Caribbean Immigrants in Brooklyn: an American story

Brooklyn Historical Society has partnered with over a dozen Brooklyn schools in the past decade to implement Cultural Afterschool Adventures (CASA) programs in partnership with NYC Council Members. In the Young Scholars program, our educators meet with a group of upper elementary school students over the course of the spring semester, culminating in the creation of a book on a pre-selected theme. These books are then distributed to students, their families, and their schools. A copy of the student work is added to the Othmer Library & Archives, memorializing the student work for generations to come. If you’re interested in viewing the book discussed below, you can visit the Othmer Library during its public hours.

Here, the Program Educator Jessica Rose reflects on the process:

Jessica Rose with the Young Scholars of PS 233K looking at primary sources in BHS's Othmer Library.

Jessica Rose with the Young Scholars of PS 233K looking at primary sources in BHS’s Othmer Library.

What happens when ten 4th grade students and one educator come together to write a book tracing the history of Caribbean immigration to Brooklyn in the early 20th century? Now that I’ve completed Brooklyn Historical Society’s eighteen-week program with the Young Scholars of PS 233, I can say—without a doubt—that amazing things happen.

In the days leading up to my first meeting with the Young Scholars of PS 233, I was worried. The topic we were given was incredibly complex and there was a limited selection of secondary reading available. Examining Caribbean immigration meant looking at the factors that caused people to leave their homes and the process through which they created new homes in a new land, but also the intersections of race and class in the immigrant experience. These are themes that many adults find abstract, so how would a group of nine- and ten-year-olds respond?

I am pleased to report that the Young Scholars were ready for their assignment. When I met the students, I learned that many were first generation Caribbean Americans or were themselves Caribbean immigrants who recently arrived with their families. We talked about where they were from, why their families came to America and what it means to be Caribbean. The scholars were fiercely proud of their cultures and histories. They understood that they were writing a history of a group of people who are either disregarded or reduced to poorly executed accents on the few occasions they are deemed relevant. It was a privilege to watch the students grapple with these complex topics and help them, as one of the students declared, “write our history.”

The Young Scholars of PS 233 with program educator Jessica Rose and BHS Manager of Teaching & Learning, Grades P-5, Shirley Brown-Alleyne, on their trip to Ellis Island.

The Young Scholars of PS 233 with program educator Jessica Rose and BHS Manager of Teaching & Learning, Grades P-5, Shirley Brown-Alleyne, on their trip to Ellis Island.

Of course, we found time for fun too. Amidst our weighty discussion, we talked about the best ways to make slime, who was and was not a fart instigator, and who could drink the most milk in a single sitting. Even when the students were engrossed in their work, they found time to laugh. In preparation for our trip to Ellis Island, I taped off a small section of the classroom. I asked seven students to stand inside in an exercise meant to simulate traveling in steerage on a steam ship. All but one of the students in the designated area were adamant that they would not want to travel this way because it was uncomfortable but one student was convinced that he didn’t have a problem with steerage. When prompted, he conceded that he enjoyed being surrounded by so many girls.

You can see the completed book by visiting the Othmer Library during open hours.

You can see the completed book by visiting the Othmer Library during open hours.

While we always made time for fun, the Young Scholars undoubtedly earned their title over the course of the program. They demonstrated a deep understanding of the power that comes with writing history. They demonstrated that, when given the opportunity, children are capable of remarkable things and Caribbean Immigrants in Brooklyn: An American Story is proof.

Jessica Rose
Brooklyn Historical Society
PS 233 Young Scholars Program Educator

If you’d like to bring the Young Scholar’s program to your school in Brooklyn, e-mail us at education@brooklynhistory.org with “Young Scholars” in the subject line.

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