slavery

Walt Whitman’s Writing About North Brooklyn

For most of us when we think about Brooklyn’s greatest poet Walt Whitman we think about his poetry and not about his prose. However, Whitman like many creative people today in Brooklyn, had to pay the bills and to make ends meet from 1857 to 1859 he edited a Williamsburg newspaper called the Brooklyn Daily Times, which changed its name from the Williamsburg Daily Times when Williamsburg merged with the city of Brooklyn in 1855, the same year Whitman first published his celebrated “Leaves of Grass.” Whitman worked out of an office that was near the foot of Broadway in Williamsburg and the prose he wrote there gives us a unique window into what our area was like on the eve of the Civil War.

Many of the editorials that Whitman wrote for the paper concerned the spread of slavery, the burning national question of the day. Whitman was no abolitionist and even told his readers that there were some positive aspects to slavery. Whitman was a “Free Soiler,” which meant that he favored stopping the spread of slavery into the new western territories that were to be incorporated into states. Previously, Whitman had edited the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, a Democratic paper and he had been fired because of his free-soil stance from the paper.

Whitman’s desk in Williamsburg courtesy of Walt Whitman Review

Looking back on Whitman’s racial views a century and a half later, we are struck by the fact that a man who was so humane and sensitive in his poems could be so indifferent to the enslavement of millions of Americans. Whitman never believed in racial equality and asked, “Is not America for the whites?” He also asked what he believed to be a horribly racist rhetorical question, “Who believes that whites and blacks can ever amalgamate in America? Or who wishes it to happen?”

Aside from dealing with the burning political questions of the day, Whitman also loved Brooklyn deeply and wrote extensive observations of local life. In 1857, he visited Greenpoint and described at length the burgeoning pottery industry here. He visited Pottery Hill, where the father of local ceramics, Charles Cartlidge had set up our area’s first pottery and Whitman went into great detail describing the process by which pottery was crafted. Continue reading

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Historic Documents Highlight Local History of Slavery

Meeker Ave Duryea House (Brooklyn Public Library archives)

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.

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Greenpoint’s Long, But Forgotten African-American History

The first slave auction at New Amsterdam in 1655
The first slave auction at New Amsterdam in 1655, via Wikipedia

It’s Black History Month when we celebrate African-American contributions to our country, but many born and raised Greenpointers who pride themselves on knowing local history would be shocked to learn that African-Americans have played a role in history here for more than three centuries.

Sadly, the first African-Americans were slaves. We do not know the name of the first African American who came to Greenpoint, but we do know how he came here. Dirck Volckertszen, the first European settler, in our area bought one of the first slaves sold at the slave market on Wall Street in 1645, but Volckertszen was not alone as a Greenpoint slave owner. All the original five families who farmed the land here had slaves. In the book “Historic Greenpoint” written by William Felter in 1918, the author assures us, “The Dutch enjoyed a reputation of treating their slaves with consideration.” However, we are not able to ask these enslaved men and women about the accuracy of Felter’s claim. Felter also makes the claim that even after New York State’s Slave Emancipation Act, which took effect in 1827 that the former slaves of Greenpoint continued to regard themselves as members of the household, but again perhaps these first African-American Greenpointers simply were not ready to face the difficult transition to independence. Continue reading

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A New Local Gallery Offers More Than Art

Gallery AWA
Gallery AWA (via Facebook)

Abhay Wadhwa’s Gallery AWA is a unique addition to our neighborhood. Located on the third floor of the Pencil Factory at 61 Greenpoint Avenue, the gallery is an attempt to reverse the trend in the art world that sees art solely in terms of profits and the bottom line. Abhay has decided not only to show great art, but also to use art as a vehicle to raise social consciousness. He’s decided to curate exhibits that provide great artists from under-represented parts of the world with a venue to show their talent. The art he chooses is not only beautiful, but also socially-engaged. It’s art that makes the viewer aware of the issues that billions of people around the world face on a daily basis. Continue reading

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