News and Press Releases

For Immediate Release: October 18, 2022  



Curated and hosted by Niama Safia Sandy, Harnessing History: Tracing the Legacy of the Lyons Family will run from October 22 – November 5 


New York – The NYC Department of Cultural Affairs (DCLA) has announced Harnessing History: Tracing the Legacy of the Lyons Family, a series of virtual public convenings that will focus on the legacy of the Lyons family as a lens for examining a century of Black life and activism in America. Curated and hosted by curator, artist, and educator Niama Safia Sandy, Harnessing History also marks the launch of Public Art as Community Engagement (PACE), a pilot program that utilizes artist-led temporary art, convenings, and interventions as tools for careful and deliberate interaction to build partnerships with communities and stakeholders around specific public art projects.

"Art - and public art in particular - can provide a powerful basis for fostering collaboration and empathy, helping us understand not just our neighbors and co-creators, but our own personal histories and identities as well," said Cultural Affairs Commissioner Laurie Cumbo. "As part of the agency's effort to foster more in depth engagement around public artworks, Harnessing History offers an opportunity to explore the extraordinary lived experience of the Lyons Family, and what their lives and legacy can mean to us when echoed down through the ages. I encourage all New Yorkers to join this remarkable conversation."

"Projects like this are a gift from DCLA to the people of New York," said New York City Council Member Chi Ossé, Chair of the Committee on Cultural Affairs. "We have an obligation to teach and learn our history, and this will fulfill that creatively with an emphasis on critical analysis and honesty. I look forward to seeing the Public Art as Community Engagement pilot in action."

“In 2019 while researching Seneca Village for a curatorial project, I stumbled upon a series of ambrotype photographs of the Lyons family via the Schomburg Center for Research on Black Culture,” said Niama Safia Sandy. “In that instant, I wanted to know everything I could about them. As I learned more about the family’s incredibly brilliant public life and legacy, I could not help but see parallels to contemporary activism, artmaking and the networks that support them. As we strive toward progress in this city, and in the country and the world-at-large better, we all stand on their shoulders and quite literally walk in their footsteps. I organized Harnessing History in an effort to help expand how people might connect to these histories and reimagine how public art can function for the upcoming open call for the Lyons’ public monument. I invited some of the most thoughtful and talented artists and thinkers on the contemporary global stage, hoping these conversations might inspire artists to think more expansively in practice and living.” 

Harnessing History will consist of three conversations inviting artists, scholars, and community activists to reflect on the Lyons family’s commitment to justice through civic and political engagement. Each conversation seeks to connect to an element of the Lyons family’s story and explore the family legacy within the context of the art and history of the contemporary moment. As part of the PACE pilot program, these conversations will explore and unpack themes and issues that will inform the proposed monument on the perimeter of Central Park commemorating the Lyons family, providing a strong basis for engagement between community stakeholders and the artist who is ultimately selected to design the public artwork. 

The convening series is organized by groove works, founded and led by Niama Safia Sandy. It is funded by the Ford Foundation, The JPB Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, and the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund and supported in partnership with the NYC Mayor’s Fund.

“The legacy of Albro, Mary and Maritcha Lyons' pursuit of self-determination and justice for Black people and communities has helped to shape the City of New York in powerful ways.  The collective project of realizing the vision of New York City as a prosperous and just place where everyone has the opportunity to thrive is only possible through the efforts of people willing to push against systems of oppression and dare to create a world designed in their wildest dreams.  We stand proudly alongside our philanthropic and City partners in amplifying and celebrating the Lyons family.  This monument adds to the rich tapestry of public art, expanding racial and gender representation, and tells a more accurate and comprehensive story of where we have been and inspires the journey forward,” said Mayor’s Fund Executive Director Marcella Tillett.

“The Lyons family represents the history of Black social activism in New York City, as abolitionists, educators, and voting rights advocates. Their story should be woven throughout the story of the city, yet like Seneca Village they were erased.  I am proud to support the creation of the Lyons family monument and related programs, which will bring long-due recognition not only to them as a family, but to all the unheralded New Yorkers who have been committed to social justice and equity,” said Laurie M. Tisch, President, Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund.


"The Lyons family's extraordinary story is one of harrowing hardships and courageous triumphs, and it's a story that needs to be told," said Ford Foundation President Darren Walker. "Through Harnessing History, New Yorkers from all backgrounds will be able to learn and engage with one another not only around the legacy of this powerful family -- but the history of slavery, struggle, and perseverance in this country. We are proud to support the work of these trailblazing artists and the impactful change they're making in communities across the city.”

Harnessing History: Tracing the Legacy of the Lyons Family -- Digital Convening | October 22 – November 5, 2022

Convening #1: Finding the Light: Transmuting Terror 

Saturday, October 22, 2022, 1:00 p.m. ET 

Panelists: Tsedaye Makonnen, Alexis Peskine, Kenya Tyson, JD 

Moderator: Niama Safia Sandy 

Description: When mobs attacked Black people and destroyed Black-owned properties in New York City during the Draft Riots of 1863, the Lyons family fled leaving behind their property and members of their community, and so much more. There is long legacy of the destruction of Black communities, massacres, extrajudicial killings and other incidences of racial terror in the United States as a strategy of oppression, economic dispossession and spiritual subjugation. The invited speakers, artists Tsedaye Makonnen, Alexis Peskine and organizer, legal scholar and administrator Kenya Tyson, JD, will share their organizing, performance and visual work and how they offer solutions, protection and respite to communities at risk. 

Convening #2: Land, Site and Legacy 

Saturday, October 29, 2022, 1:00 p.m. ET 

Panelists: Justin Dunnavant, Ph.D, Tomashi Jackson, Christian Scott Atunde Adjuah 

Moderator: Niama Safia Sandy 

Description: The Lyons’ family story is one that centers on land, site and action. Together with their community of allies, they were stalwarts for equity, freedom, social justice and progress in a time when the stakes were at their highest. In Land/Site/Legacy, the work of invited speakers, Dr. Justin Dunnavant, Tomashi Jackson, and Chief Xian aTunde Adjuah, is connected to notions of land, site specificity, and community. The conversation will consider each of the panelists' path-breaking work and strategies in visual art, archaeology, music and their intersections. 

Convening #3: Resistance/Political Engagement as Cultural Praxis 

Saturday, November 5, 2022, 1 p.m. ET 

Panelists: Helina Metaferia, Jordan Seaberry, Attillah Springer 

Moderator: Niama Safia Sandy 

Description: For multiple generations the Lyons family was engaged in resistance work; from Albro and Maria’s participation in the Underground Railroad, their leadership in the fight to desegregate schools in Providence, Rhode Island in the 1860’s, at a time when such an idea was unheard of, to Maritcha Lyons’ work as an anti-lynching and women’s suffrage activist in the early 20th century. Resistance/Political Engagement as Cultural Praxis will feature three discussants whose work finds them at the crossroads of community and cultural organizing and political engagement toward the creation of transformation and justice. 

Learn more and register on DCLA’s website.


About NYC Department of Cultural Affairs   

The New York City Department of Cultural Affairs (DCLA) is dedicated to supporting and strengthening New York City’s vibrant cultural life. DCLA works to promote and advocate for quality arts programming and to articulate the contribution made by the cultural community to the City’s vitality. The Department represents and serves non-profit cultural organizations involved in the visual, literary, and performing arts; public-oriented science and humanities institutions including zoos, botanical gardens, and historic and preservation societies; and creative artists at all skill levels who live and work within the City’s five boroughs. DCLA also provides donated materials for arts programs offered by the public schools and cultural and social service groups, and commissions permanent works of public art at City-funded construction projects throughout the five boroughs. For more information, visit