‘People of New York’ Tour, A Review

One of the big applause lines in the hit Broadway play “Hamilton” comes in the first act, during the song Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down).

If the mere mention of this number doesn’t immediately trigger something for you, this is when Hamilton and Lafayette take turns boasting of their successes in the Revolutionary War and together declare: “Immigrants, we get the job done!”

Along those lines, the “People of New York” exhibit currently at the state Capitol highlights the state’s legacy of providing opportunities for all. Some blurbage from the web page:

The story of New York is a story about diversity. New Yorkers come from every walk of life and represent a multitude of backgrounds. From the first people of the area to today’s newest immigrants, New York has both witnessed and enabled a convergence of distinct groups of people.

The Empire State Plaza hosted a series of free tours of the Capitol to compliment the People of New York exhibit in August, specifically focused on some of the accomplishments of lesser-known New Yorkers. Additional tours are scheduled for this month and also in November.

The good news: The tour was informative, compelling and memorable.

The bad news: The next two dates are already sold out. However, according to a local heritage tourism expert, talks are underway to expand the program.

If more tour dates are added, you should act fast to avoid disappointment!

Also, here’s a PRO TIP – You don’t need a special tour to see the People of New York Exhibit. It’s open to the public at the New York State Capitol Monday – Friday, 7:00 a.m. – 7:00 p.m., East Lobby, 2nd Floor.

In case you need some more convincing, here are some tour highlights…

The tour started on the 4th floor of the Capitol under the opalescent glass laylight at the top of the Senate Staircase.

The docent, Kiersten, briefed the 20 participants on the series of Capitol architects (Albert Fuller, Henry Hobson Richardson, Leopold Eidlitz and Isaac Perry), but focused on the work of the stonecutters, many of whom were from Scotland, England and Ireland. The sandstone used in the construction of the Capitol was a common building material in the British Isles.

Italian stone carvers and their fine work on the famous faces of the Million Dollar Staircase were highlighted next. One of these workers, Luigi Del Bianco, had a successful stone business in Port Chester, New York, and went on to work as the Chief Stone Carver on the Mount Rushmore National Memorial. A self portrait marble bust of Del Bianco is part of the People of New York exhibit.

After pointing out the profile of Martin Van Buren, the ninth governor of New York and eighth president, who grew up speaking primarily Dutch and was the first president born in America.

The docent noted that until this point in the tour, the story had focused on white men. But one of the goals of this exhibit is to shed light on the achievements of New York’s diverse population.

From the lobby of the Assembly balcony, participants admired the Moorish and Gothic details of the Assembly chamber, the largest room in the Capitol. The docent gave a rundown of the legislation that cemented New York’s legacy of inclusion and opportunity for all.

Blurbage from the NYS Division of Human Rights website:

In 1945, Governor Thomas E. Dewey signed the Ives-Quinn Anti-Discrimination Bill, making New York the first state in the country to enact legislation prohibiting discrimination in employment based on race, creed, color, and national origin. In doing so, New York also became the first state to establish a permanent agency to enforce such legislation, the State Commission against Discrimination.

In 1968, the Ives-Quinn Anti-Discrimination Law was renamed the Human Rights Law, and the State Commission against Discrimination was renamed the New York State Division of Human Rights.

More recently, (specifically, in 2013), Gov. Andrew Cuomo created the Office of New Americans to help immigrants fully participate in New York State civic and economic life.

Outside the Legislative Library, which is housed in Room 337 of the Capitol, the group learned of the work of Arthur C. Parker, the first full-time archeologist at the state Museum. He was born on the Cattaraugus Seneca Reservation, and served as state archeologist from 1906 until 1925.

Back to the Great Western Staircase, where the carving of Frederick Douglass was recently amended to include a second “s.” (His surname had been misspelled in the 1890s). The famous statesman and abolitionist is the only African American included in the 77 famous faces featured in the staircase.

Nearby, the carving of Ulysses S. Grant provided an introduction to Ely S. Parker.

He was born on the Seneca Reservation at Tonawanda, attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and worked as an engineer on the Erie Canal. He tried to enlist in the Army during the Civil War but was told that as an “Indian” he could not join. He called on U.S. Grant, whom he had befriended in 1860, and Grant appointed him as his military secretary with the rank of lieutenant colonel. He later drafted the terms of surrender at Appomatox Courthouse.

Likenesses of two significant women are not part of the Million Dollar Staircase proper, but instead are carved into adjacent walls. Harriet Beecher Stowe, abolitionist and author, is best known for her novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (1852). Susan B. Anthony, revered for her role in the fight for women’s suffrage, became the New York state agent for the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1856.

The tour then moved to the Hall of New York on the Capitol’s second floor, a breathtaking collection of paintings of cities and landscapes from around the state.

Also on the second floor is the War Room, with murals of warriors historical and mythical. The docent pointed out that the names of many of the Native American tribes were spelled incorrectly, but rather than painting them over, guides are now pointing out the error. They’re making that examination of our historic shortcomings part of the story they’re telling.

The War Room also houses a tribute to Albany’s own Henry Johnson, the famed Harlem Hellfighter who won the Croix de Guerre in World War I and was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor by President Barack Obama.

The tour wrapped up in the People of New York exhibit, housed at the lobby entrance of the grand exterior staircase on the east side of the Capitol. And while the bulk of the tour featured stories of warriors and statesmen, the People of New York exhibit isn’t really about famous people. It portrays the ordinary New Yorkers who jumped into the Empire State’s melting pot in their quest for a better life.

In the middle of the exhibit, a display urges visitors to “Tell Us Your Story” (this is another sly “Hamilton” reference) – and offers postcards to be filled out with anecdotes of immigrant ancestors or personal experiences. The cards become part of the exhibit, reminding us all that the history of New York is still being written.

For more information on Capitol Tours, the People of New York exhibit or the Hall of New York exhibit, follow these links.




Photos and text are by Colleen M. Ryan, who has always been a storyteller. An innovative communications professional with experience in government, nonprofit and business sectors, she recently launched CMR Communications.



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