A New Exhibit Brings to Life the History of Racism and Resistance in Brooklyn

Zion DeCoteau Jun 18, 2021

The Brooklyn Public Library’s Center for Brooklyn History opens its outdoor Brooklyn Resists exhibit tomorrow on Juneteenth.

“We realized during COVID that history was being made in Brooklyn with the Black Lives Matter protests last summer in response to George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and so many other murders at the hands of police,” said Heather Malin, CBH’s Director. “Brooklyn was a real locus of protest. We saw this historic moment happening here and we realized we needed to be collecting materials related to it.”

Though the interior of CBH is still closed to the public, its exterior is covered in displays centering the ways Brooklynites have “put their bodies on the line” to protest the devaluation of black lives. More additions to the exterior display are still being installed in time for Saturday but there was plenty on display Thursday afternoon. 

“As we collected photography, we realized that we wanted to be able to share that with people and we also realized that collections tell the story that this is not new” Malin said. “This is a continuum, this is a history of black people resisting, of black people putting themselves in harm’s way, of black people protesting conditions that sadly have not changed enough over time” she continued.

If you haven’t heard of CBH, Malin says it’s most likely because of the building’s out-of-sight location. The historic landmark is nestled next to brownstones and St Ann Episcopal Church, on the corner of Clinton and Pierrepont Streets in Brooklyn Heights. It’s a block west of the bustling Cadman Plaza. 

“We’re right near Downtown Brooklyn, but we’re right on the edge of Brooklyn Heights and there’s no business right here.” Malin said. “We haven’t really activated the exterior and given people reason to stop and look” she explained. That is until now.

The exhibit is a timeline. It begins in the 1600s, exploring the beginnings of slavery in New York State, a practice comonly associated solely with the South. Slavery wasn’t abolished in New York until 1827.

On display visitors can find a 1786 census record for Kings County. The 235-year-old document subcategorizes residents with terms like male Negro slaves, female Negro slaves, males above 60 years, and number of families”. Back then, Brooklyn — not yet apat of New York City — was one of the six towns in Kings County, New York including New Lots, Flatlands, and Flatbush. It had a mere 4,000 residents, many of whom owned slaves.

Jumping ahead to the 1830s, Brooklyn Resists delves into the founding of the borough’s Weeksville neighborhood, which today incorporates portions of Crown Heights, Ocean Hill, Bed Stuy & Brownsville. It was there that the driven black community pooled  money to purchase land, establish churches, schools, and a newspaper aptly titled The Freedman’s Torchlight. With Weeksville standing as a testament to black independence and self-reliance, black women there donned high fashion of the Victorian era to be looked at as women, an identity racism and sexism denied them. 

The exhibit continues into the 20th century, particularly the Jim Crow era, with an all too relevant subject. Police shootings of unarmed black people.

 In July 1964 NYPD officer Thomas Gilligan responded to an argument between black teens and a white building superintendent. Officer Gilligan sprayed the teens with water allegedly referring to them as “dirty niggers”. Upon the teens’ retaliation, Gilligan shot and killed 15-year-old James Powell. Civil rights advocates protested the shooting with a poster labeled “WANTED FOR MURDER, GILLIGAN THE COP”. The noir flyer, which has Gilligan right at the center of the image, directly faces an image of two black women and one black man fleeing from police During the subsequent protests in Bed Stuy. 

The exhibit doesn’t just highlight the ugliness of racism in New York State, it describes the ways Brooklynites stepped up to the plate to help fight racism such as purchasing enslaved people’s freedom, sheltering runaways, and protesting Jim Crow laws. A major example was the 1963 protest against the then newly built Downstate Medical Center in East Flatbush, for discriminating against blacks in hiring. The demonstrations were organized by the Brooklyn chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). As a result, the exhibit states that the mayor and union leaders agreed to sponsor job training programs for Blacks. 

Finally the exhibit culminates with extremely recent images of 2020 Black Lives Matter protests on its doors. Malin says The recent events made the exhibit opening even more timely.

“This was the right time to tell this story,” Malin said. “Black protest is a form of celebration and expression, and so we thought that it would be good to talk about that on Juneteenth”. 

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