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.
Brooklyn was once part of Kings County, which had a larger concentration of enslaved people than any other county in New York State. At one time, Brooklyn’s slaveholding percentages even exceeded that of South Carolina. Still, a small but significant free black community lived in the areas now known as Dumbo and Vinegar Hill and worked tirelessly to change the racist perceptions of the country at a grassroots level.
Brooklyn’s anti-slavery pioneers—free African Americans—lived here from 1810 onwards. The community seized their own freedom by creating institutions that would be independent, safe, and free from racism in order to combat the legacy of slavery. Two brothers, Peter and Benjamin Croger, in particular, were at the center of this movement. The Croger brothers were listed in city directories as “preacher,” “cleric”, and “class leader.” They were among the pillars of the African American community.
In 1810, together with another leader of the free black community named Joseph Smith, they created a mutual aid society called the Brooklyn African Woolman Benevolent Society. The society was named after John Woolman, a Quaker anti-slavery activist. Woolman was a preacher who convinced many Quakers to free their slaves well before law enacted it.
Self-help societies were common in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They often gave African Americans access to health care as well as death and burial services. Self-help societies eventually spawned the growth of black-owned life insurance companies. The Brooklyn African Woolman Benevolent Society's mission was to provide its members with financial support, especially for widows and orphans.
The organization frequently worked with Manhattan’s New York African Society for Mutual Relief founded in 1808. Members of both organizations marched together in parades and celebratory processions in Manhattan and Brooklyn. These joint appearances represented a show of political solidarity, the creation of an anti-slavery network that crossed the East River, and the sharing of information and resources. The Brooklyn African Woolman Benevolent Society was also the site of the 1831 Anti–Colonization meeting, where black abolitionists rallied against efforts to send black communities to Africa, a popular idea in some white anti-slavery circles.
In 1815, Peter Croger continued his community-building efforts by establishing a private African school at his home on James Street (the street no longer exists), which later moved here. The school offered day and evening classes in the “common branches of education.” Croger’s school was vital to the education of black Brooklynites after the district school initially refused to accept students of color and kept them in a separate classroom once they did. Croger’s work underscored literacy as a form of liberation.
The work of the Croger brothers and Joseph Smith allowed the free black community to live their lives with determination, dignity, and respect in a society that did not perceive African Americans as equal citizens. They sought to empower people of color to emancipate their minds from the mental oppression of racism. The institutions they created challenged the racist perception that people of African descent were not capable or prepared to be equal citizens in the United States, and they established a powerful anti-slavery agenda for future generations of activists.
Cover photo credit: Brooklyn Historical Society