When Slavery and Its Foes Thrived in Brooklyn

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When Slavery and Its Foes Thrived in Brooklyn

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Reading Liberally Editorial Comments =

The reason for posting this article is to encourage anyone visiting NYC during the next 4 years to visit this exhibit at the Brooklyn Historical Society in order to comprehend how pervasive and divisive the issue of slavery was in America!!! Though just reading the NY Times review of the exhibit will provide a strong flavor of what was involved.

The article appeared in the NY Times under the Banner Headline for its Fri Jan 17 Weekend Arts II (aka Fine Arts) Section. [NB: Like the Sunday NY Times, the Friday NY Times has two arts sections, the first of which focuses on the Performing Arts and the second of which, on the Fine Arts.]

The Brooklyn Historical Society is located in Brooklyn Heights which is right across the East River from, and provides magnificent views of, Lower Manhattan including the Downtown Financial District.

For anyone puzzled by the statement in the first paragraph of the article that Brooklyn was the third-largest city in America at the time the Brooklyn Historical Society was formed, some amusing historical trivia are in order =

Brooklyn and the rest of NYC did not merge until 1/1/1898. So at the time of the American Civil War, they were still two separate cities on opposite sides of the East River.

The Brooklyn Bridge was built in 1883, so the two cities were connected for 15 years prior to the merger.

The Brooklyn Bridge sparked a rivalry in America’s “Favorite Past-Time” (which was baseball, at least at that time).

The New York Giants were formed the same year (1883) and the Brooklyn Dodgers the following year (1884).

So the two great rival cities fought their Proxy War on the baseball field for 14 years before the two cities merged -- WHICH HAD NO EFFECT WHATSOEVER ON REDUCING THE RIVALRY BETWEEN BROOKLYN AND THE REST OF NYC!!!

For young people who may not know their history, both teams left for California in the late 1950’s, breaking the hearts of NYC baseball fans.

Major League Baseball tried to repair the damage by creating the NY Mets in 1961. But their attendance statistics show that 90% of their attendance occurred during home games against the Dodgers and Giants, and that attendance dropped year-to-year all the way through, and including, the Met’s first World Championship in 1969 because old Dodgers and Giants fans were dying off and their old Dodgers/Giants heroes were retiring from the game.

Two interesting pieces of sports trivia???

(1) When the Met’s finally won the world series in 1969, it capped a Banner Year for NYC sports during which all three of its major-sports teams won World Championships starting with Joe Namath’s NY Jets in Super Bowl III -- but most fans forget that the 3 NYC teams beat 3 Baltimore teams in the championship games.

(2) Professional baseball’s famous Color Line was NOT broken in 1947 by Jackie Robinson playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers!!! It was broken the previous season when Jackie Robinson played for the Montreal Royals which was the top farm club of the Dodgers.

NY Times – 1/16/2014

When Slavery and Its Foes Thrived in Brooklyn
By Edward Rothstein

Heroic terra-cotta busts of Columbus, Franklin, Shakespeare, Gutenberg, Beethoven and Michelangelo gaze down from the lovingly restored 1881 facade of the Brooklyn Historical Society, reminding the approaching visitor of what the place was once meant to represent. The founders of the society — which is now celebrating its 150th anniversary — conceived of its building in Brooklyn Heights as a repository of history that would aspire to the greatest achievements of European civilization. And why not? Brooklyn was the third-largest city in the United States, the architect was George B. Post (who later designed the New York Stock Exchange), and the society’s founders were among the elite.

But in recent years, like many societies with similar heritages and collections, the Brooklyn Historical Society, emerging from years of eclipse, has been reconstituting and redefining itself, probing polemically at the world that gave it birth, testing the fissures in its own conceptual foundations.

It is partly in that light that an exhibition that opened on Wednesday — “Brooklyn Abolitionists/In Pursuit of Freedom” — might be understood. We are offered a very different roster of representative figures from those who grace the building, including James W. C. Pennington, who escaped slavery in Maryland in 1827, came to live in Brooklyn and became a distinguished preacher and abolitionist; Willis Augustus Hodges (1815-1890), a free black man who lived in Williamsburg, where he started an influential abolitionist newspaper; and Elizabeth Gloucester, a black abolitionist, who invested in Brooklyn real estate and died one of the richest women in the United States in 1883.

These are extraordinary figures all, and the exhibition, with less than 2,000 square feet of space, is really too small for them, for their compatriots and for the theme they illustrate: that the history of slavery and abolition in New York, through the Civil War, cannot be understood without considering the importance of Brooklyn. But however small, the exhibition deserves attention, both for its subject and for what it reflects about the historical society’s evolution under its president, Deborah Schwartz.

The show is presented in a new gallery created as part of a $5.5 million project that also opened up classroom space, supplementing a $23 million renovation of the landmark building that began in 1999. Public programming is being expanded in a new auditorium; an education program has also grown. And until the spring, a printed 1864 copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, signed by Lincoln, is also on display, accompanied by a selection of the condemnations and acclamations that greeted the document.

The abolitionist exhibition itself is a declaration of future intentions: It unveils an area only recently explored in the society’s own holdings (which include some 100,000 volumes, 60,000 photographs, more than 2,000 maps and atlases, along with oral histories, films and family genealogies — which can be sampled in a stunning landmark wood-paneled library).

The subject of slavery in New York City, let alone Brooklyn, would have once been considered of minor importance. But in two groundbreaking exhibitions in 2005 and 2006, the New-York Historical Society showed that the subject was actually central, pointing out, for example, that before the American Revolution, New York had more slaves than any American city except Charleston, S.C., and that even through the Civil War, commerce was so important that opinion about slavery in New York was as split as in any border state.

The new exhibition is slight, compared with those predecessors, so the book “Slavery in New York,” edited by Ira Berlin and Leslie M. Harris and published in conjunction with those shows, should serve as a companion volume here, too. But the show’s curator and historian, Prithi Kanakamedala, and its project manager, Kate Fermoile, take things further, creating a show that should be seen, despite its flaws.

In 1790, we learn, about a third of the population of Kings County (now Brooklyn) was black, and nearly all of those people were enslaved. But if slavery declined in many Northern cities after the Revolution, in Kings County, it “strengthened” because it was crucial for the agricultural economy. “Sixty percent of white Brooklynites,” we are told, were slaveholders (though, since Kings County consisted of six towns — Brooklyn, Bushwick, Flatbush, Flatlands, Gravesend and New Utrecht — it is unclear if the statistic refers to a part or the whole).

But the information is potent, and so are the displays. We see a tuft of flax grown on a Flatlands farm. And we learn of John Jea, born in Southern Nigeria in 1773 and enslaved on a farm in Flatbush. Freed in 1789, he taught himself how to read English and Dutch, and he published his autobiography as he traveled as a preacher. Reproductions of pastoral Brooklyn landscapes are here as well, to show what they don’t show: slaves at work.

We learn, through a timeline, of the freeing of slaves by 1827, of the breaking up of farmland, of the 1837 recession that brought down real estate prices and allowed many blacks to buy land, and of the growth of Brooklyn’s waterfront, which resembled Manhattan’s in the importance of sugar, tobacco and cotton — all associated with slave labor. “By 1857,” a wall label tells us, “Brooklyn was central to the business of slavery” (an overstatement, surely, but we are uncertain because few details are offered).

The timeline wraps around the gallery, while, in its center, the exhibition’s designers, including Matter Architecture Practice and the firm Potion, have hung screens and panels called Activist Stations. Each station presents three black men or women, relating their stories to the unfolding history. Viewers tug on strings, as if they were pulleys, in order to scroll through images and text on the screens. This is how we discover Jea, Hodges and others.

It is also how we learn of Brooklyn’s black abolitionism. In 1834, the year the City of Brooklyn was incorporated, an anti-abolition riot in Manhattan led many abolitionists to consider moving to Brooklyn. The village of Weeksville, established in 1838 by free blacks, began to thrive. (The Weeksville Heritage Center, a contemporary museum site in Brooklyn, along with the Irondale Ensemble, a drama group, are listed as partners in a series of public events.) The village of Williamsburg became a destination as well.

There is so much here that is important that it often exasperates that only minimal text bites are provided, as if anything more would get in the way. Why doesn’t the exhibition give us detail about Weeksville, for example, which was a community with more than 500 residents in 1855, supporting two newspapers, several churches, an orphan asylum and a home for the aged?

On many subjects, we have to seek out documents arrayed in reproduction on dowels, like racks of newspapers — almost as if reading were being caricatured as old-fashioned. It would have helped, too, to have a clearer exposition of debates within the abolitionist world, or how black and white groups interacted. The style of the exhibition ends up leaving us with impressions rather than a coherent narrative.

And some of the figures, like Pennington, are so remarkable that it is a puzzle that they are not brought more vividly to life: His eyewitness reports on the New York City 1863 draft riots, for example, are chilling and would have added to the exhibition. Meanwhile, the 15-year-old Maritcha Lyons’s fleeing of those attacks for Brooklyn’s safety is almost the only thing we learn about her — not that at the age of 16, after moving to Rhode Island, she stood before the state legislature and successfully argued for the admission of blacks to Providence public schools.

One more thing: The language often verges on cliché. The exhibition, we read, tells part of “the history of social justice.” Blacks in Brooklyn “actively resisted their oppression” and “birthed Brooklyn’s antislavery movement.” A community is “mobilized.” Abolitionists “pursued their revolutionary vision.” And after Reconstruction’s failures, “activists in Brooklyn and beyond continued the struggle for social justice.” None of these formulaic phrases illuminates the history. Instead, they seem inserted to rally contemporary passions.

A concluding panel is titled “The Struggle Continues.” We are told that the “struggle for freedom and justice continues today” and that “increasingly, urban communities across the world have taken to the streets demanding a fair and democratic society. Equality in housing, health care, education, employment, food and safety are just some of the issues at stake.” But this invocation of unspecified street demonstrations and a sweeping roster of issues leaves us unsure of precisely what is being alluded to or what it has to do with abolition and slavery.

This is one of the challenges that historical societies face as they remake themselves to appeal to audiences and to distance themselves from history as it was once told. Where is the balance? The public programs of the Brooklyn society place an emphasis on contemporary issues related to the exhibition, with discussions about modern-day slavery and about current experiences of Muslims (though not, apparently, about the vast history of slavery in the Middle East). The society is also creating an oral history project called “Crossing Borders, Bridging Generations” that explores “mixed-heritage” identity.

These attempts to create a vital institution are intriguing — and the society invites multiple visits — but current-day tastes and a preoccupation with “activist” politics are only a part of the story. While this approach is meant to be recompense for previous neglect, the busts on the facade remind us that a more ambitious and complete history of Brooklyn and its people is yet to come.


“Brooklyn Abolitionists/In Pursuit of Freedom” runs through winter 2018 at the Brooklyn Historical Society, 128 Pierrepont Street, at Clinton Street, Brooklyn Heights; brooklynhistory.org.

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