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African Americans Have Deep Roots Along Bronx River, Historian Says

By Patrick Wall | February 17, 2012 10:54am
Morgan Powell gave a talk entitled,
Morgan Powell gave a talk entitled, "The Bronx River's Afro-American Heritage in 50 Golden Moments," at the Huntington Free Library Wednesday evening.
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DNAinfo/Patrick Wall

WESTCHESTER SQUARE — The abolition movement, the civil rights movement and the black power movement all take center stage during Black History Month. But what about the green movement?

Morgan Powell, a Bronx-born landscape designer and self-taught historian, made the case during a lecture Wednesday night that African-Americans have long been active in the environmental movement — and that nowhere is this more evident than along the Bronx River.

"There are people here tonight who think they know the Bronx River up and down," Powell said after his talk Wednesday, entitled "The Bronx River's Afro-American Heritage in 50 Golden Moments," at the Huntington Free Library.

But what they don’t know, Powell added, is that "so much of what’s happening on the Bronx River came out of the minds and hands and pocketbooks of African-Americans."

Since 2001, Powell has visited Bronx libraries, museums and historical sites interviewing elders and unearthing records — at a cost of about $8,000 of his own money, he said — all to document the stories of African Americans who have lived along the Bronx River at least since the 1600s.

In particular, he has tried to highlight the role of black environmentalists in the effort, which began in the 1970s, to rehabilitate the river.

Last year, he led what he said was the first guided tour of the Bronx River to focus exclusively on its African-American heritage. The walk attracted over 100 visitors, Powell said.

On Wednesday evening, he gave a virtual tour of the river and its black benefactors using poster-sized photographs and a PowerPoint slideshow.

About 40 people showed up for the presentation, which was hosted by the East Bronx History Forum.
About 40 people showed up for the presentation, which was hosted by the East Bronx History Forum.
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DNAinfo/Patrick Wall

He noted that African Americans have planted community gardens along the river’s shore, led youth canoeing excursions through its currents and even dove into its depths for a scientific surveying project with the Urban Divers Estuary Conservancy.

"There have been African-American and Latino environmentalists since Earth Day and before," Powell told the crowd of 40 mostly white history buffs. "It’s just a matter of remembering who they were."

Powell shared the story of Dr. Philson Warner, a Trinidadian scientist at Cornell who has taught teens in the South Bronx and inmates at Riker’s Island how to grow lettuce, spinach, tomatoes and basil without soil, by dangling them in nutrient-rich water through a process called hydroponic farming.

He mentioned Jessie Collins, a Bronx educator who was a 20-year board member of Bronx River Restoration, a precursor to the present-day Bronx River Alliance. And he lauded David Shuffler, the executive director of Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice, a decades-old nonprofit that has made reviving the Bronx River one of its main missions.

"I have a very overt agenda," Powell said. "Get more African-Americans to think of themselves as environmentalists and to actively participate in the green movement."

Powell’s presentation was sponsored by the East Bronx History Forum, which hosts presentations on the borough’s history on the third Wednesday of each month inside the 130-year-old library.

The talks often try to restore forgotten Bronxites to their rightful place in the borough’s history, said the group’s secretary, Thomas Casey.

Casey said Powell’s presentation helped enrich the record of black life in the Bronx.

Before Powell began his talk Wednesday, he asked the crowd, “Am I making history tonight? Am I the first African American to present at the Huntington Free Library?”

Casey said he was, and the crowd cheered.

Then, Casey added, “Well, except for Booker T. Washington,” the famous first president of the Tuskegee Institute. “He spoke here in 1894.”

Powell will give an extended version of his talk this Saturday at 2:30 p.m. at the Bronx Library Center at 310 East Kingsbridge Rd.