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While Henry Ward Beecher, Plymouth Church’s passionate first pastor, is famous for his anti-slavery preaching and involvement in the Underground Railroad, 19th-century Brooklyn was home to a vast network of abolitionists, black and white. A new exhibition aims to bring these lesser-known activists into the spotlight.
The Brooklyn Historical Society’s new exhibit, “Brooklyn Abolitionists/In Pursuit of Freedom,” which opens Jan. 15 just a few blocks from Plymouth Church, marks early Brooklyn’s anti-slavery activity through archival material and interactive hands-on displays.
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When Slavery and Its Foes Thrived in Brooklyn
‘Brooklyn Abolitionists’ Reveals a Surprising History
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.
A major five-year exhibition opening Jan. 15 at the Brooklyn Historical Society will bring to life the stories of largely unknown Brooklyn abolitionists who led the anti-slavery movement. The exhibition, “In Pursuit of Freedom,” will display maps, pamphlets, advertisements, letters, landscape painting, and even a rare copy of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by Abraham Lincoln to document the battle for black rights.
While Brooklyn abolitionists like Henry Ward Beecher (brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe) are well known, the exhibition, which covers the period 1790-1865, focuses on many overlooked activists. Most are black. Some who will be included are Sylvanus Smith, one of the original land investors in the free black community of Weeksville; Peter and Benjamin Croger; William Wilson (a.k.a. Ethiop); James Pennington; James and Elizabeth Gloucester; and William and Willis Hodges. They lived in the Brooklyn neighborhoods now known as Dumbo, Williamsburg, Fort Greene and Cobble Hill, among others.
“This powerful exhibition not only highlights the history of the Brooklyn abolitionist movement; it pays homage to those ordinary, everyday residents that were at the forefront of the fight against inequality,” Deborah Schwartz, president of the Brooklyn Historical Society, said in a statement. “It is through these lesser-known stories that visitors will be able to see the full spectrum of the struggle against slavery, even after emancipation was enacted in New York in 1827. We are thrilled to be hosting this important exhibition and find it a fitting commemoration of BHS’s 150 anniversary.”
The exhibition will be part of a public history project with the Irondale Ensemble Project and the Weeksville Heritage Center, which preserves artifacts and the historical site of a free black settlement in Brooklyn. An online curriculum, an original theater piece by Irondale Ensemble Project and walking tours are part of the project. Also planned is a memorial to Brooklyn abolitionists that will be part of the new Willoughby Square Park when it opens in 2015.
On display through December 2018, the exhibition will be the first in the Shellens Gallery of the society’s building at 128 Pierrepont Street in Brooklyn Heights after a $5.5 million renovation.
This winter Brooklyn Historical Society opens the landmark exhibition, Brooklyn Abolitionists/ In Pursuit of Freedom. The exhibit uncovers the lesser-known stories of generations of Brooklyn activists fighting for freedom and racial justice, and examines the paradoxes of a growing abolitionist movement in a “free” city whose economic success was tied to slavery.
Brooklyn emerged as a growing commercial city in the early 19th century, at the same time that black and white residents began organizing associations, schools, and churches to advocate for the rights of black Brooklynites. Yet as a pre-eminent port storing goods like cotton, tobacco, and sugar – commodities harvested by slave labor – Brooklyn’s economic growth was intrinsically tied to the institution of slavery even though the practice of slavery ended there in 1827. In Pursuit of Freedom spotlights the paradox of a growing city whose economy was built on inequality but whose residents fought tirelessly for equal rights in ways that continue to be resonant today.
Wednesday, December 4, 6:30 p.m.
FREE, BHS Library
Join Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Eric Foner and BHS Public Historian Julie Golia as they discuss one of the most prominent artifacts in BHS’s collection: the Emancipation Proclamation. A document that continues to resonate 150 years after its signing, the Emancipation Proclamation has profoundly influenced the social and political landscape of our country and has had a evolving role in our collective American consciousness. Offered in connection with BHS’ exhibition of our original copy of this foundational document.