The 5th of July: Abolitionist Williamsburg
The Weeksville Heritage Center, a multidisciplinary museum dedicated to preserving the history of Weeksville, a self-supporting 19th century free black community in what is now Crown Heights, has a “5th of July Resource Center for Self-Determination and Freedom.”
This 5th of July, I’d like to honor that project by taking a look at Abolitionist Williamsburg. In the 1840s and 1850s, Williamsburg was home to Brooklyn’s second largest African American community, and was a hotbed of the Abolitionist movement.
Two of Williamsburg’s most prominent black citizens were the William and Willis Hodges, brothers who were born free in Virginia. In the 1830s, the Hodges Brothers moved to Williamsburg and settled with their families on what is now Bedford Avenue. William built a home on Bedford and South 8th Street, and Willis did the same on South 7th.
Willis Hodges noted that in the late 1830s, there was only one Abolitionist organization in Williamsburg, and that he and William were the only members of color. But, over the next decade, the Hodges brothers would help shape Williamsburg into a robust center of Abolitionism.
Willis himself founded the Williamsburg Union Temperance Benevolent Society in 1841, and the New York Society for the Promotion of Education Among Colored Children in 1847.
In 1840, the Hodges brothers both served as delegates to a convention of “colored citizens” in Albany. The following year, after 40 black students were denied admission to the local school, William and Willis Hodges, Samuel Ricks, Lewis H. Nelson, Thomas Wilson, and Henry Davis raised funds to open The African School in Williamsburg. William Hodges served as both Principal of the school, and as a teacher.
Several of Brooklyn’s most prominent black female educators and abolitionists were also on staff. For example, Sarah Smith Garnet, who grew up in Weeksville and went on to become Brooklyn’s first African American female school principal, began her career at the African School in Williamsburg. Garnet also founded the Equal Suffrage League of Brooklyn, the first suffrage organization founded by and for black women. For her services to suffrage, she was also elected superintendent of the Suffrage department of the National Organization of Colored Women.
One of Garnet’s fellow educators at the African School in Williamsburg was Maria W. Stewart. According to the Brooklyn Historical Society, Stewart was “the first American woman to lecture in public on political themes and publish her work (Productions of Mrs. Maria W. Stewart, 1835).” She gave her first speech at the Boston Afric-Female Intelligence Society, and her work touched on the themes of community organization, self-determination, and equal rights. When she left Boston, she settled in Williamsburg, where she taught at the African School.
Publications regarding African-American self-determination began to proliferate in Williamsburg in the 1840s. For example, Willis Hodges and Thomas Van Rensselaer, an escaped slave who became one of New York’s leading abolitionists, published the Ram’s Horn an Abolitionist weekly that was funded by both Fredrick Douglas and John Brown, and published pieces by both men.
In 1850, Williamsburg became a focal point of the evils of the Fugitive Slave Act. The Act required that all escaped slaves be immediately returned to their masters upon capture, and required that citizens and authorities in free sates comply with the law. The act led to both escaped slaves and people who had been born free being seized and sent into bondage.
In late September 1850, bounty hunters seized James Hamlet, a free black Williamsburg resident, informed him he was an escaped slave, and transported him south. In response, William Powell, who was a member of the New York African Society for Mutual Relief and the proprietor of Manhattan’s Colored Seamen’s Home, took up the case as organizer and spokesman. Powell marched on City Hall, and moved Mayor Woodhull to instruct authorities not to aid in the capture of runaway slaves in New York. Other members of African society organized meetings throughout Williamsburg and Brooklyn, and within two days, raised $800 to buy Hamlet’s freedom.
On October 5th, 1850, hundreds of free black people escorted Hamlet back to his home in Williamsburg.
If you’d like to learn more about Brooklyn’s Abolitionist history, The Brooklyn Historical Society and Weeksville Heritage Center have partnered on an exhibit called In Pursuit of Freedom, which will be up through 2018.