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.