Freedom Bound: Museum Explores Brooklyn’s Antislavery Role

Mike Newton Feb 26, 2014

"In Pursuit of Freedom"
Brooklyn Historical Society Weeksville Heritage Center Irondale Ensemble Project
Through winter 2018

Now hanging on the walls of the Brooklyn Historical Society are some handsome reproductions of 19th-century paintings: bucolic views of Brooklyn when it was all dirt roads and farmland. Around some of these images are newly affixed white margins. A printed sign tells us why: what you see — happy, white townsfolk and romantic landscapes — needs to be weighed against what you don’t see: the brutal exploitation of enslaved Africans that helped fuel economic expansion in the city of Brooklyn.

This tension — between the seen and the unseen — animates much of “In Pursuit of Freedom,” an exhibit devoted to the history of abolitionism in Brooklyn. Though it maintained a large slave population in the late 18th century, New York State began gradual emancipation in 1799 and achieved near-total abolition by 1827. By the time of Harriet Tubman, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Abraham Lincoln, Brooklyn was far from the center of the abolitionist struggle.

Or, was it? The exhibition shows us that Brooklyn experienced slavery — political, economic, personal — even with no legal slaves inside its borders. For example, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 led to free Brooklynites being abducted and sold into servitude. And sugar was big business in 19th-century Brooklyn, with huge amounts of the stuff being refined in and sold out of Williamsburg but, of course, sugarcane doesn’t grow there: it was grown on Southern slave plantations and shipped up north.

Then as now, Brooklyn has been marked by bursts of economic growth, political radicalism and utopian dreaminess: a history that can be read into the extraordinary lives outlined in the exhibit. One of these personages was Elizabeth Gloucester, an abolitionist and businesswoman who, by the time of her death in 1883, had become the wealthiest Black woman in America (and one of the wealthiest women in America, period). There’s the community of Weeksville, a small but vibrant village (located in what would now be Crown Heights) that became one of the largest free Black communities in the country. Similarly, there’s the story of Timbuctoo, an experimental, upstate community that sought to aggregate eligible Black voters. Timbuctoo was short-lived, but its example influenced the Hodges brothers, who were instrumental in establishing Black schools, newspapers, churches and businesses, primarily in Williamsburg. Sometimes, though, the utopian dreamers didn’t dream how we might hope them to (Walt Whitman, alas, was not entirely against slavery).

The exhibition must contend with limited space and a paucity of physical artifacts (the show consists mainly of printed reproductions). It works through these issues quite admirably, with careful design and clever interactive displays. The show is at its best when it deals with the activism and media of the abolitionist struggle, like the work of Henry Ward Beecher: a white pastor and the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe who held mock slave auctions in order to raise funds for emancipating enslaved women. It also highlights the story of John Jea, who went from slavery to self-taught literacy — learning to read, he said, was like finding a “pearl of great price” — to traveling the world as a preacher and writing an autobiography that detailed the horrors of slave life. The exhibition includes choice bits of newspaper editorials, political cartoons and printed propaganda: not too much, but what’s there has a kick.

“In Pursuit of Freedom” does a good job of claiming an important spot in abolitionist history for Brooklyn, but the show is going for more than that. Beyond just Brooklyn, there’s the question of what defines “freedom,” and the ways that multiple, complex realities end up coalescing into broader historical narratives. American slavery, at the time, was not just a simple moral concern but also a snake’s nest of other issues, including questions of economics, human nature, citizenship and legal practicality. Freedom came through legal emancipation, but just as importantly: it came through the establishment of communities and cultures where Black Americans could not only live, but live decently.

Though the show is light on original documents, it ends with a rare 1864 edition of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by Lincoln himself. Alongside it, some text pointedly — though only briefly — links the Proclamation to contemporary issues of law-enforcement policy, education access and voting rights. In today’s news, we see stories of white people legally excused — because they felt “threatened” — of murdering young Black men and women, and of the ever-widening gap between rich and poor — like in Brooklyn, where a former sugar factory may soon become a massive luxury apartment complex. While we stand and marvel at the Emancipation Proclamation, “In Pursuit of Freedom” asks us to consider what it means, really, to be free in America.

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