Brooklyn Abolitionists at BHS, by Emily Potter-Ndiaye, BHS Director of Education

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.

Dramatically presented with interactive components, In Pursuit of Freedom paints a vivid picture of 19th century Brooklyn richly illustrated with landscape paintings, letters, sermons, advertisements, and historic maps. Visitors will become acquainted with little-known anti-slavery activists including William Wilson (aka Ethiop), James and Elizabeth Gloucester, William and Willis Hodges, James Pennington, and Sylvanus Smith, one of the original land investors in the free black community of Weeksville. Their stories raise questions about racial equality in education, fair and equal treatment under the law and the political and economic significance of owning property—all issues that remain relevant in the struggle for social justice.

In Pursuit of Freedom: Brooklyn Abolitionists is one element of a much larger project which builds on five years of original research conducted by historian and curator, Prithi Kanakamedala. Offered in partnership with Weeksville Heritage Society, and Irondale Ensemble Project, there will be additional exhibits, public programs, an extensive on-line curriculum, an original theater piece – Color Between the Lines – developed by Irondale, walking tours, a website ( and a memorial to Brooklyn Abolitionists which will be part of the new Willoughby Square Park when it opens in 2015.

Digital Curriculum
Caption: A page from the In Pursuit of Freedom digital curriculum. This free, primary source-rich curriculum for grades 5 to 12 is available at Other exhibit-related education offerings include on-site school tours, in-class workshops, and professional development for teachers.