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Alan Singer

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Brooklyn's African American History Remains Largely Forgotten and Unmarked

Posted: 08/14/2012 6:39 pm

January 1, 2013 is the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Finally "Brooklyn's in the House" both on the contemporary rap scene and in efforts to bring the story of slavery in the United States and the struggles to end it to a broader public.

In an earlier post I wrote that in 2011 the Office of the District Attorney of Kings County (a.k.a Brooklyn) released a 55-minute long movie on Slavery and the Law that documented the creation of a mural by Brooklyn teenagers who were learning about the legal status of enslaved Africans in Colonial America and the new nation and its impact on the post-Civil War era and the contemporary world. I was involved in the production as an on-camera commentator, a consulting historian, and writing a curriculum guide for secondary school classes.

At the same time the Brooklyn Historical Society in Brooklyn Heights, the Weeksville Heritage Center in Bedford-Stuyvesant, and the Irondale Ensemble Project in Fort Greene teamed up to rediscover and present to the public the story of Brooklyn's role in the struggle to abolish slavery in the United States. By Fall 2013 each of the partners planned to unveil permanent exhibitions as part of the project, In Pursuit Of Freedom. Their goals are to show how prominent Brooklyn was in the nineteenth century struggle against slavery and to restore Brooklyn to the forefront of the continuing campaign for social justice in the United States.

As part of their plan, twenty highly visible historical markers will be placed at different sites in the borough. On the top of my list are Schenck Park in the East New York section of Brooklyn and the former Bridge Street African Wesleyan Methodist Episcopal Church, now the admissions building for the Polytechnic Institute of New York University at the Metro Tech Center in Downtown Brooklyn.

At the time of the American Revolution about a third of the population of Kings County were enslaved Africans, but their contributions to clearing the forests, dredging the harbors, and building the infrastructure of Brooklyn has largely been erased from history. The former African cemetery in the Kings County town of New Lots is now a playground between Schenck, New Lots, and Livonia Avenues and Barbey Street under the IRT #3 line "El." It is next to the New Lots branch of the Brooklyn Public Library.

Ironically, the park is named for one of the largest slaveholder families in the area. According to the 1820 census, as New York State approached the 1827 date set for full emancipation, Tunis Schenck, who owned the farm, still owned seven enslaved Africans. A plaque in Schenck Park commemorates the family's contributions to the history of Brooklyn - "The family first lived in Brooklyn in colonial times," it was "descended from Johannes Schenck of Holland," and "members of the family served in political office over several generations." The plaque mentions that the "park was the site of Public School 72, which was abandoned in 1944," but it does not mention the enslaved Africans who lived there and built the early farms, roads, and homes of Brooklyn.

We know about the abandoned African cemetery because of an interview published in the Brooklyn Eagle on September 19, 1886. It included reminisces of local farmer Stephen Vanderveer. According to Vanderveer, "In those days there were as many Negroes as whites in this neighborhood. The latter were buried in front by the roadside and the former away back near the swamp . . . In 1841 we saw the necessity of having a new burying ground, as the black people were overcrowding us in the old one. Therefore we purchased the ground alongside the church and removed a great many of the dead from across the road. I have not taken up all my people yet, but I expect to do so before long."

Eventually the White dead where relocated to the new cemetery across New Lots Avenue beside the Dutch Reformed Church. Blacks were left behind and their plots were built over. It is way past time that these African American pioneers that helped to build Brooklyn receive official recognition.

The Bridge Street African Wesleyan Methodist Episcopal Church has a long rich history as part of struggles to end slavery and achieve equal rights for African Americans in New York and the nation. It is designated as a New York City historical landmark and there is a barely visible unofficial marker outside the building placed by a local develop group. The building is now named for a Polytechnic alumni who paid for its restoration and passers-by have no idea of its original purpose or history. In front of the church is a large tree-lined pedestrian mall that is an ideal site for historical reenactments and commemorations.

The Bridge Street AWME Church was incorporated in 1818 when Black parishioners split off from the First Methodist Episcopal Church of Brooklyn because of racial bias of the church's leadership. From 1854 to 1938 the congregation held services at 309 Bridge Street (now 311) in a majestic brick building with two large columns. It was built in 1846-47 and was originally the First Free Congregational Church of Brooklyn. Since 1938, the Bridge Street AWME Church is located at 277 Stuyvesant Avenue in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn.

Among the achievements of the Bridge Street AWME Church was starting an African Free School in Brooklyn. Its trustees were also instrumental in the establishment of the Weeksville community, an important refuge for local Blacks, especially during the 1863 New York Draft Riots.

From December 31, 1862 to January 2, 1863, Bridge Street AWME Church hosted a three-day "celebration of freedom" when the finalized Emancipation Proclamation was signed and put into affect. The program included speeches by African-American historian and activist William Wells Brown and a White abolitionist, Theodore Tilton. Tilton was a newspaper editor affiliated with Reverend Henry Ward Beecher and Brooklyn's Plymouth Congregational Church. A month later Frederick Douglass spoke at the Bridge Street Church and launched a campaign to recruit Black soldiers for the Union army. In 1865, Harriet Tubman was a featured speaker at the church discussing her experiences on the UGRR and in the Union army as a scout and nurse.

The Metro Tech Mall at the old Bridge Street church site would be the perfect spot for New Yorkers to gather and commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation this coming January in a new celebration of freedom.

 
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