A Community Grows in Brooklyn
Well before 1827, the year that slavery was abolished in New York State, Brooklyn became home to a thriving free black community. The story of these residents is one of many from In Pursuit of Freedom, a groundbreaking project by Brooklyn Historical Society, Weeksville Heritage Center, and Irondale Ensemble project. Learn more about the history of abolitionism in Brooklyn at www.pursuitoffreedom.org.
Slavery in Agricultural Brooklyn
After the American Revolution, slavery began to decline in New York City. But across the East River in Kings County#, slavery continued to flourish#. Enslaved people provided essential labor in agricultural Kings County, where farmers grew the crops that fed the growing city across the river.
The Slow March of Emancipation
The first blow to the institution of slavery occurred in 1799, when the New York State Legislature passed “An Act for the gradual abolition of slavery.” According to the law, all children born to an enslaved person after July 4, 1799 would be free, but bound to serve the owner of his or her mother until he or she reached the age of 25 if female, and 28 if male.
In 1817, the legislature decided that on July 4, 1827, all enslaved people in New York State would be free.
A Neighborhood Emerges
Brooklyn’s free black community lived in the areas now known as DUMBO, Vinegar Hill, and Fulton Ferry Landing. Black families lived there among other residents of European descent.
Brooklyn was not an easy place to be a free black person in the first decades of the 19th century. Men, women, and children faced political and economic discrimination and widespread segregation. In response, they formed their own institutions committed to the betterment of their community and their race.
After facing racism and segregation at a local mixed-race church, residents including brothers Peter and Benjamin Croger establish a benevolent society# that advocated for emancipation and provided support to those in need. Peter Croger also founded a private “African school” in his home on James Street. In 1818, community members helped establish the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church on High Street.
Building a Movement
Brooklyn’s free black community laid the foundation for the robust and widespread anti-slavery movement that would emerge in the following decades. Little evidence of their important work exists, but the ideas they espoused set the agenda for later Brooklyn abolitionists like Henry Ward Beecher.