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New Brooklyn Historical Society Exhibit Examines Slavery's Role in Borough

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The Brooklyn Historical Society has just undergone a multi-million-dollar renovation, and now, it's using its newly refurbished space to explore a dark chapter in the borough's history - the role played by slavery. NY1's Jeanine Ramirez filed the following report.

Back when Brooklyn was farmland, slaves worked the fields. It was slave labor that helped Brooklyn grow to become the third-largest city in the country. Now, a new exhibit at the Brooklyn Historical Society explores slavery in the borough and the movement to end it.

"What we've been able to do is really uncover some of the stories of people that have really not been highlighted in what is the more nationally known story of abolition," said Deborah Schwartz, president of the Brooklyn Historical Society.

The exhibit is called "Brooklyn Abolitionists: In Pursuit of Freedom." It starts with the American Revolution, highlights statistics on how one-third of Brooklynites were slaves in 1790, showcases well-known abolitionists like Henry Ward Beecher of Plymouth Church and lesser-known ones like James Pennington, and features leaders in Brooklyn's first free black communities.

"There's a very strong free black community in the town of Weeksville, but also in Williamsburg and it downtown Brooklyn, and people aren't really aware of that, the fact that there were free blacks who were building businesses, opening schools, having newspapers that were really able to give voice to this very strong sentiment and activity and strategic work about fighting slavery," Schwartz said.

This long-term exhibition is interactive. Visitors can operate their own slide shows and pull out documents to read through, and there's a map on the floor.

"I just love the way it's set up, and we've learned so much just in the short time we've been here," said Kathi McAvena, who visited the exhibit.

"We moved here actually three years ago from Ohio and are just fascinated on a daily basis of the historical significance that Brooklyn played in our history," said Dennis McAvena, who visited the exhibit.

Part of that history is one of just 28 existing copies of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, and a rope used in the draft riots months later, when white New Yorkers attacked black New Yorkers to protest being called up to fight in the Civil War.

The exhibition will be up through 2018.

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