‘Brooklyn Abolitionists’ at the Brooklyn Historical Society

Brooklyn’s anti-slavery history uncovered

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Some of Brooklyn’s unsung heroes are finally getting their due.

A new exhibition at the Brooklyn Historical Society pays homage to anti-slavery activists from the borough — both renowned and forgotten. The exhibition, “Brooklyn Abolitionists / In Pursuit of Freedom,” opened at the Brooklyn Heights center just in time for its 150th anniversary celebration and is part of a public history project conducted with the Weeksville Heritage Center and the Irondale Ensemble Project.

“The three partners had already established a general framework of wanting to do a public history project that nuanced the public’s understanding of US abolitionism and Brooklyn’s role within it,” said curator and historian Prithi Kanakamedal, who headed up five years of research into the history of slavery and abolitionism in Brooklyn.

“We did the kind of research that is still rare in museums today so it’s really a testament to the partnership’s commitment,” she said. “They wanted ‘In Pursuit of Freedom’ to be an original scholarly contribution to both fields of academic and public history.”

Visiting “Brooklyn Abolitioni­sts” is like taking a step back in time to a bygone era, when transportation was literally driven by horsepower. Quaint landscape paintings and historic maps from the 1800s chronicle Brooklyn’s shift from an agricultural town to an industrial center. Some fascinating relics at the exhibition include flax spun in the Flatlands in the 1800s, minutes from annual abolitionist conventions, old letters between fellow abolitionists, and yellowing pamphlets denouncing injustice.

Kanakamedala said the team’s research led to some surprising discoveries.

“After the American Revolution, even as slavery was on the decline in Philadelphia, Boston, and neighboring Manhattan, it actually strengthened in numbers in Brooklyn or Kings County,” she said. “It meant that the existence of a burgeoning anti-slavery movement is peculiar, but also inspiring in terms of thinking about activism against the greatest of odds.”

In conjunction with the exhibition, there will be a number of affiliated public programs running through April 2014. Events include a panel discussions about human trafficking, walking tours through Dumbo, concerts, film screenings, and a “Moth StorySLAM” competition hosted by comedian Ophira Eisenberg, host of NPR’s quiz show “Ask Me Another.”

“Brooklyn Abolitionist / In Pursuit of Freedom” at the Brooklyn Historical Society [128 Pierrepont St, at Clinton Street in Brooklny Heights, (718) 222–4111,]. $6–$10 suggested admission.

Updated 11:48 am, January 16, 2019
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