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Current Research

The Narrative of Jitu Weusi (Leslie Campbell): Brooklyn’s Black Power Educator 

In recent years Purnell has returned to one of the major influencers of his own education: Jitu Weusi. A prominent Black community activist, Weusi was the founder and co-director of the all-Black school, Uhuru Sasa Shule, and served as an assistant principal in the New York City public school district.


Purnell first met Weusi in the early 2000s as an undergraduate student at Fordham University researching political boycotts in the 1960s. What followed was more than a decade of interviews and conversation between the two. 


Weusi was a champion for Brooklyn. One of the original organizers of the African Street Arts Festival, he was at the center of the community control movement for public schools in the late 1960s and was deeply involved in the East, a Brooklyn education and arts organization.


Since Weusi’s passing in 2013 there has been a resurgence of public interest in his legacy (epitomized by the 2020 renaming of the Jitu Weusi Plaza in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn), but to date there is no historical narrative which places Weusi as its central figure.


The Narrative of Jitu Weusi: Brooklyn’s Black Power Educator aims to do just that. Compiling Weusi’s life narrative using the late educator's own words and community interviews, Purnell will zero in on one prominent educator and activist as a means of illuminating the broader undercurrents and philosophy of the Black Power movement in Brooklyn.


Jitu Weusi (1939-2013).


Jitu Weusi speaking at a protest.

The Capital of Black America: New York City's African American History, 1613 to Present

Purnell is also currently working on a comprehensive history of Black people in New York City (under contract with the Yale University Press). 


While Black people, and people of African descent have long been considered in the history of Gotham, they are rarely treated as the center of such a narrative. In this forthcoming book, Purnell will argue that New York City and the surrounding area simply would not exist without the presence and influence of Black people.

Spanning from 1613 to the 2021 Eric Adams mayoral campaign, the book, currently titled The Capital of Black America: New York City’s African American History, 1613 to the Present, will showcase the ways in which the Black population have been fundamental in the region's history and tireless in their continuous fight for equality.

While Purnell's Weusi project takes a singular look at one influential figure as a way to understand the influence of Black people in New York, this project attempts the opposite, in casting a broad net over the city and its people as a whole. 

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