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 →
Recently, heavyweight boxer Adam ‘Babyface’ Kownacki has generated a lot of local excitement. The Polish-born, but Greenpoint bred, Konwacki is 19- 0 in his professional career. A huge contingent of locals showed up to support Kownacki in his last match in the Barclay’s Center. Kownacki continued to climb up the heavyweight rankings by earning a second-round TKO victory over former title challenger Gerald Washington (19-3-1, 12 KOs). The talented Kownacki is only the latest in a long tradition of excellent North Brooklyn boxers. The first local champion boxer dates to the era after the Civil War when prizefighting was still illegal.
Williamsburg Civil War hero and bare-knuckle fighter Sam Collyer won both the Medal of Honor and a lightweight world championship in the days after the War Between the States, but Collyer was a puncher and not a boxer. He won a few title defenses in the 1860s, but was later embarrassed in the ring by perhaps the greatest local fighter, McAuliffe in an 1888 match staged in a local theater, in which McAuliffe humiliated the former champ with his technical boxing prowess. Continue reading →
These last bone-chilling, frigid days have been hard to bear, but these freezing days have reminded me of the horrible cold the Continental Army endured during the darkest moments of the revolution and of a unique local statue that captures Washington’s suffering during that freezing winter. Situated in Continental Army Plaza, right near Roebling Street’s entrance to the Williamsburg Bridge, the Equestrian Statue of George Washington at Valley Forge is decidedly the most impressive piece of public sculpture in North Brooklyn. Perhaps the only thing that can rival the awe the statue inspires is the incredible story of how an honest politician (that rare breed indeed) gifted it to the city.
The statue was dedicated in 1906, and presented to the City by local Congressman James R. Howe and the Committee of Supervision and Construction. It was sculpted by Henry Mervin Shrady, a New Yorker and Columbia University graduate, who was commissioned to make his first major public work after winning a design competition in 1901. The huge statue was cast at Roman Bronze Works on Green Street in our area and is anchored to a granite base designed by Lord and Hewlett.
Today marks the 157 year anniversary of Jan 30th, 1862, the day Greenpoint staked its claim in history as the site where the ironclad USS Monitor was built and launched, in the midst of the Civil War.
The Greenpoint Monitor Memorial is in McGolrick park. It depicts a nude sailor and was erected in 1938 in the memory of John Ericsson and the lost crew members. Any guess what Monitor Street was named after?
The vessel was constructed at Continental Iron Works and designed by the Swedish-born engineer and inventor, John Ericsson. The innovative design captured the attention of the world and became famous for battling the USS Merrimack of Virginia in the Battle of Hampton Roads, which lasted four hours and was the first stand-off between two armored warships. Neither ship could destroy the other, although many cannon shots were fired. Continue reading →
The longest street in Brooklyn and the road that runs through the heart of Williamsburg is Bedford Avenue. The 10.19 mile-long street got its name from the village of Bedford, which was located roughly at the intersection of what is now Bedford Avenue and Fulton Street. There is some disagreement about Bedford. The village, which is so old that it was a focal point of the Revolutionary Wars’ Battle of Brooklyn could come from the English Duke of Bedford or it could refer to Dutch word bestevaar, meaning “the place where old men meet.”
Another street with an ancient history is Bushwick Avenue, which is the oldest street in all of Bushwick, dating back to the earliest Dutch occupation. Peter Stuyvesant named it on March 14, 1661. The name is generally said to mean “place of the woods.” The area was dense with forests, thickets, scrub oaks, logs and low land. British soldiers used a great deal of the wood for fuel, forever changing the area’s natural environment.
In 1792, Richard Woodhull, a real estate developer, whose name graces the local hospital, tried unsuccessfully to develop a settlement in Williamsburg. He created the numbered Streets (S. 5th to N. 3rd). When Richard Woodhull had the area surveyed in 1792 (he had purchased 12 acres), he simply gave the streets numbers for names, except for Grand Street. Woodhull also created a lane along the waterfront which he called “Water Street” and another East River street called “River Street” (now under water). Continue reading →