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Uncovering NYC: New York City’s First Free Black Communities – Newtown


A closer look at the history and legacy of Newtown, Queens.

To learn more about Newtown, Corona, Elmhurst, and the rich cultural history of Queens, New York, visit the Corona-East Elmhurst Historic Preservation Society (CEEHPS), and Elmhurst History and Cemeteries Preservation Society, INC.

Watch Uncovering NYC: New York City’s First Free Black Communities – Weeksville

Watch Uncovering NYC: New York City’s First Free Black Communities – Seneca Village

Secrets of the Dead: The Woman in the Iron Coffin Premiered Wednesday, October 3 on PBS, and is now streaming via and PBS apps.

Executive Producer: Stephanie Carter
Producer/Director: Jacqueline Medina
Producer: Ben Phelps
Editing and Cinematography: Chelsea Rugg
Camera and Sound: Daniel Rivera
Re-recording Mixer: Josh Broome
Graphics: Kyle Sweet

Special thanks to:

Saint Mark AME Church
Corona-East Elmhurst Historic Preservation Society (CEEHPS)
Elmhurst History and Cemeteries Preservation Society, INC.
Reverend Kimberly Detherage
Linda Jacob
Dr. Prithi Kanakamedala
Marialena Giampino

Image Credits:

Corona-East Elmhurst Historic Preservation Society (CEEHPS)
Elmhurst History and Cemeteries Preservation Society, INC.
New York Public Library
Library of Congress
Impossible Factual
New York State Archives

Produced by the Interactive Engagement Group for WNET.

© 2018 [WNET Interactive Engagement Group]. All Rights Reserved.

What was Queens like in the decades before the Civil War-- 1830s 40s 50s?

We knew our history but we didn't have all of our history. If we don't do anything no one is gonna know African Americans even existed in this area.

My name is Kimberly Detherage and I'm the pastor here at St. Mark African Methodist Episcopal Church. Our church played a significant role in Newtown and even up until today. What was Newtown like in the 1850s-- what is now Elmhurst?

It is a small place. This is a one Street town and there was nothing beyond. People in Newtown would have worked locally because Queens at that time was largely agricultural and they would have probably stayed fairly local in terms of living and working. After emancipation in New York of the abolition of slavery in New York the black population was made up of free African Americans-- people who had escaped slavery as well as those who had been manumitted from from slavery.

There isn't a lot of wealth in the African American community but they're able to build the church. It was the first church that was actually established by people of African descent and it was done so one year after the full emancipation of slaves in New York State. It's in the black church where people are affirmed. It's in the black church where people are lifted up. The church was more than just about faith, it was a place in which community organizing and discussions could be had about what freedom really looked like. So a lot of the educational initiatives we see happening in free black communities usually come out of those churches. Literacy in many ways simply represents freedom black leaders really see education as a path to emancipation and the one example that sticks out in my mind has to do with James Pennington.

He escapes from slavery in Maryland didn't ends up in Newtown in Queens.

Pennington became one of leading abolitionists in the United States. He spoke against slavery. There were other people in Newtown we know that there were people who were helping fugitives from the south to gain their freedom in the north. Post-emancipation --federal emancipation-- black people move out of Newtown completely. My kids don't know African American history, African American history comes because we teach it in the church. When I was in the fifth grade, my history book said that 'African Americans made no significant contribution to the development of New York State.' It had a profound effect upon me for years. Understanding your history helps you to understand your background it helps to give you a sense of pride and a sense of purpose. Generally people have reduced African American history to a very low common denominator. It's really important that we create this rich and diverse tapestry of African American life in the nineteenth century. We're reminded of the Sankofa bird. You know the African symbol of Sankofa which tells us that sometimes we need to go back to our past in order to reclaim and move towards our future.