The Unknown Heroes of Brooklyn's Past

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher dominated city politics for almost half of the 19th century. He held fundraisers to emancipate enslaved girls and young women. (Brooklyn Historical Society)

A new exhibition highlights some unknown abolitionists from Brooklyn.

The free, interactive show at The Brooklyn Historical Society tells the stories of residents who fought for equal rights in the 19th century. At that time, one-third of Brooklyn residents were enslaved Africans. In 1827, even after slavery ended in New York State, the area was a commercial center for cotton, tobacco and sugar reliant on slave labor in the U.S. South, Cuba, and Puerto Rico.

Historian Prithi Kanakamedala curated the show. In this interview, she said one of the abolitionists, Sylvanus Smith, committed what she calls a very ordinary act: he bought land.

"And by buying property he is able to vote, and in being able to vote he can count himself as a citizen of the United States, even though he is an African American and those rights were not guaranteed for African Americans at that time," she said.

"Brooklyn Abolitionists / In Pursuit of Freedom" will remain on view through December 2018.

Brooklyn Historical Society
Bridge Street AWME Church, Brooklyn's oldest black church, circa 1923.
Brooklyn Historical Society
Auction Map of Weeksville, Brooklyn, one of New York's earliest and most successful free black communities.
Brooklyn Historical Society
Sylvanus Smith was one of the original land investors in Weeksville, Brooklyn.
Brooklyn Historical Society
This 1815 entry in the Long Island Star advertises a private African school established by Peter Croger. Classes were held in Croger's home.
Brooklyn Historical Society
A rare signed copy of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation is on display at the Brooklyn Historical Society.
Brooklyn Historical Society
This post-abolition painting from 1848 portrays an idealized view of life in 18th-century Brooklyn, when slavery was still legal in the North.


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