Remember Liss tells a story about the American Revolution centered on the life and experiences of a young enslaved woman in New York as she witnesses and negotiates the tumultuous events of the 1770s and 1780s. Like most good history, it builds on the authors’ extensive research in letters, newspapers and other primary sources of the era, as well as a comprehensive reference to secondary sources, such as historians’ accounts of Revolutionary New York. The intended audience of young readers will learn about the differing perspectives of Loyalists like Lt. Col. John Graves Simcoe and Patriots like Robert Townsend, and the rival spy networks in which both men operated. But they will also learn about the consequences of these revolutionary changes for Liss and other enslaved people who made up approximately one-fifth of New York City’s population at that time. Most importantly, Liss’s story shows how enslaved people could sometimes take advantage of revolutionary change to shape their own destinies and secure their own personal freedom in an era shaped by debates on liberty.
Middle school teachers and students will appreciate that Remember Liss is clearly and engagingly written. The glossaries of words and terms at the bottom of nearly every page also assist the reader in understanding historical issues—see Continental Army and New York Provincial Congress on page 42—or archaic language like Apothecary and Stevedore on page 36. Above all, the book is structured to encourage critical thinking about the events and ideas presented. The “Consider the Source” section at the end of each chapter enables the reader to examine the evidence for themselves through QR codes highlighting primary source material, for example on p. 34 which shows an original newspaper advert posted by a slave-owner seeking the retrieval of three of his enslaved. The “Learn More” section at the end of several chapters likewise encourages further exploration beyond the Revolutionary Era, for example p. 160-162 which highlights two earlier African Americans of note on Long Island, Tom Gall, the first enslaved man to secure his freedom and Jupiter Hammon, the first recorded African American author.
As the Executive Editor of the 6000-entry African American National Biography (Oxford University Press, https://hutchinscenter.fas.harvard.edu/aanb ) and Stories editor of Enslaved.org, I know from first-hand experience that writing histories of the enslaved is not easy. Direct evidence is sparse, particularly because of legal restrictions on the literacy of enslaved people. Our knowledge of the inner lives of the enslaved—what they thought and said and did—is dependent on information gleaned from their own enslavers. There are, of course, exceptions. We remember Jupiter Hammon and Phillis Wheatley, who struggled against the odds to gain literacy, or Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, who led the 19th Century abolitionist movement and wrote about their experiences. This well-researched, thoughtful, and timely book reminds us that we should also Remember Liss—and other enslaved women and men whose lives are difficult but not impossible to trace.
Bellerjeau and Brooks recount the compelling story of Liss, an African American heroine, born into slavery on Long Island, New York shortly before the American Revolutionary War.
Through expertly researched accounts derived from letters, record books, and other primary sources from the era, this great American tale chronicles a riveting story of hope, resilience, and the triumph of the human spirit. Remember Liss sheds light on the often-omitted history of slavery in the northeast corridor of what would become the United States of America.
Remember Liss is a must-read and should be considered alongside other great accounts of American history.
Dr. Malik A. Small is a New York City principal and a Commissioner on the New York State Commission on African American History. Dr. Small has over 15 years of experience in educational leadership, both in charter as well as district schools and is a passionate advocate for social justice, restorative practices, culturally responsive education, equity in schools, and empowering children, families, and community.
Nothing is more important than liberty. What would you do to ensure you and your nation achieved it?
Beautifully written for young students and teachers alike, Remember Liss reveals the true story of two ordinary people that did extra ordinary things to ensure liberty for family and nation during the American Revolution. The authors disclose the courage of a Long Island family, the Townsends, in challenging the British, and the bravery of an enslaved woman named Liss, as she sought her personal freedom. Robert Townsend, a Manhattan merchant, secretly worked with George Washington as a Patriot spy in the Culper Spy Ring, while Liss, who was enslaved by his family, escaped with the British and may also have aided the cause of liberty by providing intelligence. After the revolution, Robert will risk everything again to ensure Liss’ freedom. The book successfully weaves almost all the main events and well-known leaders of the American Revolution giving those events and leaders deeper meaning and clarity than any textbook can offer. With vocabulary words, further questions, trivia, and links to primary documents at the end of each chapter, the book provides inspiration for young readers on how to be courageous and brave in everyday life. Best of all, Remember Liss gives our youth real people to exemplify the civic values of initiative, industry, integrity, perseverance, justice, and pure goodness.
Lois MacMillan teaches American history, World history, and an elective on the American Civil War at Grants Pass High School in Grants Pass, Oregon.
In her thirty-three years in the classroom, she has taught at the elementary, middle, and high school level. Earning her National Board Certification in Early Adolescence-Social Studies, MacMillan won Oregon’s History Teacher of the Year. She was awarded Oregon’s Civic Teacher Award for a student project on Oregon’s fallen soldiers since 9/11. In 2018, she won Grammy Museum’s Jane Ortner Award for incorporating music in the non-music classroom. In the fall of 2018, she took a one-year sabbatical where she worked with Title I high school teachers and students in fourteen cities around the country on Founding Era curriculum culminating in their attendance to the Broadway show, Hamilton. For more than a decade, MacMillan is paired with different historians from different universities around the country where she teaches pedagogy applicable to various historical periods to over a hundred teachers every summer.
Serving on many teacher advisory boards such as the National Council of History Educators and the National Constitution Center, she recently was named Oregon's 2021 James Madison Fellow and 2021 Southern Oregon Teacher of the Year.
Remember Liss is an impactful book that adds depth and context to the story of the American Revolution. The authors mix documentary evidence with historical narrative to put students back in the 18th century, a time filled with intrigue, drama, and personal sacrifice. Students will feel like they are backstage at history, seeing details of the time at street level with people who are usually at the edges of the story. Maps and secondary materials provide context and aid but do not distract from the larger presentation - a decidedly personal story of an enslaved woman and the struggles she encounters as the world breaks apart around her.
Deftly woven throughout is a documentary detective story detailing the evidence that was found in the historical record and how that evidence can be read and interpreted. The interactive elements of the book expand this lesson, connecting readers through QR codes to primary sources digitized and preserved online by
the New York State Archives. As a result, readers not only learn history but become historians themselves, working to decipher what information is to be found in different types of documents.
And although Remember Liss does much to expand on the inherently suspenseful story of the Culper Spy Ring in New York and on Long Island, the story of Liss the person has greater meaning. It illustrates the scope and impact of the institution of slavery in America, from the human to the social and legal dimensions involved. Most importantly, this book recreates the life of Liss, a woman making difficult choices in dangerous times, an enslaved woman navigating the world of the Patriots and the British to survive and gain her freedom.
Remember Liss makes a powerful case for why and how history can be studied and will do much to engage younger readers in the Revolutionary past of the country.
Chris Kretz is an academic librarian, researcher, audio producer, host of the podcast “The Long Island History Project” and has been producing podcasts since 2005. He is co-author of the book Oakdale and the current president of the Long Island Radio & Television Historical Society (LIRTVHS).