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Glimpses of the First Blacks in the Americas

Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership

Glimpses of the First Blacks in the Americas

Sometimes, a historian is able to recapture a moment in time that had been lost, and show it to the world. More rarely, if they are exceptionally talented and a little lucky, they discover a new way of examining the past, enabling a group of people to reclaim their past, and look with fresh eyes at who they are and where they are going. In an extraordinary exhibit, the CUNY-Dominican Studies Institute (CUNY-DSI) at the Colin Powell School, manages this feat.   

On May 22, 2015, the CUNY-DSI launched its exhibit, “Sixteenth-Century La Espanola: Glimpses of the First Blacks in the Early Colonial Americas.” The exhibition is part of a long-term CUNY-DSI project titled ‘First Blacks in the Americas,” and consists of 25 panels of archival documents, highlighting different moments in the lives of Black Africans and their island-born descendants in the first European colony in the Americas. The festive launch was held in the Dominican Studies Institute’s Archival Library and featured a performance by Afro-Cultural Dominican Group Gagá Pa'l Pueblo.

The individual panels displayed within the exhibit reveal the contours of extraordinary lives, pulled into the light from the shadows of a past too-long forgotten. Alongside records of the very first people to be enslaved in the new world, the panels offer descriptions of the work of an African woman who worked to build a hospital. These records offer us a window into the time and place where the very first people of African descent came to this hemisphere, and from which the entire stream of African American culture and history began. They also reposition Dominican identity as, from the very beginning, intertwined to the passage from Africa to the Americas. The painstakingly restored and deciphered stories depict an astounding world that few have examined closely. 

But these revelations are only a small part of the contribution this exhibition makes. In large measure, the work on display in the Dominican Studies Library serves to advertise a new technique to help unlock documents that have long been undecipherable to the modern eye. Paleography is an advanced technique that historians use, but scholars at the CUNY-DSI have developed the Spanish Paleography Digital Teaching and Learning tool, which transforms a highly specialized technique into something that less experienced scholars—indeed, even the general public, can use. In this way, the exhibition showcases a way of offering everybody the opportunity to make sense of their own histories. So, while the exhibit has a specific and compelling focus, it also showcases a new approach to historical research. See related story.

The CUNY-DSI, housed at the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership, is the nation’s first university-based research institute devoted to the study of people of Dominican descent in the United States and other parts of the world. The Institute, under the director of Dr. Ramona Hernández (Department of Sociology), has established itself as a unique voice for the history of the Dominican people, and as a place where researchers, students and the general public can come to learn about the future of the Dominican people around the world. “By offering these documents, many of which will be presented in the exhibit for the first time, we will allow the public to understand contents that are usually accessible only to specialists trained in paleography, the deciphering of the often intricate handwriting used at the time,” said Anthony Stevens-Acevedo, assistant director of CUNY DSI. 

Dr. Lissette Acosta-Corniel, a CUNY-DSI researcher, said the material includes images of the earliest documents they have been able to track that mention the presence of Blacks in La Española in the 16th century. Acosta-Corniel and Stevens-Acevedo are the curators of the manuscripts. Stevens-Acevedo produced the transcriptions.

As the exhibition continues its run at City College through September 2015, the Colin Powell School invites New Yorkers and visitors from around the world to take the opportunity to see this truly remarkable set of images and transcription. The Division of Interdisciplinary Studies at the Center for Worker Education will welcome the exhibition to its space in the fall.  

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