By Morgan Powell
Seven years working in the County of Kings – most recently as a journalist – has solidified my conviction: Sankofa! Knowing the paths we’ve walked sharpens our perspective as we move forward. This article is about Brooklyn’s African-American journey in print. A book like this has the power to connect the nostalgic whispers of neighbors with the assorted historical facts of our minds. Perhaps you’ve wondered about the displaced American Indians whose land was taken by 17th century Dutch imperialists while walking through the Schenck Houses (think Schenck St. in East New York) on permanent view at the Brooklyn Museum. Who farmed the land? Who cooked the meals? Maybe you worship at one of the churches featured in last week’s Underground Railroad article…which lives online if you missed it! Perhaps you’ve wondered about the deeper meaning of the mid-twentieth century push for school community control. Do you wonder how a city–once known as a model of the best elements of the welfare state–became one gripped by the disproportionate power of real estate? This book is for you!
A Covenant with Color: Race and Social Power in Brooklyn. By Craig Steven Wilder (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. xii plus 325 pp).
Craig Wilder, native son of Brooklyn, frames three and a half centuries of local history in a class analysis that demands to be read. He writes on the freedom impulse that secures family, builds community, widens opportunity and allows us—today—to look back on earlier times from the vantage point of long-established local institutions (e.g., civic clubs, churches, etc.). By naming the neighborhoods and historical periods in which barriers were broken, Wilder remaps local territory from Canarsie to Crown Heights in the most alive way. He situates history’s famous Brooklyn names in the context of national movements and economic forces. This is how Covenant with Color acts, both as our time machine—showing us who we were—as well as a mirror to all America. We come to see Brooklyn as the nation in miniature through his words.
These pages read like an index to Black America from Anglo-Dutch colonialism to modern times (1636-1990). Read for yourself: Abolitionism, African-American leisure activities, Black Reconstruction, Brooklyn Coordinating Committee on Defense Employment (1940s), Churches, Citizenship, Congress of Racial Equality, Cotton Industry, Credit Unions, Father Divine, Frederick Douglass, Draft Riots (1863), Education, Emancipation, Fugitive Slave Law, William Lloyd Garrison, Great Depression, Greater New York Urban League, Housing, Subway, Industry, Irish, Italians, Jim Crow, Labor Strikes, Latinos, Liberia, March on Washington, NAACP, National Negro Business League, Native Americans, New Deal, Sugar, Trade Organizations, Underground Railroad, United States Justice Department, Urbanization, Voting, Warehouses, West Indian Cricket Club, Women, World War II, YMCA, YWCA and so much more!
Many passages locate Black Brooklyn in less obvious places. On page twenty-two, we learn that each of the several Meserole family farms in Greenpoint was equipped with “field” and “kitchen Negroes”. A list of old Brooklyn bank founders (on page forty-seven) reveals C. Von Bergen and two Meserole family members reinvested slavery-generated wealth in the founding of Greenpoint Savings Bank in 1868. That’s right, Greenpoint. Each page you turn reveals more surprises from the beginning to end.
I cannot review this “story of us” in the conventional format with catchy quotes and more eye-popping details because its greatest value comes in its totality. Wilder’s deep research, penetrating insights and above-average storytelling recommends Covenant more highly than I ever could.
Morgan Powell is a horticulturist, landscape designer and a blogger at Outdoor Afro. This article completes his series of nature and science features at Our Time Press as he switches careers.