Lawrence Henderson is the author of, “You Are Here…,” a book about the locations where the enslaved and free Africans traveled, worked, lived, worshipped and died on the island of Manhattan. This book covers the early colonial period of 1613-1865. The book released in February 2017. The full title of the book is, “You Are Here – A Geographical History of Enslaved and Free Africans in Manhattan: 1613-1865.”
Here at Purposely Awakened, our job is to keep our people awoke to our history! I was delighted to interview Lawrence to learn more about his book. Check out the interview below.
I’m a New Yorker. I was born in Harlem and raised on the Lower East Side (LES) of Manhattan. I worked on Wall Street, was educated throughout the city, and assisted in major law trials, as a paralegal, in the Federal and State courts around Foley Square. I shopped at the South Street Seaport, raced around Central Park, visited many fascinating art galleries and museums in this metropolis, partied at the World Trade Center’s Windows of the World, and walked home covered with dust from the 9/11 tragedy. This city, past and present, represents my life.
In 2015, I was deeply inspired while viewing a powerful and courageous photo exhibit by the internationally known artist, Nona Faustine. Her display, at the International Center of Photography, was entitled, “White Shoes.” In that dynamic show, Ms. Faustine bared her soul in a photograph where she stood on a wooden auction block at the symbolic heart of NYC – Wall Street. The photo was appropriately entitled, “From Her Body Sprang Their Greatest Wealth.”  In the background of that iconic photograph stood several financial institutions that were built and financially enriched from enslaved African labor.
As I pondered over these dynamic photos, I was compelled to learn what role enslaved and freed Africans played in the building of one of the greatest cities in the world – New York City. The further I researched the subject the more my curiosity was piqued. A book that particularly intrigued me during this process was, In The Shadow of Slavery . It contains detailed maps of “Free Negro Lots,” “The Negro Burial Grounds,” various “Wards” of Manhattan, and rare photographs that depict key events during the early colonial periods of NYC. All of this information made it clear to me – the history of African Americans in Manhattan is manifest in plain sight. Every day, across this city, thousands of tourists as well as “native” New Yorkers, unknowingly walk past places that have an incredible story to tell.
I have chosen to retrace the steps and contributions of enslaved and free African people in Manhattan during the 17th-19th century. Although there is no shortage of information available, this subject matter is often ignored in the telling of our history. Interestingly, the Dutch West India Company and English historians kept accurate and plentiful records of their treatment of enslaved Africans during this period. In fact, the perpetrators of slavery were so uncaring in their depraved behavior against the enslaved Africans that they were incredibly honest and cavalier in recording their offensive actions. Thus, with the abundance of resources available, I intend to shine the light on this darkened subject in the hopes that one day African American history will be integrated into the teaching of all American history. After all, Black history is American history. It is this history that connects Europeans to North America, universally joining us all.
For the most part, I use the term “enslaved Africans” instead of “slave.” Africans were not born slaves in Africa; They were born free human beings and were forced to become slaves once captured and marched to the slave ships. I want to highlight their humanity as well as emphasize what they became. Also, when I use the term African American, I prefer using the term without the hyphen (-) because I want the descendants of African people to be viewed as complete Americans. As our 26th President, Theodore Roosevelt, said over 100 years ago, “There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism…a hyphenated American is not an American at all.”
What was your criteria for selecting material to put in this book?
My criteria for selecting material for this book are based on the following:
- Is the history related to Africans?
- Does it cover the period of 1613-1865?
- Did the event happen in Manhattan?
- Is there a Manhattan address or location?
- And finally, Is it a fact?
With the goal of bringing the history of these African Americans to life, I have chronologically included photographs, illustrations, and detailed maps. In each chapter, you will be following the footsteps of men and women who worked, worshiped, lived, and died in their efforts to build Manhattan. Many of these locations are no longer recognizable, but with the aid of the “You Are Here” factual accounts, and your imagination, you will see beyond the modern city and experience it through new and enlightened eyes.
As with the Manhattan of today, this book stands on the shoulders of incredible Africans who did not choose to come here, but once here brought their courage, culture, and creativity. Thus, with every step taken in this city, it is my heartfelt desire that we recognize how these Africans have earned our respect and their place in world history. Yes, they deserve to have their story told!
What inspired you to become a writer?
I became a writer out of necessity. I felt that this topic regarding the history African Americans in Manhattan needed to be publish. There are plenty of books that mentions this subject matter, but I didn’t see a book devoted to highlighting the contributions of African Americans in antebellum Manhattan.
What influenced you to write your book You Are Here?
My Father and Uncle influenced me to write this book. Although they are both deceased, they were on my mind every moment I put pen to paper. Every time I saw my Uncle we would talk for hours about the hidden history of African American. He helped form my “Black Consciousness” by introducing me to many books, videos, movies, etc. on the African diaspora and on the greatness of Africans. My father, introduced me to this history at a very early age. However, I was not ready or interested at the time. I reminded in ignorance for many years. The book is a manifestation of the African awareness my father tried to install in me.
What message or feeling do you hope your book to give?
I want African Americans to feel proud of how their African ancestors helped build this great city of New York. Millions of New Yorkers and tourist walk by these places in Manhattan and have no idea what contributions African Americans made in the streets of New York. It is my desire that with every step taken in this city, the reader can be filled with pride. This book is written in chronological order from 1613-1865; It has before and after photographs of NYC; It has ancient and current maps of the city; and an extensive bibliography.
Would you consider yourself to be an activist or historian?
I would consider myself both an activist and historian I’ve been protesting injustices for many years. I don’t have the academic degrees of an historian, but I consider myself an historian on African American events based on my personal library and years of reading about the subject.
Can we expect to see anymore projects/books from you?
Yes, I agree totally with the quote of Nina Simone, ““It is the artists duty to reflect the times as it is what that defines us as a society.”
What advice can you offer this generation of millennials?
My advice is to fact check things before you publish it. In our electronic society, many of us would believe a trendy story without checking the facts. In that same vein, I highly recommend this generation to write books. With the electronic resources, we have at our fingertips self-publishing a book could be done in an instant.