What is the Brooklyn story and if there is one, is it being told? In December, I wrote a post here about the Dutch heritage. That led to two responses from people who can claim a direct connection to that heritage in Brooklyn.
“My mother’s family ‘way back’ (1638) was Dutch, and helped found what is now Brooklyn. As I understand, they owned part of what is now Prospect Park. (I shocked a very family-proud great-aunt by saying ‘They should have held on to it; it would be worth a lot of money today!’ I was probably about 10 years old at the time and not impressed by family background!” – Celin Schoen
“The Wyckoff Museum in Brooklyn features Pieter Claesen Wyckoff’s farm house, the oldest Dutch building in America – one of the oldest wood-frame houses in the nation – and helps tell the story of the critical importance of the Dutch family farm, immigrant labor, and slavery to the rise of New Amsterdam/New York as the Island in the Center of the World. Pieter, who arrived in 1637 as a young boy began his life as an indentured servant to the Renselaer’s and later in 1652, with his wife Grietje van Ness, became the superintendent of the Bowery and cattle of Peter Stuyvesant New Amersfoort, living on Canarsie Lane, Flatlands of Brookyln. Shorto’s books have provided an invaluable door to the importance of the Dutch in establishing values of inclusion, diversity, and hard work that have enabled our country to become the international leader, and beacon of hope that it is.” – Naj Wikoff
So here, we have two legacies, a museum and a personal reminiscence, back to the 17th century.
Then beginning in January, 2014, another facet of Brooklyn’s story was exhibited at the Brooklyn Historical Society. The exhibit is called “Brooklyn Abolitionists/In Pursuit of Freedom.” It includes such artifacts as rope from a lynching during the anti-draft riots of 1863, a memoir from a Nigerian native in 1811 detailing his treatment as a slave at the hands of the Dutch farmers in Flatbush, one of the towns which later became part of Brooklyn and lost its municipal identity. For every Henry Ward Beecher and abolitionists who helped finance John Henry Brown there were merchants who prospered from the products of slaves.
There was even a plantation in Brooklyn in 1895 (courtesy of Sam Roberts of the New York Times who drew on Solomon-Northrup-author David Fiske’s post in The New York History Blog). The plantation was for entertainment purposes and the native village was created by the producer of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. The headline in the New York Times was “Fun for the Darkies: Cotton and Love Bloom Together.” The show with its cast of 500 “Southern colored people” meaning they were authentic representatives of the southern plantation way of life, brought the mirth, merriment and humor of the Dixie way of life to millions who witnessed the happy, careless life the slaves lived in their cabins after their work was done according to the article.
The homegrown story wasn’t simply one of slaves and abolition. A free black community was established in1838 just over a decade after the end of slavery in New York. It’s story is told on an ongoing basis at the Weeksville Heritage Center in Crown Heights where my Latvian ancestors settled in the 20th century. Even as the physical structure has expanded to include more facilities to provide greater access for researchers and students, the Center is at a crossroads. The executive director since 2001 returned home to Mississippi for personal reasons. Frequently, as she mentioned on occasion, she was the only black person at upstate history conferences. Funding sources have dwindled and the staff was halved. My emails to the education director were returned with the notice that she has moved on to another position. A consultant to the Center from MIT said, “Weeksville stands at a crossroads.” Hope springs eternal that the story of this free black community will continue to be told.
One other very prominent story involving a black person in Brooklyn is still told: the story of Jackie Robinson. Despite the recent Hollywood movie, his story also may be said to be at a crossroads. Yes, the Interboro Parkway which I took as a child when we visited my grandparents in Crown Heights is now named after him but that is a little like the Tappan Zee Bridge now named after Malcolm Wilson. Is that really the best way to remember someone, to have that person’s story continue as a living story in the hearts, souls, and minds or people today? A parkway that had nothing to do with his life?
Jackie Robinson joining the Dodgers is a moment in American history which is hard to capture today. It was a time when baseball truly was the national pastime. If TV had existed nationally, the World Series would have had the equivalent of Superbowl ratings of over 100,000,000 today. It was a time of a golden age in New York baseball history when the Yankees, Dodgers, and Giants were in the World series practically every year, sometimes two of them and sometimes after a memorable playoff. It was a time when players lived in Brooklyn and often had off-season jobs there. It was a time when the Dodgers worked hard at being a community team connected to every school and organization in the borough. Maybe only in smalltown Green Bay, is a professional sports team as much a part of the social fabric of a community as the Brooklyn Dodgers were before it ripped the heart of the borough.
But that Brooklyn is dead or dying. Brooklyn then was very much an ethnic borough of Ellis Island immigrants, Irish, and free blacks and the Dodgers very much were a diverse team. Times have changed. Yes, there still are Italians in Brooklyn and one just became mayor (although he is a Red Sox fan from his Cambridge, Massachusetts youth and has no intention of changing or claiming to have been a lifelong Yankee fan). His wife is of Barbados origin. In fact many of the blacks in Brooklyn today are from the West Indies or Africa. Is Weeksville part of their heritage? Are abolition and the Civil War part of their heritage? Are Building 92 and the Brooklyn Navy Yard from World War II part of their heritage? Are the Dutch? The Battle of Long Island/Brooklyn with the providential escape by the American army to Manhattan? The building of the Brooklyn Bridge? What shared legacy do the residents of Brooklyn have today besides 9/11 and Sandy?
This transformation of Brooklyn as revealed in the changes of the Danish Athletic Club. The organization was founded in Red Hook (in Brooklyn, not Dutchess County) in 1892. The Norwegian population alone of the borough reached 50,000+ in the mid-20th century which would make it bigger than some New York counties today. But the more the Scandinavians lived the American dream, the more they chose to do it elsewhere. As the New York Times reported:
“Like synagogues in the South Bronx, Italian social clubs on Mulberry Street or German restaurants in Yorkville, it serves more as a reminder of what is no longer there.”
The future of the Danish Social Club turns out to be the Mexicans: they rent the place continually for their family, religious, and social events. Even as we drove from the suburbs to visit my grandparents in Brooklyn, I could see religious buildings changing to another religion while keeping the same function in the community. That process continues.
The challenge now is how to weave these stories into one shared experience as Americans who reside in Brooklyn now at the beginning of the 21st century. Brooklyn as a municipality does have a municipal historian, Ron Schweiger. That’s one person covering a population of over 2 million and centuries of history. Do you think he is fulltime with a staff?
The Brooklyn Historical Society is now celebrating its 150th anniversary. Under the leadership of Deborah Schwartz, the Society is expanding and renovating its own facilities to reach out to larger audiences. But still it is basically one building in a borough of over 2,000,000 people. The original Dutch settlements of Breuckelen, Bushwick, Flatlands, Flatbush, Gravesend, and New Utrecht on former Lenape land live on in the names of neighborhoods, but their stories do not…unless the Brooklyn Historical Society, Brooklyn Public Library, or Brooklyn Museum choose to exhibit them. As Morris Vogel, president of the Tenement Museum (different borough, similar story) said:
“These are stories of people who brought their dreams to this country, raised their children and built their families. The separate stories we tell reach people but the larger story is what we hope moves them. What we are telling is America’s story. If we don’t tell this story now, the story disappears.”
So how does Brooklyn tell America’s story?
First, the Brooklyn Borough President should convene a meeting of the Brooklyn history community with the Brooklyn Borough Historian, Brooklyn Historical Society, Brooklyn Museum, and Brooklyn Public Library. Brooklyn had a History Fair at the Grand Army Plaza Library; it’s time to bring back that spirit. The agenda items of the meeting should include planning for
1. Having an annual Brooklyn History Conference where all history organizations can have display tables
2. Having an annual Brooklyn High School History Conference for student presentations
3. Including Brooklyn history and civics with field trips in the Common Core Curriculum
4. Designing Brooklyn Paths through History for the different neighborhoods and themes of the borough’s past for residents, students, and tourists.
Every topic in American history can be found in the borough of Brooklyn. Find it and create the Brooklyn master narrative. Tell America’s story.