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March 6, 2008; New York Times; New Medium, Old Stories: A High-Tech Look at the City’s Black History; by Glenn Collins.
The teeming restaurant was called Downing’s Oyster House, and its 19th-century patrons were bankers, politicians and lawyers. But even as the swells did their deals upstairs, the proprietor, Thomas Downing, a free black man, presided over a far different scene in his basement, a hiding place for escaping slaves.
The establishment, at 5 Broad Street near Wall Street, was a stop on the Underground Railroad to Canada, and freedom.
Stories about Downing’s and many other locales and people significant to black history in New York City have rarely been classroom staples for schoolchildren. But these sagas, presented in text, historical images and interactive maps, are the focus of a new Web site officially unveiled on Wednesday with an acronym, MAAP, that stands for “Mapping the African American Past.”
The Web site, presented by Columbia University at http://www.maap.columbia.edu, uses video, audio and maps and images to showcase 52 historic sites and people in the city, ranging from the familiar (the African Burial Ground in Lower Manhattan) to the rarely acknowledged, including the Oyster House and the Colored Orphan Asylum.
“It gives students an opportunity for detailed study in a way that would never be possible in traditional textbooks,” said Frank A. Moretti, a professor of communications at Teachers College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
He described the new site as the most extensive Web-based examination of the city’s African-American history. The Web site a portal to film and music clips, photographs and artwork is searchable by location and year, back to 1632. Narratives can be podcast through iTunes.
Dr. Moretti said the yearlong project was conceived by Reginald L. Powe, a longtime developer of educational content for publishers and curriculum providers. Mr. Powe’s Manhattan-based company, Creative Curriculum Initiatives, has produced boxed sets of 52 cards (3 ½ inches by 5 inches) depicting historical locations under the rubric “The African Experience in New York.”
“As an African-American interested in history, I found it hard to understand why so much of the city’s African-American past was unknown to students,” Mr. Powe said. “People know little about slave revolts and people burned at the stake and about inspirational stories of those who advanced against impossible odds.”
A thousand sets of the cards will be made available free to city schools, and they will be offered for sale to the public for $24, which is “the price reputed to have been paid for Manhattan,” Mr. Powe said.
Educators in Columbia’s Center for New Media Teaching and Learning added more information, images and video interviews to the cards in creating the Web site, said Dr. Moretti, who is the center’s executive director. The history project was initially financed with $250,000 from the JPMorgan Chase Foundation, and then Columbia contributed $250,000 in development and staff expenses to produce the Web site and teaching materials, he said.
“Creating lessons on New York history has been a bit of a challenge for many teachers, since there hasn’t been a large market for publishers to create these materials,” said Dr. Margaret S. Crocco, professor and coordinator of social studies education at Teachers College.
As part of the Web site, she directed a team of eight educators at the college to create 24 lesson plans at eighth- and fourth-grade levels that can be downloaded free. The site’s images and information can be dragged, manipulated and otherwise organized by students for projects and teachers creating their own lesson plans.
The Web site is evidence of “the significant awakening of interest in New York’s black history,” said Kenneth T. Jackson, the Jacques Barzun professor of history at Columbia University and the editor in chief of the Encyclopedia of New York City.
“This site should just keep expanding.”