The Brooklyn Historical Society is a museum, library and educational center dedicated to encouraging the exploration and appreciation of Brooklyn's diverse peoples and cultures both past and present.
From 1783 to 1865, Brooklyn transformed from an agricultural slaveholding capital to the third largest city in the United States. The city's rapid growth was the backdrop for the struggle led by anti-slavery activists and abolitionists: men and women, black and white, who wanted social justice and political equality. They did so at a time when racism, violence, and inequality towards African Americans were widespread in Brooklyn and beyond.
The first minister at Plymouth Church in Brooklyn was Henry Ward Beecher, one of the most famous abolitionists in the country. His sister was Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote the anti-slavery book "Uncle Tom's Cabin." From the pulpit of Plymouth Church, the fiery and controversial Beecher condemned the institution of slavery and those who practiced it. Here Beecher also spoke out against the Fugitive Slave Law, which allowed federal authorities to cross state lines and kidnap any person of color suspected of being a fugitive.
The church was built in the amphitheater-style to accommodate the crowds who came to hear him. People flocked from Manhattan in such large numbers that the Fulton Ferry was reportedly nicknamed “Beecher’s Boats.” During the crisis of Bleeding Kansas, a conflict over whether Kansas would be a free state or a slave state, it is alleged that Beecher sent cases of rifles, also known as, “Beecher’s Bibles.”
Under Beecher’s direction, Plymouth Church gained a national reputation as a bastion of abolitionism. Beecher’s reputation was built, in part, on the number of successful fundraisers he held to emancipate enslaved girls and young women. These were conducted as“auctions” reminiscent of slave auctions, which whipped up frenzied outrage and generated significant donations. The press often presented these activities as Beecher’s patriarchal gift, but careful research shows that a number of these women were often actively involved in their own emancipation.
The most well-known auction was for a 9-year-old girl named Pinky, who had escaped from Alabama. There were 3,000 people in the crowd that day in 1860. Beecher managed to collect $900 and a gold ring during Pinky's "auction." He placed the ring on the girl's finger, proclaiming her wedded to freedom. Sixty-seven years later, Pinky returned as a well-educated woman and returned the ring Beecher had given her.
Plymouth Church was also an important station on the Underground Railroad. Slaves hid in the tunnels of the basement sanctuary on their way to freedom. So many people came through here, the church became known as the "Grand Central Depot" of the Underground Railroad.
In 1863, a group from Plymouth Church took a voyage to Europe and the Holy Land. A young journalist joined them. He was none other than Mark Twain. His satiric book about the trip, "The Innocents Abroad," became his best-selling work ever.
Plymouth Church also hosted Abraham Lincoln as a speaker. There is now a plaque at the pew where Lincoln sat during services. However, there was such high demand for Lincoln's upcoming lecture that it was moved to the Cooper Union college. There he gave his famous anti-slavery speech, and eight months later he was elected president.
Many other historical heavyweights have spoken at Plymouth Church over the years, including Clara Barton (who founded The Red Cross), Charles Dickens, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King gave a sermon on "The American Dream" here, which contained many of the messages in the "I Have a Dream" speech he gave at the Lincoln Memorial a few months later. More recently, Hilary Clinton was a guest speaker here. Today, Plymouth Church is still actively involved in social activism by supporting various anti-human-trafficking groups, a school in Africa, Habitat for Humanity, and Brooklyn anti-hunger initiatives.
Cover photo credit: @legendaryhistory via Instagram.