Four hundred years later, this country has yet to reckon with the legacy of slavery. And that is no less true for Brooklyn. This episode, we’re taking a cue from The 1619 Project and telling important stories about the struggle for freedom, from a young girl “auctioned” at Plymouth Church in 1860 to the story of Crown Heights’s Weeksville as a site of resistance and power before the Civil War.
Want to read more about the topics brought up in this episode? Check out the following links:
- Click here for a link to June Koffi's BookMatch list curated especially for this episode.
- Read Natiba Guy-Clement's article on Rose Ward Hunt, and Nalleli Guillen's article about Mrs. Hunt's recording.
- Listen to the oral history collection at the Weeksville Heritage Center.
- Learn about black abolitionists in Brooklyn through the project, "In Pursuit of Freedom."
- Read about BPL's teach-in, 'Til Victory Is Won, recognizing the 400th anniversary of the arrival of enslaved Africans to America.
Nikole Hannah-Jones First of all, let me just say, hello Brooklyn! [CHEERS] I live in Brooklyn, I’ve lived in Brooklyn for ten years now, and this is the first 1619 event we’ve done in Brooklyn so I’m excited to see y’all out and to talk about it.
Adwoa Adusei A couple of weeks ago, Brooklyn Public Library hosted a teach-in called “Til Victory is Won” recognizing the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to America in the year 1619. Nikole Hannah-Jones, a journalist for The New York Times, headed the project that is bringing the year 1619 into wider public conversation.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras When she came to the library, she talked about what 1619 meant to her when she first became aware of its importance.
Nikole Hannah-Jones So I literally have been thinking about 1619 since I was in high school. And I came across the year 1619 in a book by Lerone Bennett called Before the Mayflower. And I think it was on page twenty-eight or something like that. And it was like a lightning bolt, because I had never been taught that date, I had never been taught that people of African descent, that people had been enslaved here here that early before the Mayflower, and I understood at that point that there was a reason we were never taught that. That everything about how we are taught to think about America would be revealed as a lie if we were taught the year 1619.
Adwoa Adusei The 1619 Project, published in The New York Times back in August, is a collection of articles examining how the legacy of slavery has shaped the United States. The Project looks at the impact of slavery on our economy, our health care system, our housing affordability crisis, and more.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras Nikole said that the aim of The 1619 Project was to reframe of the way we think about American history, and to center black Americans in that story.
Nikole Hannah-Jones So, people ask me, who did I write this for? And I say that The 1619 Project was a love song to our people. Even before you start school, you are taught to be ashamed. You are taught that there is something wrong with us, that our history started with allowing white people to enslave us and the we allowed white people to free us. And that’s really, when I think about what this project can do… young black kids, we don’t have to unlearn the shame that we were taught.
Adwoa Adusei Nikole also writes in her essay that it’s time we understand “the year 1619 is as important to the American story as 1776. That black Americans, as much as those men cast in alabaster in the nation’s capital, are this nation’s true ‘founding fathers.’ And that no people has a greater claim to that flag than us.”
Nikole Hannah-Jones What I’m interested in is the construction of national memory. How we come to believe the things that we believe about our country and about ourselves? The things we treat as central to the American story, and the things that we treat as marginal is all very intentional decision-making by people who want to craft a certain narrative. Once you read it, the architecture of our society is revealed, and you can’t see it the same anymore. So then you have to question everything.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras The 1619 Project is an exercise in re-learning our history. It’s a national conversation, and one that needs to happen now more than ever. But it can also be a local conversation.
Prithi Kanakamedala I think it would be all too easy to say, well that's not Brooklyn, then, that's not our story.
Adwoa Adusei Four hundred years later, this country has yet to reckon with the legacy of slavery. And that is no less for Brooklyn.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras So today, we’re taking a cue from The 1619 Project, and telling important stories about the struggle for freedom right here in Brooklyn.
Adwoa Adusei I’m Adwoa Adusei.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras And I’m Krissa Corbett Cavouras. You’re listening to Borrowed.
Prithi Kanakamedala If you actually look at Brooklyn, I think the story of both injustice and justice that it tells is both fascinating, but also makes it a crucial reason that it needs to be on the map.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras This is Prithi Kanakamedala. She’s an associate professor of history at Bronx Community College of the City of New York.
Prithi Kanakamedala A scholar in the 70s called this a slave holding capital, and he was referring to Kings County. One in three Brooklynites were enslaved. So, I do think there is a great deal of dialogue that needs to happen here in Brooklyn.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras All right, so let’s talk about it. We are getting into Brooklyn’s own relationship to slavery and the fight for freedom. And this first story might be pretty surprising. It starts in 1860, when a nine-year-old girl named Sally Maria Diggs came to Brooklyn. What happened to her here would be documented in newspaper stories, and memorialized in paintings and statues for decades to come. But … who exactly was Sally Maria Diggs?
Adwoa Adusei Kriss and I wanted that question answered. So we talked to Natiba Guy-Clement, the manager of special collections at Brooklyn Public Library.
Natiba Guy-Clement Sally Maria Diggs was an enslaved girl who was auctioned at Plymouth Church in 1860 when she was nine years old.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras That’s right, auctioned. In Brooklyn. Sally was enslaved in Maryland, and she traveled north in the hopes that enough money could be raised to purchase her freedom. Sally’s family sought the help of Brooklyn’s Plymouth Church and its famous Reverend, a man named Henry Ward Beecher.
Natiba Guy-Clement Henry Ward Beecher, he would do these sermons where he would auction, usually it would be young women or girls, auction them out of slavery. He would also often lead up to them with some really fiery speeches about the dangers and the horrors of enslavement to kind of get his congregation to react.
Adwoa Adusei This is 1860… Slavery was abolished in New York State in 1827, but Sally was still enslaved in another state. So the stakes of the performance were very real. If the congregation didn’t raise enough money, Sally might remain enslaved and separated from the rest of her family.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras When this nine-year-old girl stood in front of the church, next to the towering Reverend Beecher, the congregation was up in arms. They donated over a thousand dollars to purchase her freedom. A famous poet in the audience even put her opal ring into the collection plate.
Adwoa Adusei When Beecher saw the ring, he used it as a dramatic opportunity. He put the ring on Sally’s finger in front of the church and “wed her to freedom.”
Natiba Guy-Clement That's how the newspaper covered it that she was wed to freedom. And he renamed her Rose after Rose Terry, who was the poet who was in the congregation that on that day. And he gave her the name Ward, which was his name. So that's how she became Rose Ward instead of being Sally Maria Diggs.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras Not only did Beecher rename her, Rose Ward became a sensation in the newspapers, where she was nick-named “Pinky” because of her lighter complexion, a loaded term, especially because Beecher chose only women and girls with lighter skin to “auction to freedom.”
Prithi Kanakamedala A number of scholars have written about this, and said, you know, it was to appeal to a largely white congregation.
Adwoa Adusei: Here’s Prithi Kanekamedala again. We talked to her outside of Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights, next to a statue of Beecher with two women crouched at his feet.
Prithi Kanakamedala You know, Henry Ward Beecher says it himself: “Imagine your daughters or your sisters.” And in order to imagine that, there was a colorism thing going on. You could only imagine that if they were light skinned, rather than, you’re staring at a child. And actually this was horrific.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras One of the main goals of the auction for Beecher was to drum up support for the abolition movement. To this day, Beecher is remembered for his outspoken support for abolition. At one point, he was referred to as “the most famous man in America.” Walt Whitman and Abraham Lincoln traveled to Brooklyn to hear him preach. There’s no doubt that he was a staunch and vocal abolitionist, and did important work in a turbulent time. But in all the retelling of the history, not much is known about the women and girls who, like Rose Ward, stood next to him at the pulpit, awaiting the donations that would purchase their freedom.
Adwoa Adusei But, esing Brooklyn Public Library’s archives, we were able to find out more about Rose Ward. Natiba was able to determine what happened to her after 1860. Rose went on to study at Howard University Normal School and became a teacher. She married a lawyer in Washington DC whose last name was Hunt. She led a satisfying life, says Natiba.
Natiba Guy-Clement Which is why it was, like, really important for me to track this story down. And I was kind of happy that she had what she considered to be a good life. So she should not just be a footnote in history. She was so much more.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras One of the reasons we know what happened to Rose Ward Hunt is that she ended up returning to Brooklyn, briefly, in 1927. She was 76 years old when the new reverend of Plymouth Church invited her to speak at their 80th anniversary celebration.
Adwoa Adusei And, though she accepted the invitation, Rose Ward Hunt was very hesitant.
Prithi Kanakamedala You know, she's very sort of brief about what she's doing here and, sort of, her memory of it.
Adwoa Adusei Here’s Prithi again, talking about Mrs. Hunt’s return to Brooklyn.
Prithi Kanakamedala This for me is the great sort of red flag: she keeps denying her memory of it. She was like, ‘I was so young, I don’t remember.’ And to me, I don't know… this is sort of psychoanalytic babble but I feel as though there's something so traumatic about it that she's just buried it and she's not willing to talk about it in public.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras The Brooklyn Historical Society has an audio cylinder recording of Rose Ward Hunt from her Brooklyn visit in 1927. It’s very grainy and hard to make out, since it’s almost 100 years old. But with all that has been written about her, and said for her, it’s about time we listened to Rose herself.
Rose Ward Hunt “I thought I'd greet you and congratulate you upon this your 80th anniversary. I consider it a great privilege … to join you in celebration and especially to extoll the memory of one whose name always seems to me to be the complement of Plymouth Church, Brooklyn, the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher.”
Adwoa Adusei The fact that we’re able to hear Rose in her own words is unusual. We’re lucky to be able to follow the trajectory of her life. But Beecher performed these freedom auctions several times with different women and girls from 1848 until 1860, and with the exception of one other story—that of the Edmonson sisters, not much is known about the later lives of these important players in Brooklyn’s story of abolition.
Prithi Kanakamedala So, the fact that their story has been forgotten I think tells us a lot about the way historical narratives are made, the way the archives are kept, and the way we sort of forget black women or black girls to these historical narratives. So, again, in researching Henry Ward Beecher, not to take away from his radical abolitionism and what he did, but there’s so many stories of women like that, and certainly girls and families, that are approaching him but in which if you put the archives together, you can see they’ve already been fundraising.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras As we think about the legacy of slavery 400 years after the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in America, it’s time to do a better job centering the narratives of Black and African American people in the fight for freedom. If Henry Ward Beecher was referred to as the most famous man in America, in part because of his legacy as an abolitionist, there are whole other communities of people who were doing the same thing at the same time that, just, their stories aren’t common knowledge.
Adwoa Adusei And it’s amazing that we have those stories right here in Brooklyn. There were many communities of free black people in Brooklyn before the Civil War. One of the earliest was down by the waterfront in what we now call DUMBO. So this was the early 1800s, it’s before Beecher even came onto the scene, and black Brooklynites were already raising funds to purchase freedom for enslaved people, and drumming up support for national abolition.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras In addition to the active, radical free black community by the waterfront in Brooklyn, there was another neighborhood that was home to another vibrant free black community, in what we now know as Crown Heights. At the time, it was called Weeksville.
Adwoa Adusei Krissa, I actually got to visit the Weeksville Heritage Center recently and talk with some of the people who are responsible for documenting and continuing Weeksville’s remarkable story. I got to talk to Alphonse Fabien, a tour educator. It’s his job to take visitors into the historic houses at the Heritage Center and tell the story of Weeksville.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras You know, I have to confess: I lived in Brooklyn for six years before I started working at BPL, and it was only when I started working in Brooklyn that I even heard about Weeksvile. So, tell me, what was it like to live there?
Adwoa Adusei That’s a great question. And it’s one that I asked Alphonse, too. Here’s what he had to say.
Alphonse Fabien Weeksville was a rural area, and so forth. Not as urbanized as the rest of downtown Brooklyn. I always tell people, Weeksville was definitely politically active. So this was just like any other free black settlement. Yes, people going on with their every day lives, they’re working, they’re trying to provide for their families, celebrations, recreational activities… but they’re also fighting the good fight. They’re fully aware of whats going on not just in New York City, but what’s going on in the rest of the United States.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras Around the time of Weeksville’s founding, the rest of the United States was engaged in contentious discussions about slavery and black citizenship.
Adwoa Adusei Absolutely. And Weeksville played an important part in agitating for change throughout the 19th century. Many black abolitionists lived in Weeksville or had contacts in Weeksville.
Alphonse Fabien There’s the Croger brothers—Peter Croger and Benjamin Croger—the Gloucesters, Sylvanus Smith. He’s one of the founders of Weekville, and he gave birth to two daughters. So, one was a doctor and one was an educator. So, somehow in the 19th century, black Brooklynites were able to balance, you know, having money, providing a living for their family and at the same time being abolitionists.
Julia Keiser We tend to talk about Weeksville as a free black community, because in New York, they were free. But, again, there were southern born people which means there were refugees here, there were formerly enslaved people here.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras That’s Julia Keiser, the collections and archives coordinator at Weeksville Heritage Center. She pointed out that slavery wasn’t just a topic of conversation. It was a real and urgent reality.
Adwoa Adusei Julia brought out a historical document that shows just how urgent the issue of slavery was for people who lived in Weeksville.
Julia Keiser We have an 1860 newspaper. It’s printed in The Weekly Anglo-African, and the announcement is: “Aid needed. Ameeting was held on the evening of the 22nd at the residence of Albert J Storms, Weeksville to devise a plan for raising means to enable the family of the mother of Mr. Storms to remove from Montgomery, Alamabama to the north at an early day or be sold into slavery.”
Krissa Corbett Cavouras Wow, that’s really powerful. It’s a newspaper ad, but it’s actually asking for help for a man to buy his mother out of slavery. And it’s illustrating one of the reasons that Weeksville formed in the first place, right Adwoa?
Adwoa Adusei Yes, that is one of the questions I asked when I visited — why it was necessary to form an independent black community in Brooklyn? Here’s how Obden Mondésir put it. He’s the oral history project manager at the Weeksville Heritage Center.
Obden Mondésir Weeksville emerges in 1838, before the Civil War, and you have to remember there are things that are happening, like the Fugitive Slave Act passes in 1850, which means that it’s incredibly dangerous to be a free person of color in the United States just because you have slave catchers going back to places in the north and capturing people, whether they were actually enslaved or not. So, being in Brooklyn, which is a very bucolic and separate from what is New York is really helpful for the people living in Weeksville at the time.
Adwoa Adusei So, safety was a huge reason. But also political power. At this time in New York, free black men could vote only if they owned $250 worth of land. Meanwhile, the landowning requirement for white men had been eliminated. So, having jobs and a separate, self-sufficient economy was important to gain any sort of voting voice for free black people in Brooklyn.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras And Weeksville was independent in other ways too, right? There was a successful public school for kids in the neighborhood. There were multiple churches, a cemetery and even a baseball team called the Weeksville Unknowns. By the time slavery is abolished nationally, the people of Weeksville had decades of practice being free and involved citizens.
Adwoa Adusei But, as is the story with so much of Brooklyn: the neighborhood changed. By 1900, new immigrants moved in to Weeksville, and descendants of founding Weeksville residents began to move to other parts of Brooklyn, or moved further upstate.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras In the 1940s, the Kingsborough housing projects were built. The neighborhood became known as Crown Heights, and it started to look a lot like what you’ll see today. There were shops, brownstones, churches and public schools. Communities with different ethnic backgrounds began to make Crown Heights their home, and Weeksville became absorbed into the rest of Brooklyn.
Adwoa Adusei It wasn’t that people in the neighborhood forgot their past so much... The churches that had been prominent during Weeksville’s heyday survived the neighborhood’s changes and continued to celebrate the history of Weeksville. But the story of the vibrant, independent black community wasn’t common knowledge, as you said earlier. That changed in 1968, when a professor at Pratt started to investigate a series of row houses known today as the Hunterfly Road houses.
Alphonse Fabien James Hurley, he was a photographer in the Navy, a pilot photographer, and he linked up with Joseph Haines, who was also another founder of Weeksville, and they got his airplane and he noticed, he definitely noticed the difference of the roofing of the houses compared to the other houses in the area.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras There are pictures of the houses taken on that first fly-over. The Hunterfly Road houses sit perpendicular to the street, a remnant of the time before Brooklyn’s grid system was created. At least a few of houses were still lived in by the 1960s. But their connection to historic Weeksville wasn’t widely known.
Alphonse Fabien People who came here said, ‘Oh, I used to hang around these houses all the time.’ And then you just had some teenagers and some kids who saw the houses and they just thought, hey, these are some regular houses and probably didn’t know the significance of it until project Weeksville when many of these kids soon became a part of creating that museum.
Adwoa Adusei Project Weeksville had begun. Hurley’s students and Crown Heights residents young and old came together to preserve the history of the neighborhood. There was an archeological dig, which turned up old photos and documents. Weeksville’s “rediscovery,” for lack of a better word, came at an important time, too. Here’s Obden.
Obden Mondésir So the houses are rediscovered in 1968. You have in Brooklyn a Civil Rights Movement that’s very local. Also, as I mentioned, you have urban flight so you have these places that are disinvested, the black community is living here and they are considered invaders of neighborhoods that used to be good. And what this evidence shows with these houses is that they’re not invaders, that they’ve been here just as long as anyone else, and that this is a usable, or teachable past.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras One of the first things that residents did after discovering the houses was to create a curriculum so that local public schools could tell the story of Weeksville to the next generation.
Adwoa Adusei And that’s so important because history only matters as much as you talk about it and teach it. No matter what Crown Heights looks like today and what the demographics of the neighborhood are, the history of the place matters. It’s still a teachable past.
Obden Mondésir Weeksville is a really great example of freed people in a time when people weren’t really free. And, like, that scenario still exists today. You know, the Fugitive Slave Act very much relates to what’s happening with ICE. The idea of land ownership very much relates to the issue of gentrification.
Adwoa Adusei And I think it’s important to mention that a few months ago, Weeksville Heritage Center nearly had to close its doors because of lack of funding. They put out a call for donations a few weeks before their money ran out. It was nerve-wracking for Weeksville staff, but the call was very successful. Within six days, Weeksville reached their funding goal.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras But, as Obden pointed out, it’s an important reminder that our culture still side-lines African American history into a separate category.
Obden Mondésir Black institutions and black museums have always struggled with finances just because our history isn’t as mainstreamed as other places. People don’t bat an eye of going to Williamsburg, Virginia but it’s an ancillary thought of ‘let’s also go to a black institution.’ We’re hopefully getting to a point where African American history is just synonymous with American history and if we’re like at that point or when we get to that point, this will not be an issue.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras There has only ever been one book written about Weeksville, which means there’s a lot of work to do. For example, we don’t know exactly where the founding Weeksville residents came from, where they went, we don’t know how the houses were built, and we only know about a few of the businesses that were in Weeksville.
Adwoa Adusei It might seem daunting, but it’s also exciting to think about how much more there is to learn. And it’s one of the biggest reasons why places like Weeksville have to stay open. We have to keep digging, we have to keep going through the archives, we have to build up the history, and we have to keep the story alive.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras All right, now is the time for our BookMatch segment. And here to recommend a few books for you for this episode is librarian June Koffi. Hi, June.
June Koffi Hi, how are you?
Krissa Corbett Cavouras Good. So, we’ve been talking about free black communities in Brooklyn before the Civil War, this year’s marking 400 years since enslaved arrived in America, so we’re thinking a lot about the legacy of slavery in America. And you have put together a list of books and archival materials on that topic, which is exciting. So, what’s the first thing you’ve got for us?
June Koffi Well the first recommendation is a book called Of Cabbages and Kings County by Mark Linder and Lawrence Zacharias. And this book is about Brooklyn’s agricultural beginnings. But what they are also looking at as crucial to that is slave labor. And they have interesting statistics. In 1609, there were like total of 2013 people and 293 slaves in Kings county. And that that total number of slaves makes up 15 percent. By 1749 there was a jump to 34 percent. So that’s a third of the county and this book is just stating how much slave labor was important to the agricultural community of Brooklyn
Krissa Corbett Cavouras Wow, that’s fascinating. And what else do you have for us?
June Koffi It’s the first census of the United States, in 1791. It’s just a very thin book, it goes through all of the states. But in New York, they have New York broken down into counties. So they have Kings County, and it’s just a little table there that shows the amount of people but they also have the amount of slaves at that time, in 1791.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras It’s part of our legacy here in Brooklyn, too.
June Koffi Yes.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras Thanks so much, June. So, listeners, that was Of Cabbages and Kings County by Mark Linder and Lawrence Zacharias and then secondly, June is recommending our very slim volume that we have in our archives of the first census of the United States which was the 1791 census. So we’re going to put a link to the complete BookMatch list on our website, BKLYN Library [dot] org [slash] podcasts, that will include these titles and also a few more interesting things that June has selected for the episode. And you can check them all out. Well, except for that census tract that is likely archival, from Brooklyn Public Library. Thanks, June!
June Koffi Thank you.
Adwoa Adusei For more stories about black abolitionists, we’ve put a link to Prithi Kanekamadala’s project, “In Pursuit of Freedom,” on our website. “In Pursuit of Freedom” debuted in 2014 and was a collaboration between the Brooklyn Historical Society, Weeksville Heritage Center and the Irondale Ensemble Project.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras And we’ve got two more great things for you to listen to. First, Weeksville Heritage Center has their oral history collection online, and you can listen to all of them at 5thOfJuly [dot] org. Also, our friends over at Brooklyn Historical Society have that recording of Rose Ward Hunt’s speech at Plymouth Church on their website and we will have a link for you on our showpage.
Adwoa Adusei And you can always visit the Brooklyn Collection archives at BPL in person or online, at BKLYN Library [dot] org [slash] brooklyn collections.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras Borrowed is brought to you by Brooklyn Public Library and is hosted by me, Krissa Corbett Cavouras, and Adwoa Adusei. You can find a transcript of this episode at our website.
Adwoa Adusei Borrowed is produced and written by Virginia Marshall with help from Fritzi Bodenheimer and Robin Lester Kenton. Our music composer is Billy Libby.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras Borrowed will be back in two weeks. Until then, keep fighting the good fight.
- BookMatch list for "Free Brooklyn"
Weeksville then and now : the search to discover the effort to preserve memories of self in Brooklyn, New YorkMaynard, Joan.
A century of population growth ; from the first census of the United States to the twelfth, 1790-1900.United States. Bureau of the Census.
The social history of Flatbush : and manners and customs of the Dutch settlers in Kings County.Vanderbilt, Gertrude Lefferts, 1824-