By Samantha Samel
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
“We have so many great things to celebrate in Brooklyn,” remarked Councilman Carlos Menchaca last Thursday at the Brooklyn Historical Society’s (BHS) 10th Annual Library Dinner. Celebrating the 150th anniversary of BHS’s founding, the event began with a cocktail hour, after which a delicious dinner was served in the exquisite Othmer Library space. The event was sponsored in part by Goldman Sachs and Municipal Credit Union, as well as by Brooklyn Brewery, which supplied beer; New York Distilling Company, which provided the gin used in the signature "Othmer Gimlet" cocktail; and James Weir Floral Company, which provided the flowers.
Menchaca, who was elected co-chair of the City Council’s Brooklyn delegation just one day prior to the BHS event, told the crowd, “150 years…that’s an incredible amount of time for this amazing organization to be doing the work that the Brooklyn Historical Society has been doing […] I think about the history that is yet to be made […] It was Brooklyn that elected its first openly gay Mexican, and I’m the first Mexican elected to the city in its entirety, but it happened in Brooklyn. So I can’t wait for the next 150 years,” he said, drawing laughs and applause.
BHS President Deborah Schwartz announced the evening’s honorees, devout Brooklynites Connie and Terry Christensen, who have lived in Park Slope for 43 years. Connie is a longtime member of the board of the Brooklyn Museum and is on the board of the Citizens Committee for Children. Terry, Chairman of Theatre for a New Audience, a trustee at Brooklyn Academy of Music and founding Chairman of Prospect Park Alliance, is a partner at the law firm of McDermott Will & Emery LLP, where he heads the private client practice in New York, as well as the international private client practice in London. The couple spoke of each other’s efforts and of their four children, three of whom were at the dinner.
The event’s featured speaker was Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian David Levering Lewis, who delivered a dynamic reading on W.E.B. Du Bois’s Brooklyn years. Jim Rossman, Chair of the Board of BHS, introduced Lewis and pointed out that Fort Greene resident Esther Cooper Jackson (b. 1917) was in attendance. With Du Bois, Cooper Jackson founded Freedomways magazine in 1961 and served as its managing editor for 24 years.
In presenting Lewis, Rossman noted the historian's impressive accomplishments: an author of eight books, Lewis was the first to write an academic biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. He has taught at several universities and has won two Pulitzer Prizes for his biographies of W.E.B. Du Bois, among numerous other accolades. Lewis has had an international career and interests — he’s taught at the University of Ghana and his most recent book discusses the connection between Islam and Europe — but on Thursday he focused on Brooklyn.
“The only topic that really would justify my appearance this evening is Brooklyn,” Lewis began. “It is a great pleasure and privilege and so meaningful to have Esther Cooper Jackson here with us this evening […] she is a true treasure of Brooklyn and, I would say, of progressivism in this country.” Lewis delivered a talk specifically for the BHS event entitled "Du Bois in Brooklyn: The Final Decade, 1951-1961."
He spoke about the decade Du Bois spent in Brooklyn Heights, noting that “after deciding that the right way to save American democracy was to support the left, Du Bois became one of the borough of Brooklyn’s most distinguished Cold War victims. His Brooklyn residency might be characterized, variously, as ‘the forgotten decade’ or ‘the asylum years’ in Brooklyn Heights.” While in Brooklyn, Du Bois, already in his 80s, lived with his wife Shirley at 31 Grace Court (which was also once home to Arthur Miller).
“The Brooklyn decade was marked by socials around the grand piano, where frequently Lawrence Brown accompanied Paul Robeson,” Lewis explained. “Their Christmas and New Year’s parties were often memorable, enough so indeed that the FBI embargoed further travel by United Nations delegates to Brooklyn Heights after the Du Boises entertained Soviet Foreign Minister Andrey Vyshinsky and the families from the Russian, Polish, Indian and Czech U.N. Delegations to a vodka-spirited Christmas party.”
Lewis went on to discuss Du Bois’s eventual move to Ghana, where he died in 1963, and then opened up the discussion to answer audience members’ questions. Lewis personified BHS’s mission to enliven Brooklyn’s history, specifically tying his animated talk to the Society’s current exhibition “Brooklyn Abolitionists / In Pursuit of Freedom”, which reveals some of the lesser-known stories of Brooklyn civil rights activists. The exhibition is on view through 2018.