,” by Jill Lepore; “Inside the Apple,” by Michelle and James Nevius; and a History Chanel documentary on slavery in New York City, students worked in groups to propose and defend their theory on what happened in back in 1741.

All groups posited that while slaves may not have started all the fires, certainly some were part of a slave rebellion.

Mia spoke for her group. “It’s a fact that one fifth of the population of Manhattan was enslaved in 1741,” she began, and mentioned the increasing restrictions on slaves.

Her classmate Christian noted that New York’s slaves would have certainly heard news of the Stono rebellion, a slave uprising in South Carolina two years earlier.


First class assignment is to draw map of NYC from memory

The tide was turning away from slavery

“Slavery was brutal and unjust,” said Kyle in a closing statement. “The slave uprising of 1741 showed that the tide was slowly turning towards New York ending slavery in the state.”

“I love the history of New York City,” said Murphy, after the students left for their next class. “I took this class in graduate school. I am so happy John Jay students love it, too.”