Culture / Environment

Environmentalist reveals little-known history

Morgan Powell leading a tour of the Bronx River.

Powell uncovers African-American and Latino contributions

Morgan Powell is a self-made historian who has shared a wealth of information about seldom-explored corners of the Bronx’s past. Working independently, he has written about the accomplishments of the borough’s African-Americans and hosted tours and talks. Through them, he says, his findings have reached thousands of people.

An environmentalist since his days at Columbus High School, Powell became known for a project he titled “Bronx River Sankofa,” a research project accompanied by a series of tours that guided people through years of African-American history in the Bronx.

Now he has turned his attention to the Latino community’s contribution to the borough’s history, and especially to its efforts to improve the environment. Just as he used the Bronx River to focus his earlier study, he is now using the elevated subway line that runs the length of the Bronx to trace those efforts in a project called “Latinos on the 6 train.”

On his blog, Powell celebrates people and institutions whose work from the 1970s to the present has made a difference, including Maria Torres, co-founder of The Point Community Development Corporation, Anita Antonetty for her work with Rocking the Boat, Casita Maria, sponsor of the South Bronx Culture Trail, and Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice and Omar Freilla of Green Worker Cooperatives for their efforts to create Concrete Plant Park.

Originally, Powell said, he turned to Latino writers to undertake the project, but when they didn’t respond he “decided to produce what I see as an introductory piece others can expand from.”

“Morgan Powell has done a fantastic job in unearthing the history of African-Americans in the Bronx, along the Bronx River and in the environmental movement,” said Charles Vasser, a consultant on community gardens to the New York City Housing Authority, who is a board member of the Bronx Council for Environmental Quality and founder of the “Community Green” blog. “His efforts are making it clear that the saga of African-Americans should not be forgotten.”

Raised in the Bronx, Powell, 40, said his interest in the environment was first kindled in a summer program at the New York Botanical Garden, when he was a freshman in junior high school.  Powell later completed a 1,000 hour internship at the Botanical Garden.

In 2004, when Mark Naison, a professor of African-American Studies and History at Fordham University launched the Bronx African-American History Project in collaboration with the Bronx County Historical Society, Powell saw an opportunity. The project, he said, offered a chance to make direct connections between African-American history, the environment and landscapes of the borough.

Powell had travelled around the Bronx interviewing older residents. By 2005, he was beginning to sketch the history of African-American settlements along the Bronx River and to explore African-Americans’ involvement with conservation on the riverside from Wakefield to Soundview.

The Bronx River Sankofa, he wrote in 2011, “celebrates the 350+ year journey of Bronx African Americans with an emphasis on ecological culture & history along New York’s Bronx River.” His goal was to combat the lingering stereotypes that African-Americans did not care about their environment, he said.

In a recent appearance on Bronx12, Powell spoke about the Hall of Fame Gates located on both sides of Andrews Avenue across from Bronx Community College in University Heights.

“These gates show a real diversity of African-Americans through time, from the 1800’s to the 20th century,” he said, including such figures as Harriet Tubman and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“The Hall of Fame Gates contain 35 clearly identifiable great Americans, including 11 African-Americans, 15 women of various ethnicities, seven Latinos, two American Indians, and one Asian-American,” he continued.

He built a following through networking and social media to attract people to his first Bronx tour, and presented his Bronx River Sankofa in all five boroughs and at colleges from Hostos to Cornell. He estimates that he was able to share his findings on the social, ecological and visual history of the Bronx River in person with 1,300 people, while many others viewed it online.

When asked why he ended this successful public program, Powell said conducting public tours every year would contribute to the environmental degradation of the riverside.

In addition, he said, he wanted his audience to treasure each experience.

“These places become sacred,” he said. “Modernism has separated people, places and things. Our ancestors showed us that each experience was unique and we desperately need to wrest our imagination of fake material infiniteness. Mother Nature has limits.”

His public tours have ended, but Powell had all his tours videotaped, so that viewers who go online can take a virtual tour.

“I want to encourage more environmentalists” Powell says, “I want my videos and blogs to act as a catalyst for people to do bigger and better things.”

This article has been modified to reflect the following corrections: Green Worker Cooperatives, not Green Workers Cooperatives, is the name of the organization; in Powell’s quote “Our ancestors showed us that each experience was unique and we desperately need to wrest our imagination of fake material infiniteness,” the word “wrest” was mis-transcribed as “rest.”

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