In this guest post, Dr. Gale Kenny of Barnard College, reviews In Pursuit of Freedom, a continuing exhibit at the Brooklyn Historical Society that will be open until Winter 2018. Have you seen the exhibit? Let us know what you thought in the comments!
Timed to open with the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, “In Pursuit of Freedom” uncovers the lives and activism of Brooklyn’s abolitionist community. The gallery exhibit at the Brooklyn Historical Society until Winter 2018 is just one piece of a larger project supported by the Brooklyn Historical Society, Weeksville Heritage Center and Irondale Ensemble Project. Overseen by historian Prithi Kanakamedala, and project manager, Kate Fermoile, “In Pursuit of Freedom” includes the museum exhibit as well as a performance, Color Between the Lines by the Irondale Ensemble, and it will later become a permanent exhibit at the Weeksville Heritage Center. The project has also sponsored a memorial to Brooklyn’s abolitionists planned for the borough’s Willoughby Square Park.
The exhibit up at the Historical Society at first seems very small, especially compared to the New-York Historical Society’s many-roomed exhibit, Revolution! The Atlantic World Reborn from a few years ago. But the timeline wrapping around the gallery along with the profiles of many activists, both famous and less so, offers a detailed portrait of the varying activist tactics of black and white abolitionists in Brooklyn. The exhibit also makes use of reproductions of historical documents as well as displaying some originals, allowing visitors to interact with letters, diaries, petitions, newspapers, and other documents usually only seen by historians working in archives. The exhibit also extends into the city with a walking tour and on the web through the well-designed online collection of documents and lesson plans.
The exhibit’s thematic focus is on the elusive nature of freedom over time and the importance of place. Visitors can follow a timeline through the slow process of emancipation in New York, the rise of antislavery organizations in the 1830s, including the colonization movement, the Fugitive Slave Law, and the Civil War. Rather than a progressive narrative of improvement, the timeline shows how each time period brought a new challenge to black freedom. Restrictive voting laws followed emancipation, for example, and anti-abolitionist violence came in response to antislavery organizing. By seeing the Emancipation Proclamation paired with the New York City draft riots, visitors also see this dynamic in play.
The exhibit also pays special attention to Brooklyn as a distinctive place. The importance of space, in terms of Brooklyn’s relationship to Manhattan and the physical locations of black communities and abolitionists’ homes, adds to our understanding of the context of these particular abolitionists. In the 1700s, Brooklyn was the “slaveholding capital” of New York, and then became a bustling suburb and industrializing city. It also provided a refuge for free blacks, both those escaping slavery and those seeking to purchase land in order to qualify for voting rights in the state of New York. They formed networks across Kings County, and a map on the floor near the entrance of the gallery identifies the homes, churches, and businesses of the abolitionists featured in the exhibit, giving a sense of where they lived in relation to one another.
The main part of the exhibit is composed of four thematic stations that include details on the activities of several abolitionists related to each theme. If asked, most historians would probably name Lewis Tappan and Henry Ward Beecher as the stand-out Brooklyn abolitionists, but the curators have broadened the definition of antislavery to include a wider swath of men and women, most of whom were African Americans.
The first station examines the importance of education and literacy to the free black community. Visitors learn about the black minister J.W.C. Pennington and Benjamin and Peter Croger who ran Brooklyn’s first African School, as well as John Jea, a minister and author of a slave narrative.
The second grouping focuses on community and landownership. Black settlements in Weeksville and Williamsburg provided protection for African Americans as well as an opportunity for property ownership that would allow them to qualify to vote. This station also points out how community provided a way for blacks to resist the entreaties of the Colonization Society that sought to relocate black Americans to Liberia.
The third station examines the consequences of the Fugitive Slave Act on Brooklynites. Viewers learn about Henry Ward Beecher’s pretend slave auctions meant to raise money for the abolitionist cause as well as David Ruggles’ Committee of Vigilance and slave rescues. Much attention is also paid to Elizabeth and John Gloucester, a Presbyterian minister and his shop-owning wife who raised money for black institutions in Brooklyn and helped fund John Brown’s raid on Harpers’ Ferry. Finally, the exhibit ends with the Civil War and emancipation, and the theme of safety and freedom. It profiles black soldiers in the Union Army as well as those affected by the Manhattan draft riot and the Tobacco Factory riot in Brooklyn the year before.
The exhibit also asks questions related to each theme of literacy, community, law, and safety, and these could be used productively in a classroom discussion relating the antebellum activists to present concerns. For example, the first station asks: “Is education important to your own sense of freedom?” and the third asks, “How do laws limit or expand your sense of freedom?” – a question that could be used to think about policies from stop-and-frisk to the Patriot Act.
Perhaps intentionally, the exhibit leaves visitors with these open-ended questions instead of continuing the timeline from Reconstruction to the present. The message at the end of the exhibit, however, implores us to make these connections ourselves: “The struggle for freedom and justice continues today,” reads the text on the wall. In an effort to tie the specificity of the Brooklyn abolitionists to larger local and world movements, the curators note, “Increasingly, urban communities across the world have taken to the streets demanding a fair and democratic society. Equality in housing, health care, education, employment, food, and safety are just some of the issues at stake.”
While the effort to “go big” at the end is admirable, the exhibit is more successful as a microhistory that profiles an array of abolitionists who were both defined by and definers of Brooklyn’s urban geography. The range of activists also asks us to consider how we define the movement and what tactics get counted as abolitionism. In the end, I found the walking tour to be the most intriguing part of “In Pursuit of Freedom.” The photographs and narration in the guide maps abolitionist Brooklyn over the present landscape of condos, schools, coffee shops, and public housing. The disconnect between the past and the present becomes clear, as are the connections, and the tour invites us to peel back the layers of people and communities who have inhabited the same space over time.