'When They See Us': Researching the Story of the Exonerated 5 and Beyond at The New York Public Library

By Rhonda Evans, Assistant Chief Librarian
June 25, 2019

When They See Us, the Netflix miniseries directed by Ava DuVernay, tells the story of the Exonerated 5 (also known as the Central Park 5). Five Black and Latino teenagers from Harlem (Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise, and Yusef Salaam) were coerced into providing false confessions and then wrongly convicted of raping Trisha Meili, a white woman who was jogging in New York City’s Central Park in 1989. 

Central Park Five Trial

James Estrin, The New York Times

The boys served between six and 13 years before a serial rapist, Matias Reyes, admitted to the crime, and his confession was supported by DNA evidence. In 2002 the convictions were vacated, and in 2014 New York City settled with the five for $40 million dollars.

This case is an integral part of New York City history, dominating the news coverage here and across the entire country in 1989. Interest in this story has rekindled, so take some time to explore these resources available to you at The New York Public Library and with your New York Public Library card, via our electronic resources and books in our circulating collection.

Remembering The Scottsboro Boys

Sadly, the story of the Exonerated 5 is not a unique one. However, what happened to the five boys is often compared to the story of The Scottsboro Boys. In 1931, nine Black teenage boys were falsely accused of rape by two white women in Alabama. 

Just as with the Central Park 5 in 1989, the 1931 case took the media by storm and many Black periodicals pleaded for a fair trial and justice for the teenagers. Many of those periodicals, such as The Liberator, are accessible in the African American Periodicals, 1825-1995 database (onsite at all NYPL locations). Researchers can also see more coverage by the Black press of the Scottsboro Boys story by accessing our collection of digitized African American historical newspapers. Take a look at, African American Newspapers, 1827-1998 (onsite at all NYPL locations) and ProQuest Historical African American Newspapers (available remotely with your NYPL library card).

1931 front page of The Liberator with the headline

The Liberator, April 25, 1931 

The New York Times Ad

The story of the Exonerated 5 brought to light the influence of the media on the criminal justice system, but one of the most memorable moments of the case was actually an ad taken out in The New York Times. On May 1, 1989, real estate developer Donald Trump paid $85,000 for a full page ad calling for the death penalty for the five boys prior to their trial. Researchers can see this and other coverage of this case in The New York Times (1980-present) database (available remotely with your NYPL card) and The New York Times (1851-2015) w/ Index database (available onsite at all NYPL locations).

1989 New York Times full-page ad from Donald Trump with the headline

The New York Times, May 1, 1989

Researching the History of Harlem: 19th Century to Gentrification 

Before their arrests, McCray, Richardson, Santana, Wise, and Salaam lived in a Harlem very different from the one that exists today. Any researchers interested in understanding the changing demographics of Harlem, or any area of New York City, should try these two databases: SimplyAnalytics (available at all Research Libraries) allows you to create "thematic maps using 100,000+ data variables" including race, income, location of businesses, and more.

The Neighborhood Change Database (NCDB) (available onsite at the Science, Industry and Business Library) allows users to compile and create maps using census tract data from the Long Form results of the US Censuses for 1970, 1980, 1990, 2000, and 2010. The data includes population, household, and housing characteristics, income, poverty status, education level, employment, housing costs, immigration, and other variables.

To view prints and photographs of Harlem, visit the NYPL Digital Collections

View of West 125th Street, Harlem, 1943

Bird's eye view of West 125th Street, Harlem, looking west from Seventh Avenue, 1943, NYPL Digital Collections. Image ID: psnypl_scg_649

Books on the Exonerated 5

A Chronicle of a City Wilding book cover
Killing with Prejudice book cover
The New Jim Crow book cover
They Can't Kill Us All book cover

The Central Park Five by Sarah Burns
This book, sometimes considered the seminal standalone work about the case, was published in 2011. Author Sarah Burns directed and produced the 2012 documentary (also available from the Library on DVD). 

Killing with Prejudice by R.J. Maratea
Maratea offers historical context for racism in capital punishment, using the lens of an earlier court case, McCleskey v. Kemp, in which a Black man was put to death for killing a white police officer in Georgia. 

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
In 2012, Alexander created a modern classic with this sobering polemic on mass incarceration, societal discrimination against convicted felons, and the policies that created a new caste-based system in the United States.

'They Can't Kill Us All' by Wesley LoweryWashington Post reporter Lowery won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the Ferguson protest. This book, subtitled "Ferguson, Baltimore, and a New Era in America's Racial Justice Movement," details the Black Lives Matter movement and the nationwide response to racially motivated police brutality.

Check our catalog for more books on these topics:


Librarian Gwen Glazer contributed to this post.


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