Posted October 20th, 2009
The Brooklyn Historical Society (BHS), the Weeksville Heritage Center and Irondale Ensemble Project have been chosen to receive two major federal grants to fund their joint project “In Pursuit of Freedom,” a multifaceted program that memorializes the history of abolitionism and the Underground Railroad in Brooklyn.
The U.S. Department of Education Office of Postsecondary Education’s Underground Railroad Educational and Cultural (URR) Program has awarded BHS $936,000; and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) has awarded $400,000 to the program, which was originally announced last year.
In Pursuit of Freedom will provide new resources for understanding Brooklyn’s leading role in the abolitionist movement through exhibitions, a Web site, historic markers, walking tours, a commissioned outdoor public artwork, an original theater piece and more.
The term “Underground Railroad” referred to a route of safe houses by which escaped Southern slaves were helped to complete their then-illegal journey to slavery-free Canada.
“The history of abolition is complex and powerful,” said Deborah Schwartz, president of the Brooklyn Historical Society. “The struggle for freedom was not only fought on battle fields, but also in churches, schools, newspapers and communities all over America. Brooklyn leaders and activists, black and white, were vital to the national movement. Their untold stories need to be understood.”
These awards complement $2 million already granted by the city in 2008 through a Request for Proposals that was initiated by the Downtown Brooklyn Development Corporation.
The project to commemorate Brooklyn’s abolitionist history stems, at least in part, from a controversy several years ago, over an urban-renewal plan to destroy several 19th century homes on Duffield Street that were reportedly linked to the Underground Railroad. The Duffield Street houses have since been saved.
One of the Duffield Street homes, number 227, was spared in a settlement with the city in 2007. Its owner, Joy Chatel, pledged to continue giving tours of her home and using it as a center where people can learn about the Underground Railroad and abolitionist activity in Brooklyn. Another known Underground Railroad site in Brooklyn is the former Bridge Street A.W.M.E. Church building, now part of Polytechnic University.
“I am impressed that the project links three highly esteemed Brooklyn cultural entities to provide a deeper understanding of Brooklyn’s rich and historical impact on the abolitionist movement,” said U.S. Rep. Ed Towns, who has supported In Pursuit of Freedom from its inception.
A team of prominent scholars from Yale, George Washington University, Brooklyn College, MIT and other institutions will guide the program and provide scholarly expertise.
The In Pursuit of Freedom program comprises four interrelated components:
All aspects of the project will utilize historic artifacts and documents held by the Brooklyn Historical Society.
Among these are a rare copy of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by Abraham Lincoln; original letters written by Henry Ward Beecher and fellow abolitionist William Wilson; propaganda tracts; numerous slave bills of sale; as well as newspapers, anti-slavery pamphlets from the 1840s; and early photographs of the people and places crucial to the story.