By John B. Manbeck
A Brooklyn Historian
Special to the Brooklyn Eagle
The African-American experience in Brooklyn has been a disturbing one at times. Unlike many of the early settlers — Dutch, English and assorted western Europeans — most of the African inhabitants came here under duress as slaves.
During the month of February, the Brooklyn Museum, the Brooklyn Public Library, the Brooklyn Historical Society, Brooklyn College and BAM Cinema, as well as other institutions throughout the city, have created exhibits and discussions on the contribution of African-Americans to our culture and society.
Even though New York state banned slavery in 1827, many slaves were not free to just walk away and start life anew. This makes the story of those who succeeded even more important.
One of the early African-American heroes was James Weeks, an independent freeman who in 1838 founded what is called Weeksville today, an historic settlement in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Earlier, in 1832, William Thomas had purchased land adjacent to Weeksville for Carrville, which no longer exists. They formed a self-sufficent African-American community with houses, schools, stores and churches, and even a newspaper and an orphanage.
As a result of the perseverance of Joan Maynard, the first executive director of the “Weeksville Society,” the houses of Weeksville on Hunterfly Road not only were preserved but transformed into a New York City Landmark site, now with the Weeksville Heritage Center. Today Weeksville not only prevails but it is recognized as a crucial part of Brooklyn’s and America’s history.
Once freedom was granted to enslaved peoples, they found avenues to explore that enhanced their lives and that of the community. Granville Woods was such a person, an inventor and electrical engineer who developed switches and junction boxes for the subway system as well as for rides used in Coney Island.
Susan McKinney-Steward, who lived in Weeksville, became the first African-American female physician in New York state. She joined a cadre of African-American doctors who practiced in Brooklyn. An exhibit on their contributions was shown at Coney Island Hospital last year produced by the National Library of Medicine.
One of the most dramatic accomplishments, of course, was the revolution in sports, starting with Jackie Robinson in the Brooklyn Dodgers. Quickly, but not easily, this integration spread to other teams and then other sports.
The arts — writers, artists, photographers, movie producers — integrated quickly once their talents were released. Gordon Parks started as a photographer for
Magazine but soon found himself directing movies in Hollywood. Spike Lee, generations later, followed his path. Now Grey Villet is being honored at the International Center of Photography with an HBO documentary about him.
While many musicians, dancers and actors appeared in early films, they were limited to stereotypical roles. If they broke into stardom, such as Brooklynite Lena Horne, their roles in films were edited so their appearance could be deleted if the audience objected. Musicians and singers faced the same discrimination.
By the 1960s, civil rights came to teh forefront in politics, with Martin Luther King Jr. emerging as the spokesperson. Medgar Evers, remembered in Brooklyn as the namesake of the City University in Crown Heights, was one of the more outspoken martyrs whose cry was picked up by Senator Robert Kennedy when he established Restoration Plaza in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant.
But other, more radical voices and activists were heard which led to changes in legislatures and the national agenda. Now the black presence is represented by other nationalities, too, particularly in the Labor Day West Indian Festival in Brooklyn.
Within the last 50 years, advances in multi-racial relations have changed drastically. But recognition of the African American contribution must be maintained because America breeds a sub-culture that can easily subvert all that has been achieved. The annual recognition is crucial; Black History Month is really American History Month.
© 2012 John B. Manbeck