Hidden History: Slavery Struggle in the North & Brooklyn’s Underground Railroad

Sure, we get a day off from work today- but we must learn to remember to focus on the reason. My guess is the most Americans take the day off for granted without acknowledging what the significance is of this particular national holiday for freedom and human rights. Today is dedicated to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and by pure coincidence, this week’s episode of the “ArchaeoVenturers Project” is about Brooklyn Heights and the Underground Railroad. The Abolitionist Movement was a precursor to the Civil Rights Movement, headed by Dr. King and an inspiration and platform for millions in America. 


I wanted to have an episode about slavery in Brooklyn because just down the street from where I grew up in Brooklyn Heights, now known for its scenic and private views of Manhattan, is Plymouth Church, which is a National Historic Landmark on the National Register for Historic Places. According to the National Park Service, Plymouth Church, founded in 1847, was considered “one of the nation’s foremost centers of antislavery sentiment” in the late 19th century. I went there several times as a child on field trips, exploring the basement used in the Underground Railroad, seeing where Lincoln sat in the church pew, and I distinctly recall seeing a freedom ring that was given to a enslaved child (Plymouth’s website enlightens that the child’s name was ‘Pinky’ and the ring was given to her when her freedom was purchased by the congregation- Henry Ward Beecher declared “With this ring, I thee wed to freedom”). Also, as a result of visiting Plymouth church, I learned about Sojourner Truth, as she had been one of the famous abolitionist speakers featured. She was born into slavery, freed when New York State abolished slavery in 1827, and became an outspoken antislavery abolitionist and advocate for women’s rights. Her “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech (recounted below) brought tears to my eyes as a child and although I can’t remember what grade, I performed her monologue several times in one year and ended up writing several middle school papers on women’s rights as a result of her influence.

(As recounted by Frances Dana Gage, in 1863) Ain’t I a Woman?
Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that ‘twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what’s all this here talking about?
That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?
Then they talk about this thing in the head; what’s this they call it? [member of audience whispers, “intellect”] That’s it, honey. What’s that got to do with women’s rights or negroes’ rights? If my cup won’t hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn’t you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?
Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.
If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.
Obliged to you for hearing me, and now old Sojourner ain’t got nothing more to say.

Everybody thinks that because the North was against slavery, that everyone in the North was by default against slavery, but that wasn’t the case at all. Although New York citizens were legally obligated to manumit their slaves in 1827, many people found ways around the law, even by sending them back to plantations in the South, as many Brooklyn businesses had dealings invested in them. Also, despite the abolished slavery law, it was still illegal to harbor fugitives, hence the prominence but secrecy of the Underground Railroad. Brooklyn’s own harbor was used on the Railroad, as runaway slaves hiding on cargo ships made their way into Brooklyn, often through Plymouth Church, which was called “the Grand Depot” on the Underground Railroad. Henry Ward Beecher, brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe (author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) and founding preacher of Plymouth Church, was a tireless abolitionist, despite hate and featured such prominent speakers like Sojourner Truth, William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass as part of his antislavery efforts at Plymouth. He was even outed as being a leader on the Brooklyn Underground Railroad by The Brooklyn Eagle in 1872, along with many others in his congregation. One of the most memorable actions of Beecher’s was that he would hold mock auctions at the churchyard, showcasing the horrifying aspects of slavery while he simultaneously urged parishioners to bid for the freedom of escaped slaves. President Lincoln himself worshipped at the church, just a day before his infamous speech declaring his antislavery ambitions that is said to have won him the nomination for the Republican presidential bid. 


It’s quite cliche to state the obvious, but we must make a concentrated effort to not only engage in topics that make us squeamish as a nation on days where it’s appropriate, like today for example. We need to make it part of the national everyday conversation because there can be no healing or catharsis from ignorance and secrecy. The new Smithsonian Institution National Museum of African American History and Culture will ideally be a platform for these ongoing conversations, and be a safe place for reflection and interpretation. There is a new exhibition called “Brooklyn Abolitionists: In Pursuit of Freedom” at the Brooklyn Historical Society (running through winter 2018 so GO!) which explores a dark chapter in my home borough. There is so much to say about slavery in Brooklyn, and I hope to have more opportunities to highlight the courage and efforts of those involved in its abolition at future opportunities. 
Highly recommended for further reading 
– “Brooklyn’s Plymouth Church in the Civil War Era: A Ministry of Freedom” by Frank Decker
– Plymouth Church Website (http://bit.ly/15qOogg)
– 10 Stops on the Underground Railroad in NYC (http://bit.ly/1CHAMIs)
– Slavery in Brooklyn (http://bit.ly/14YoaB7)
– The King Center (http://bit.ly/19AAcCv)
– Donate or Become a Member of the New Smithsonian Institution African American History and Culture (http://bit.ly/1DUT8cQ)