Gilder Lehrman Seminar Visits Brooklyn Heights Historic Sites

New York, NY (July 27, 2015): On July 14, participants in the Gilder Lehrman Teacher Seminar The Underground Railroad took an interactive field trip to historic Plymouth Church and the Brooklyn Historical Society in Brooklyn Heights, where they came away with a first-hand look at the abolitionist movement and plenty of new resources, discussion questions, and lesson plan ideas.

“The students have been thinking about how New York City is the gateway to freedom. This trip brings them to that gateway,” explained seminar leader Professor Matthew Pinsker, the Pohanka Chair in Civil War History at Dickinson College.

Seminar students filled the old wooden pews and listened raptly as tour guide Lois Rosebrooks recounted the role the church played in abolitionist and civil rights history. Ms. Rosebrooks told a vivid tale of its first pastor, Henry Ward Beecher, and his anti-slavery activities, which included turning the church into a stop on the Underground Railroad, filling his sermons with anti-slavery themes, and inviting leaders such as Frederick Douglass to speak to crowds of thousands. Her story finished in February 1963 with a first-hand account of Martin Luther King Jr. giving an early version of his “I Have a Dream” speech at a Sunday service, months before he would famously recite it in Washington D.C.

“It was absolutely fascinating,” said Jessica Bishop, a history teacher at Montclair Kimberly Academy in New Jersey. “The woman who led the tour was not just telling history, but was a part of history.”

Hearing about Plymouth Church’s socially progressive history from an actual witness was one of several interactive facets of the trip. The class also viewed relics of the church’s abolitionist past, snapped pictures of the seat Abraham Lincoln had occupied in 1860 when he came to hear Beecher preach, and ventured down winding stairs into the dank cellars of the church, where escaped slaves were reportedly hidden. Ms. Rosebrooks noted that the church was distinct in being the sole Underground Railroad site in New York City.

At the Brooklyn Historical Society, which was closed to visitors for the day, teachers had the exhibit “Brooklyn Abolitionists/In Pursuit of Freedom” to themselves, and explored the room, taking notes, discussing ideas for engaging class projects and assignments, and looking at historical artifacts. The exhibit featured the biographies of black abolitionist leaders, who are often overlooked in the teaching of Civil War history.

 “It’s been so helpful to learn stuff you don’t see in the textbook,” said Ms. Bishop.

Professor Pinkser was on hand to point out which aspects of the trip could be made into teaching material. At the historical society he asked his students to analyze how the exhibit is presented, suggesting, “I think the best kind of project is having students create their own exhibits – it’s what I’m trying to do with my college students.” At Plymouth Church, he pointed out a portrait of Sally Maria Diggs, whose freedom had been bought by the congregation after a stirring speech by Beecher. “Make sure you get a picture of this. This is a powerful story. This is what makes Henry Beecher’s presence powerful for students.”

Teachers also eagerly took copies of lesson plans and supplementary resources created by the Plymouth Church and Brooklyn Historical Society, and brainstormed future lesson plans. A majority of seminar participants were history teachers, but teachers of other subjects found the trip useful for lesson planning as well. Kerry Wells, an English teacher at the Venture School in California, said she intends to incorporate the history she has learned in novel assignments in her class, adapted for different grade levels. 

The weeklong seminar, which has 28 teacher participants from all over the United States, revisits the mythology of the Underground Railroad, using field trips, visits to archives, and online sources to learn how communities aided slave escapees and gain new approaches to teaching black history during the Civil War period.

ABOUT GILDER LEHRMAN TEACHER SEMINARS

Each summer, the Gilder Lehrman Institute offers forty academically rigorous Teacher Seminars for K-12 educators. These weeklong seminars are held at colleges and historic sites across the United States and abroad, and offer teachers daily discussions with eminent historians, visits to local historic sites, and hands-on work with primary sources. Room, board, tuition and reading materials are fully paid for public school teachers, as well as reimbursements for travel expenses. Matching funds for independent school teachers and community college faculty are available. Click here for more information.

ABOUT THE GILDER LEHRMAN INSTITUTE OF AMERICAN HISTORY

The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History is a New York–based national non-profit devoted to the teaching and learning of American history. Gilder Lehrman draws on top scholars, an unparalleled collection of original historical documents, and a national network of more than 5,000 Affiliate Schools to create and provide a broad range of innovative resources, help new generations of students learn about American history in a way that is engaging and memorable, and promote critical thinking and excellent writing.