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BHS Presents '400 Years of Inequality'

The bold public series gathers national leaders and institutions to explore the legacy of slavery, white supremacy and "our unresolved history"
?They deliberately set fire to it ? simply because it was the home of unoffending colored orphan children?: The New York Draft Riots and the burning of the Colored Orphan Asylum Photo: Brooklyn Historical Society

This year, 2019, marks 400 years since the arrival of the first 20 Africans to North America's shores. They arrived at Jamestown, VA, in 1619 and were sold into slavery. 

And from that time until 1866, 12.5 million more Africans were shipped to the New World (10.7 million survived the dreaded Middle Passage), disembarking in North America, the Caribbean and South America, according to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database,

For the next 235 years until the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1965, institutionalized slavery, racial segregation and terrorism against black people would be made legal, written into America's own Constitution. Two and a half centuries of free labor surely played a major role in cementing America's global economic dominance. But since then, how far have we come in mending America's shameful past? How close are we now to reconciliation, reparation and making America whole?

Brooklyn Historical Society, 400 Years of Inequality, Marcia Ely, Alex Tronolone, white supremacy, slavery, discussions on race, reparations

Brooklyn Historical Society has taken the bold, brave step of examining those vital questions, for without critical examination of our history, we are doomed to repeat it. In BHS's upcoming series, "400 Years of Inequality: Slavery, Race & Our Unresolved History," BHS takes an immersive, reflective dive into the history of slavery in the United States and its ensuing ramifications in for us as both Americans and Brooklyn residents.

"This history has impacted us on every level in our society, from healthcare, to housing, to income equality, health accumulation, educated," said Marcia Ely, executive vice president of programs at BHS. "So there's really no area that is untouched by the legacy of slavery and white supremacy."

The series, which kicks off on Wednesday, Oct. 2 and runs through the month of October, features seven public programs, a Saturday morning family event, and two educator professional development sessions, along with a special selection of featured books at the shop. BHS will partner with leading institutions including Facing History and Ourselves and the Vera Institute for Justice to present a range of conversations about racial inequity, including discussions on housing, healthcare, criminal justice and reparations. 

"We made a list of the areas we thought people would like to explore in public forums in the form of programs, like the racial disparities and inequities, healthcare; white flight, redlining and housing discrimination has been written about substantially so focusing on that area was also a given for us," said Ely. "Even subjects that may make audiences squirm-- but in a good way-- meaning cultural appropriation, white supremacy, all of those issues we grapple with now." 

Brooklyn Historical Society, 400 Years of Inequality, Marcia Ely, Alex Tronolone, white supremacy, slavery, discussions on race, reparations

For example, the Wednesday program, entitled, "Sowing Resolution: The Case for Reparations in Action" examines the idea, feasibility and real possibility of reparations.

"The way that the nation is talking about reparations has been transformed, and we wanted to get to the heart of what reparations means and the various ways it can play out," said Ely.

Two other programs will examine the state of race and racism in America today; a conversation between Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson, author of Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America, and Brooklyn Community Foundation Fair and Just Fellow Heather McGhee; and a screening and talkback of the film Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North, produced by Katrina Browne who testified in June at the House Judiciary Committee hearing on reparations.

For families, Irondale Theater Ensemble will present an adaptation of its play about Brooklyn abolitionists, Color Between the Lines. 

Two professional development workshops for educators offered by BHS and Facing History and Ourselves, will look at the meaning of and controversy around confederate monuments, and the memorializing of Brooklyn's slaveholding past in the names of familiar Brooklyn streets, including Hicks, Remsen, and Bergen. Throughout the month visitors can peruse a curated selection of books related to race and history in a special section of the gift shop, all 10% off for October.

Alex Tronolone, manager of teaching and learning in BHS's Education Department, said his aim was to demonstrate to both students and teachers how the actions of everyday individuals are the substance of history and equally as noteworthy of study as the actions of famous figures: "We want to equip them with the tools to determine the veracity of things presented to them as 'truth,'" he said.

"Specifically, we'll demonstrate how we can use the 1790 census to reveal the extent of slaveholding in post-Revolution Kings County and the impact those land-owners continue to have on our contemporary landscape— many of the streets in our Borough take their names from the colonial-era land-holding family that owned the piece of land that street runs through," Tronolone said.

"Once making that connection, we'll share more primary source documents related to the lives of some of the most prominent 19th-Century Brooklyn abolitionists, the vast majority of whom were Black, to piece together what their lives were like, and then repeat the search to see what, if anything, is named in their memory in Brooklyn."

Ely added, "This isn't necessarily comfortable territory that people want to venture into, and that's part of what makes us want to do this. 

"At the Brooklyn Historical Society, we really feel it is our obligation and responsibility as an institution of 'historical authority' to right the record to do the hard work of what historians do, which is correcting the actual record so it reflects the stories of those who were in seats of power have to tell… And I cant think of a subject that's more important to spotlight than issues of race right now. 

"Maybe in that room during these conversations, some moment of "aha" happens to those who are listening, and if that happens, that's our goal, that's what we're going for here." 

Below is a complete list of program descriptions and participants. For more information, go here.

Sowing Resolution: The Case for Reparations in Action

Wed, Oct 2, 6:30 pm


As a national conversation about reparations takes root, BHS and the Social Science Research Council gather a panel of experts to unpack the notion of reparations broadly, examine various forms that reparations might take, and look at one concrete example happening today. In 1838, Georgetown University sold 272 enslaved people 'down river' to secure its financial health. What is owed to their descendants, and how has Georgetown made amends? The New York Times contributing writer Rachel Swarns leads a conversation with Adam Rothman, GU historian and principal curator of the Georgetown Slavery Archive; Mélisande Short-Colomb, a student activist and descendant of the GU272; and Katherine Franke, author of Repair: Redeeming the Promise of Abolition.


The Stacked Deck: Race and America's Unjust Criminal Justice System

Thu, Oct 10, 6 pm


Biased policing. Discriminatory sentencing. Over-incarceration of black people. America's long history of segregation and structural racism has led to today's racialized criminal justice system. How do we address the roots of a system designed to perpetuate racial subjugation? Can we realize a just and equal future? Nick Turner, president and director of the Vera Institute of Justice, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, author of The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime and the Making of Modern Urban America, and others look at centuries of racial injustice, and how white Americans have reaped the benefits while black Americans have paid the price.

The Impact of Slavery and the Myth of the Free North

Tue, Oct 15, 6:30 pm


The slave economy is largely associated with images of Southern plantations, but it played a major role in the Northern states and cities nationwide, becoming a fundamental building block of the country. Cornell University professor Edward Baptist author of The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, and NYU professor Michele Mitchell discuss the history of the institution of slavery, what was different between its incarnations in the North and the South, and what was tragically similar. Moderated by BHS vice president of curatorial affairs and collections, Julie Golia.


Redlining and its Repercussions

Wed, Oct 16, 6:30 pm


Redlining—the systematically racist banking practice of denying loans to people of color in post-WWII urban neighborhoods—is often portrayed as a closed chapter in the nation's history of structural inequality. Yet intense discrimination persists as non-white communities face continuous exclusion from the "American Dream" of homeownership or are targeted by predatory lending practices, further widening the racial wealth gap. UC Berkeley's Richard Rothstein, reveals the findings of his recent book, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. The conversation moves to a local focus when Sarita Daftary-Steel, founder of the East New York Oral History Project, April de Simone, co-creator of the Undesign the Redline project, and Catherine Green, Founder and Executive Director of ARTs East NY and Founding Steering Committee Member of the Coalition for Community Advancement, join for a conversation moderated by Kai Wright, host of WNYC podcasts The Stakes and There Goes the Neighborhood.


The Color of Healthcare: Mary Travis Bassett and Harriet Washington in Conversation

Thu, Oct 17, 6:30 pm


Two giants in their field explore the complicated history and ramifications of our county's race-based health inequalities. Mary Travis Bassett, former NYC Commissioner of Health and currently Director of the François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University, and Harriet Washington, author of the award-winning Medical Apartheid and, most recently, A Terrible Thing to Waste: Environmental Racism and Its Assault of the American Mind, share their insights, analysis, and thoughts on righting centuries of wrongs.

Michael Eric Dyson and Heather McGhee: Reckoning with Racism

Fri, Oct 18, 6:00 pm


White Supremacy. Microaggressions. Black Lives Matter. Reparations. The issues are urgent, the conversation moving at breakneck speed, but is our country heading forward, or backward? Author, speaker, preacher and Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson is joined by Heather McGhee, former head of Demos and Brooklyn Community Foundation Fair and Just Fellow, for this discussion on these essential questions about race and racism in America.

Screening and Discussion: Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North

Sun, Oct 20, 4:00 pm


When filmmaker Katrina Browne discovered that her New England ancestors were the largest slave-trading family in U.S. history, she and nine cousins retraced the Triangle Trade and gained powerful new perspectives on the black/white divide. Browne, who testified in June at the House Judiciary Committee hearing on reparations, will discuss issues of racism today following the screening.

Family Programs


Sun, Oct 20, 10:30 am and 11:30 am


This family-friendly adaptation of Irondale Ensemble Project's Color Between the Lines uses song and story to look at oft-forgotten Brooklyn abolitionists who fought to free enslaved Africans. Each 25-minute performance is followed by a hands-on, storytelling art activity. Color Between the Lines was originally produced by Irondale Theater Ensemble in 2012, as part the In Pursuit of Freedom Project, a collaboration with Brooklyn Historical Society and Weeksville Heritage Center.


Professional Development Sessions for Educators

Brooklyn Historical Society and Facing History and Ourselves are approved providers of NYS CTLE credits. Participating teachers will receive 2 hours of CTLE credit for each workshop.

Mapping Freedom and Slavery: Brooklyn Abolitionists

Wed, Oct 2, 4:00 pm

Presented by Brooklyn Historical Society Education Department


Today many Brooklynites underestimate the extent of Brooklyn's slave-holding past, but historians who study nineteenth century New York have labeled Kings County a "slaveholding capital." Brooklyn had the largest concentration of enslaved people of any county in New York State. Its slaveholding percentages exceeded those of South Carolina.

Today those slave-holders' names are immortalized in the very streets that Brooklynites walk. Hicks, Remsen, Boerum, Sands, Nostrand, Bergen — each of these streets bears the name of a slaveholding family from Brooklyn's past. But what of those Brooklynites who engaged in abolitionist activities? How are their legacies memorialized today?

This session uses historical maps, documents, and census records to explore freedom and slavery in nineteenth century Brooklyn, uncovering the names of slaveholders in the borough, and those of the individuals who fought for freedom.

The Legacy of Reconstruction: Monuments and Public Memory

Wed, Oct 16, 4:00 pm

Presented by Facing History and Ourselves


In 1965 James Baldwin wrote, "the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do." Baldwin's powerful reminder of history's lasting and daily impacts raises particular questions when history takes the form of memorials and monuments in our communities. How do societies decide which history to remember -- and what form that memory should take? How can we empower students to engage with Reconstruction memorials critically, through a lens of historical knowledge and ethical reflection? This session will use resources from Facing History and Ourselves' case study The Reconstruction Era: Fragility of Democracy to investigate how schools can engage with the monument debate that continues to impact communities across the country. We will model discussion strategies that support an analysis of historical perspectives and provide space for students' emotional reactions.


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