March is Women’s History Month when we celebrate the achievements of North Brooklyn’s greatest women. Sarah Tompkins Garnet was not only the first black woman to serve as a principal in New York City, but she was also a fighter for women’s suffrage and for racial equality. She began her illustrious career locally in what was named “Colored School #3” right here in Williamsburg.
Sarah was born in the free black community of Weeksville in Bedford Stuyvesant, some buildings of which have survived and today form the basis of the Weeksville museum, a fascinating relic of Brooklyn’s 19th-century history. Her father, Sylvanus Smith, was one of Weeksville’s founders and one of the very few black Americans who were able to cast a vote in 1820 when New York State still had slavery.
African-Americans were only allowed to vote if they owned $250 worth of property- no small sum in 1820, but Sarah’s father was rich enough to meet the qualification. Her father was a strong advocate of black voting rights and Tompkins Garnet would continue his legacy, fighting against racial discrimination and for expanded voting rights. He also stressed that his daughters get educated. Garnet’s sister Susan McKinney Steward became the first black woman in New York State to earn a medical degree, and only the third in the United States. Continue reading →
Last week I spoke about Brooklyn’s great poet Walt Whitman who served as the editor of Williamsburg’s Brooklyn Daily News in the late 1850s, but I also mentioned the name of another important Williamsburg newspaper editor whom few in the audience had ever heard of. With the 200th birthday of Whitman approaching in May, Brooklynites are celebrating the author of “Leaves of Grass” and the one-time editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle , however, African-American editor and abolitionist Willis Hodges was an equally amazing character whose life and unique achievements deserve recognition.
If it were not true, Willis Hodges’ amazing life would seem contrived. Born free to unenslaved African-American parents in Virginia in 1815, Hodges learned to read and write at a time when many whites were illiterate and only a handful of African-Americans could read and write. The family prospered, living on a huge farm, but Nat Turner’s rebellion cast a shadow over the Hodges family when his older brother was falsely accused of and imprisoned for abetting Tuner in his slave revolt. Hodges’ older brother escaped the jail and headed to Canada, so When Incensed whites took vengeance on Hodges’ family, nearly blinding his mother and killing all the family livestock, Hodges knew he had to leave Virginia.
Willis arrived in Williamsburg in 1836. He soon bought land, becoming a deacon in a local black church and also one of the founders of Colored School #2 in Williamsburg where black children were taught to read and write. Willis also quickly joined the local abolitionist movement and became a stationmaster on the Underground Railroad.
Angered by a pro-slavery editorial in a New York newspaper, Hodges paid to print a rebuttal, but his article was stuck in the back of the paper where no one would see it. When he confronted the publisher, the man told Hodges to start his own newspaper which he did, starting publishing the weekly Ram’s Horn in 1840, which features articles by Fredrick Douglass and John Brown, the future leader of the unsuccessful attack on the Harper’s Ferry arsenal. Douglass urged Hodges to “blow away” on his horn, predicting that its “wild, rough, uncultivated notes may grate on the ear of the refined,” but would “be pleasurable to the slave, and terrible to the slaveholder.” Continue reading →
It’s February and Black History Month has started, a time when we recall the huge African-American contribution to our country. Ask many educated New Yorkers and you may find that they will have no idea of New York’s more than a century and a half of slavery.
The French Huguenot families who first settled Greenpoint were all slave owners who used their slaves to drain the swampy land and clear the brush so that they could farm the land. Dirck Volckertszen, the area’s original settler, brought the first slave to Greenpoint way back in 1645. Slavery in New York continued until 1827, so our area has a long history of enslaved labor.
We can only speculate about the lives of those enslaved Africans. William Felter, the author of the area’s first history, “Historic Greenpoint,” assures us that the first settlers not only treated their slaves well, but he also tells us that the slaves considered themselves as members of the family.
Recently I wrote a piece about the Penny Bridge, which spanned Newtown Creek from the foot of Meeker Avenue and about the Duryea family who occupied the house beside it for over 150 years. The Duryea’s might have been Huguenots who were fleeing persecution in France, but they were also people who enslaved African-Americans.
An amateur local historian, Dan Cumberland, dug up documents that show the brutal nature of local slavery and contradict the pleasant picture Felter paints of local slavery. The chilling ad below dates from the 1820s when the family advertised an enslaved 15-year-old boy for sale.
The claim that slaves were happy and considered themselves family members is refuted by another horrifying document offering a reward for an enslaved woman who ran away from the family farm and offering a six-cent reward for her capture.
The slave-owning Duryea’s were typical Brooklynites and slavery was widely practiced in King’s County. In 1698, 15 percent of the people in Kings County were of African descent, and virtually all were enslaved. By 1738, the percentage had risen to 25 percent. In 1790, that figure rose again with African Americans accounting for over 30 percent of Kings County’s population and most of these people were enslaved.
New York State gradually emancipated its slaves in large part because northern slavery proved unprofitable. New York lacked cash crops like cotton, sugar and tobacco that fueled the explosive growth of Southern slavery, but bondage played an important role in local history – a fact we should recall during Black History Month.