In 2014 the New York State Archives reached an agreement with Ancestry .com to digitize a broad range of State legislative documents including the Sing Sing Prison Admission Registers from 1845 to 1939. While this excited penal historians they were quickly overwhelmed by the prospect of deciphering thousands of pages of records of Sing Sing Prison. The annual handwritten registers contained an average 500 entries, each filling about three quarters of a page, written in a variety of idiosyncratic scripts. The entries were sequentially numbered totaling 70,000 in all. Who kept these records, for what purpose, and what governed the kinds of information collected? How do we explain the derivation and justification for the individuals items included for each notation-age, crime, length of sentence, race, religion, residence, family, temperance, literacy, facial and body markings. What was excluded? The registers provide a detailed profile of Sing Sing’s criminal class and a body of data which is highly manipulable-a cliometrican’s dream if only ways could be found to code this enormous penal ledger. The scope of the Sing Sing collection seems to recommend an aggregate analysis, longitudinal studies and the kind of approach that feeds our desire to delineate the “criminal class” over time. The moral crises of mass incarceration in the United States weighed heavily on my scholarship and my central preoccupation with the dehumanizing of tens of thousands of inmates who are historically invisible. The construct of the criminal class has depersonalized our view of the incarcerated, distanced us from the lives of prisoners, and fed the pervasive notion of the criminal other. The Sing Sing Admissions registers challenged me in new ways. What could they tell me about the individual lives? Could the details of the registers provide the human dimensions, the biographical outlines that would help me see the men as persons-urban residents who led problematic existences in New York City-Sing Sing’s great incubator. Could we find ways to animate this mountain of raw data and draw from it the specters of human biography. Can we learn to listen to these muted archival voices? This paper proposes to explore the use of the Sing Admission Registers as biographical specters-tracers of human lives.
SUNY Old Westbury
Jennifer M. Pipitone
College of Mount Saint Vincent
This participatory action research project took place at Bronx Community College located in the poorest congressional district in the USA. Using photography, writing, and mapping (through photo geo-tagging), our project aimed to promote a sense of belonging among BCC students by understanding what “community” means to them, what they experience as their communities’ assets and challenges, and how they see their contribution and role within various communities. Expanding upon interpretations of data made by the entire research team, we present a spatial analysis of the geo-locations of participants’ photographs in order to illustrate and make sense of their experience of belonging in the city. Findings indicate participants experienced the blatant socioeconomic disparities characteristic of NYC neighborhoods as they traversed from one environment to another, which impacted their sense of engagement, mobility, and investment in certain communities. Participants articulated the notion that they are “the one side of the two cities,” illustrating a sense of otherness from the rest of the city. This finding was also supported by the geo-locations of their photo-making, which clustered within the “small radius” in which their lives took place. Maps revealed that participants restricted their movement to the area north of Central Park/110th street, delineating participants’ lived boundary of race and class. Overall, findings suggest that the resulting increase in participants’ sense of ownership and agency over their communities was mediated by their deeper sense-making about their individual—and their communities’—position within the broader inequitable distribution of power and resources.
This short paper draws on the experience of the community-engaged learning course on Slavery in the Bronx at Manhattan College. This digital public history course began by learning about the unmarked slave burial grounds in both Drake Park, in Hunts Point, and in Van Cortlandt Park, a former wheat plantation, and the work done to date by fourth-grade students, their teachers, Van Cortlandt House Museum curators, and dedicated local historians. Manhattan College students worked to map the sites of slavery in today’s Bronx, and conducted genealogical research to find descendants of those once enslaved in the Bronx. This paper discusses their progress to date, plans for another version of the class this fall, the legacies of slavery that are often forgotten in northern states, the ongoing injustices facing residents of the Kingsbridge and Hunts Point neighborhoods, and the chance for these acts of memorialization to provide a foundation for critiquing injustice, then and now.