by Morgan Powell
Join me as I recall here a weeklong journey to see the places—both standing and vanished—where freedom seekers entered history. As you read along, I encourage you to consider visiting some or all of these places. We are living (2011-2015) the 150th Anniversary of slavery’s legal demise in America; the Civil War climaxed in 1864 before dissolving the following year. Local institutions from the Brooklyn Historical Society (128 Pierrepont Street, 718-222-4111) to house museums and churches stand ready to tell this story. Our city was among the final stops in the “railroad’s” Atlantic Coast Route after Baltimore and Philadelphia. African-Americans made their way to freedom in the North (including Canada) until the Southern Confederacy’s final surrender. Brooklyn stood second only to Manhattan, among what later became the five boroughs, in this march to freedom and the expansion of democracy. Then, as now, the arts led the way. Where quilts and songs directed the way to freedom for refugees who could not read, we sometimes retrace those times at museums today. Let’s sing!
When the Sun comes back
And the first quail calls
(chorus) Follow the Drinking Gourd,
For the old man is a-waiting to carry you to freedom
(chorus) If you follow the Drinking Gourd
They followed the drinking gourd, which was another way of saying the Big Dipper, a group of stars. That pattern in the night sky, composed of seven stars, nearly aligns with the North Star helping freedom seekers make their way northward. “Because of its access to rivers and [the Atlantic] ocean, its roads to Long Island and its many safe havens, Brooklyn provided a Jerusalem-like setting for runaways traveling north on the freedom trail. The independent spirit and beliefs of many in this large … settlement created great synergy for the change or total eradication of slavery. The unique socioeconomic structure of Weeksville, a Black township, offered a safety net for fugitives, while Brooklyn itself was [a] Mecca of abolitionist culture, home to several notable antislavery pastors, authors, activists and others who were key to the call for freedom,” according to the Brooklyn Tourism and Visitors Center’s NYC Underground Railroad and Abolitionism Destination Guide.
That guide, featuring ten Brooklyn locations, sparked my journey—and subsequently this story. Should you visit the center (Brooklyn Borough Hall, 209 Joralemon Street, 718-802-3846), you will find a dedicated niche complete with portraits of antislavery freedom fighters, related biographies, artifacts and a large map I could not stop looking at showing Brooklyn’s confirmed Underground Railroad sites. It was unlike the MTA Brooklyn bus map I most associate with local geography. My curiosity was stimulated.
How did the language of this network come to be? “In the 1830s, steam-powered trains appeared in North America—trains could travel faster in an hour than a horse could go in a day. The railroad’s novelty and…speed could explain why people aiding fugitives used the word RAILROAD and terms associated with it to identify what they were doing. Before long, those who led [the enslaved] to freedom were called CONDUCTORS. The fugitives they met and guided along the way were called PASSENGERS. [In rare cases] they may have traveled on actual trains. Most likely they journeyed on horseback, in wagons, by boat or on foot. The hiding places where the fugitives stayed were called STATIONS. They may have been barns, houses, churches or even mansions. These hiding places were run by STATIONMASTERS.” (Source: Road to Freedom, The Underground Railroad, New York and beyond by Driscoll, Hourahan, Velsor and Sesso.)
How can the average New Yorker find these places by bus and subway? It’s not only easy, many sites offer free or low-cost tours. Armchair explorers with Internet access also have a wealth of resources at their disposal including online station descriptions, guides, news articles and essays! Just search “NYC Underground Railroad.” Since there’s nothing like seeing history with your own eyes and in person, I divided my journey into a museum day and four neighborhood walks where sites were clustered for easy exploration. The fresh air and exercise felt great and I found fresh local food, among other surprises, in the process. Imagine what awaits you in these historic neighborhoods:
Crown Heights. Berean Baptist Church (49 Dr. Hylton L. James Boulevard at the intersection of Bergen Street and Rochester Avenue, www.bereanbaptist.org) is proud of the role its original wooden structure served on a hill at Prospect Place between Rochester and Utica Avenues. The congregation has designated a room for the preservation of their archives under the care of church historian Louise Nelson.
Weeksville Hunterfly Road Houses (1698 Bergen Street between Buffalo and Rochester Avenues, http://weeksvillehc.tumblr.com) invites individuals and groups to schedule tours of their historic structures and artifacts. Detailed historical profiles and program postings are steadfastly reported in the pages of Our Time Press.
Bedford-Stuyvesant. Churches now based in Bed-Stuy that are associated with America’s first human rights struggle (abolitionism) entered history in earlier buildings in other neighborhoods reflecting twentieth century settlement shifts for Black Brooklyn. Siloam Presbyterian Church (260 Jefferson Avenue and Marcy Avenue, www.siloam-brooklyn.org/history.html) offers its rich history on their Web site. Bridge Street A.M.E. Church (277 Stuyvesant Avenue, www.bsdcorp.org) is proud of its downtown Brooklyn roots as displayed on their Web site, which has a history section. See where their abolitionist-era building’s entrance still stands below.
Midwood/ Marine Park. Very near the Atlantic Ocean, it’s easy to imagine arriving and leaving these large old houses by boat in the cover of night. Wyckoff-Bennett House (1662 East 22nd Street, just off Kings Highway) is a private residence considered one of the oldest in all of America…and just a ten-minute walk from local subways. They’re proud of their history and have a NYS Revolutionary War Trail information panel by the main gate intended to be read from the street. A twenty-minute walk away stands Hendrick I. Lott House (1940 East 36th Street between Fillmore Avenue and Avenue S, www.LottHouse.org). It’s undergoing extensive exterior landscaping and should look crisp for the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War’s conclusion.
Fort Greene/ Downtown Brooklyn. “Founded by Abolitionists” reads a large sign at the entrance to Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church (85 South Oxford Street on the corner of Lafayette Street, www.lapcbrooklyn.org). Its hugely popular minister Dr. Theodore L. Cuyler had the Union flag hoisted atop the church—a simpler building in those days—during the Civil War. He is recognized nearby at Fulton Street’s Cuyler Gore Park where he insisted no monument other than his name be established. Fifteen-minute walk away, our city has designated the street where abolitionists Thomas and Harriet Truesdell lived (277 Duffield Street) Abolitionist Place. Hotels are encroaching today. A neighboring house’s protest sign reads “Stop the Confiscation and Demolition of the Abolitionist Homes on Duffield Street.” Nearby, within Metro-Tech’s interior park-like space rests the sturdy Greek revival-styled façade of Bridge Street A.M.E.’s abolition-era home visited by both Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. Fifteen more minutes by foot takes you to Plymouth Church (where Hicks and Orange Streets intersect, www.plymouthchurch.org). Here, tours are offered to groups (including public schools) by appointment. You will be amazed at the almost original interior from the Civil War period and the dirt-floor basement where freedom seekers sought and received shelter and food in perfect secrecy. As I walked away from this last stop, my mind raced with a fresh appreciation of our borough and I could almost hear Harriet Tubman singing one of her favorite spirituals:
Swing low, sweet chariot,
Coming for to carry me home
Swing low, sweet chariot,
Coming for to carry me home
If you get there before I do
Coming for to carry me home
Tell all my friends I’m coming too
Coming for to carry me home
I’m sometimes up, I’m sometimes down Coming for to carry me home But still my soul feels heavenly bound Coming for to carry me home
Those lyrics (abbreviated here) were instructions on how to get to safety, when to run and when to be still. They evoke a feeling of encouragement for the wary, however, I could feel nothing but fully alive as I capped my research at the New York Historical Society (170 Central Park West @ 77th Street, 212-873-3400). The main floor gallery helped put the conditions of 19th century New York into perspective. Their New York and the American Experience kiosks offered me an introduction to their artifact and library collections. One display helped me relive their ground-breaking exhibitions Slavery in New York and New York Divided: Slavery and the Civil War. Many gems from colonial bondage to the Civil War can be seen this way. A recent Brooklyn collaboration opens up yet more views into these subjects.
Brooklyn Abolitionists/ In Pursuit of Freedom opened recently at the Brooklyn Historical Society. Weeksville Heritage Center and Irondale Ensemble Project, a theater group based at Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church, are partners to this exhibition. Encompassing fully one-third of the first floor, visitors are encouraged to ponder big questions from old New York as they see a rich assembly of document reproductions from the pre-and post-American Civil War period. Interactive displays ask you to consider, What is the relationship between literacy, community, law and freedom? There’s even a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation (on view) from 1864, printed one year after President Abraham Lincoln signed it. This historical society has published its own walking tour guide to sights of slavery resistance and postwar reconstruction that is remarkably extensive. This sixteen-page guide includes the neighborhoods of Williamsburg (site of Colored School No. 3 built in 1879 where African-American doctor James McCune Smith had long since made his home) and DUMBO, where Brooklyn’s oldest African-American Baptist congregation—Concord Baptist Church—began in 1847. Vast teacher resources have been prepared for the educators out there. Contact the society to learn more!
Morgan Powell is a horticulturist and landscape designer. He’s also a blogger at Outdoor Afro.
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