OBEN Students Pilot 'Standing Where They Stood' Tour at Raynham Hall
Standing on paper footprints, 5th graders from James H. Vernon School read aloud: “I am Priscilla, and I was purchased in 1796 by Solomon Townsend for 55 pounds…I am Jim, and in 1829 I walked 20 miles herding two cows... I am Isaac, and I escaped in 1784.” The students were among the first to pilot a new tour offered at Raynham Hall Museum called, “Standing Where They Stood,” the first of its kind that sheds light on slavery in the north.
Through a well-planned, interactive experience developed by the museum’s Director of Education Ms. Claire Bellerjeau, students brought to life 30 enslaved individuals by taking on their identities. Students were given a guidebook with facts and pictures for reference, as well as an identity card with the name of a former Oyster Bay enslaved individual and some facts about his or her life.
Standing with Raynham Hall Museum’s Director of Education Ms. Claire Bellerjeau and tour guide Mr. Christopher Judge, 5th grade students from James H. Vernon School hold up identity cards of enslaved individuals from Oyster Bay. At right, students learn about the enslaved individuals that they have been assigned.
“When I became the Director of Education this summer, it was my goal to bring a fully interactive tour to the community in a really caring way; a way that would not create a feeling of hurt or division, but something that they could understand and believe,” Ms. Bellerjeau said. “I am so grateful that Raynham Hall has taken this subject on in a way that students can really remember and understand.”
Research for the tour began from information found in a bible that Raynham Hall purchased 14 years ago from a gallery in New York City for $10,000. In it, are the names of many former slaves of the Townsend family, as well as some facts about their lives. More research revealed the lives of others who were enslaved in Oyster Bay including owners’ names, who they were related to, their jobs, special skills, and when they were purchased, freed or died. After years of research and fact-collecting, enough information was discovered to make the 30 identity cards.
At left, students learn about enslaved individuals from Town of Oyster Bay records. At right, Ms. Bellerjeau references ads that were placed in newspapers advertising the sale of enslaved individuals.
Sitting in the kitchen of the home the Townsend family, first purchased around 1740, students learned that at that time, the area was a busy economic hub with ship builders and farmers. Although it is not known exactly how many slaves lived in the Town of Oyster Bay, town records show the legal manumission (or freeing) of 300 enslaved people, and 1790 Census records show over 600 African-Americans in Oyster Bay, more than half of whom were still enslaved at that time.
“Back in 1685, the first record of any slave anywhere on Long Island being freed happened in the hamlet of Oyster Bay,” Ms. Bellerjeau said to the 5th grade class as she began the tour. “He is connected to the very land we are on today. Who has the identity card for Tom Gall? Will you come up, Tom?” Ms. Bellerjeau asked. “Tom Gall was owned by Alice Crabb. She owned this property, which Samuel Townsend purchased many years later. A map shows the list of all the owners going back as early as 1653,” Ms. Bellerjeau explained. “Tom Gall was freed in 1685, but we can look at his purchase document and see that his original name was Owah. We can also see the type of work he did, what he was provided with by his owner, and plans for him to be set free. When he was purchased in 1673 at age 12, he was already guaranteed that he would be set free at age 31, or when Alice Crabb died, whichever came first,” Ms. Bellerjeau continued. “It turns out that Alice Crab died first and he became free when he was 24 or 25 years old. After he was freed, he stayed in Oyster Bay; he owned orchards and fields as a free person. He took the last name "Gall" and the Gall name was carried down for generations in our town.”
The tour also explored the lives of enslaved individuals during the Revolutionary War when British soldiers, along with the Townsend family, lived in the house. About 12 enslaved individuals lived there at any given point in time and took care of the family and the British soldiers.
“This opened our eyes and we began researching who these people might be. We now know of 18 individuals who were enslaved here,” Ms. Bellerjeau said. Students were then asked to step forward when their individual’s name was called so they could see how many were owned by the family at any one time.
Students were made aware that not every soldier was in favor of slavery. “British Colonel John Simcoe believed that slavery was morally wrong and wanted to raise a regiment that was composed of escaped slaves, but his request was denied by the British army,” Ms. Bellerjeau said. “He did, however, fight alongside an unofficial regiment of escaped slaves who were not paid by the British, led by a man known as Colonel Tye. Tye was a man who escaped from his owner in New Jersey and brought together a band of 20 to 30 escaped slaves that called themselves "The Black Brigade". Colonel Tye fought alongside Colonel Simcoe but died in 1780 from a small wound on his hand that became infected and led to blood poisoning. He did not live to see freedom at the end of the war.”
These and many more historical facts were explored as students toured the house and grounds.
At the end of the tour, students and teachers stood on paper footprints and shared facts that they learned about the enslaved individual that were assigned to them.
According to Mr. Joseph Pesqueira, the District’s K-12 Social Studies Supervisor, the tour “serves as an excellent opportunity for students to not only enrich their knowledge of the 5th grade American history curriculum but of their own hometown in a very meaningful and tangible way. Our teachers and students in our 5th grade classes, as well as our high school students in the Rho Kappa Social Studies Honor Society who were the first to take the tour, have found it to be a well-delivered, memorable experience and we greatly appreciate Ms. Bellerjeau’s efforts to unearth this part of history and share it with our District and the community.”
“Students are asking brilliant questions and they are really thinking and wondering,” Ms. Bellerjeau added. “Each group has taken this subject on in a caring, thoughtful way. I would like the community to know that I am here to answer any questions and if there’s question we cannot answer, we will continue researching and learning together until we understand as much as possible about the history of those who were enslaved here.”