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.