Brooklyn's Bridge to the Past
Wednesday, March 7, 2001
Fred Laverpool led me down a set of rickety stairs, through a heavy red door and into a scene that would tug at anyone's heart. We were in the damp, cavernous basement of Brooklyn's Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church, used in the mid-1860s as a holding station for blacks fleeing slavery in the South.
The church's interior is paneled with mahogany and resplendent with 13 stained-glass windows designed by none other than Louis Comfort Tiffany. The church was founded in 1857, and the early leadership and congregation, although mostly white, staked out a position squarely on the side of racial progress. They sometimes provided a meeting space for outspoken abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman. And, according to recently discovered documents, they also sheltered escaped slaves in the tunnels deep below the building.
Suddenly caught in the darkness of this stop on the Underground Railroad, I froze, listening to my heart thump. Was that someone breathing in the corner? Whose heavy footsteps were shuffling above? Finally, the door creaked open, letting in a stream of light.
"That's how it felt for those slaves to be here," Laverpool explained solemnly. "They could taste freedom but not really have it." After holing up for weeks and sometimes longer in the basement, they emerged and helped transform surrounding Fort Greene, a residential area a few blocks east of downtown Brooklyn, into one of the first mixed-race communities in the United States. A century and a half later, Fort Greene remains a small but dynamic enclave of black arts and entrepreneurship.
Laverpool, a burly Brooklynite who speaks with the thick accent peculiar to this sprawling borough of New York, later ushered me on a tour of the neighborhood's quiet side streets, pointing out the poignant marks left by early black settlers.
Along Washington Walk, in front of a row of elegant brownstones, stand 19th-century wrought-iron fences adorned with ornate Adinkra symbols, originally designed by craftsmen in Ghana. Here and there are towering magnolia grandiflora, reminiscent of the arbors widely grown in the Southern towns the former slaves left behind. A bit farther afield, on Bergen Street, sit the simple wooden-framed houses of Weeksville, where freed blacks lived as long ago as the mid-1800s.
Over the years, Fort Greene remained a racially and socially diverse settlement that clung to its deep ethnic roots. Black novelist Richard Wright penned much of "Native Son," one of his most popular works, in the park that sprawls through the heart of the neighborhood, according to Laverpool. Jazz singer Betty Carter made her home here for decades and often let loose her smoky voice in the local clubs. Filmmaker Spike Lee ran riot in these streets as a kid, too, and his father still lives in a town house on Washington Walk.
I strolled around the corner along Lafayette Avenue. The fast-food and chain stores common across the United States were scattered about. I noticed as many whites as people of color. Clearly, new people are moving in, new chains. Would the neighborhood's unique character be smothered by gentrification and sprawl?
"That's exactly what we saw happening," Bilal Muhammad, an African American and lifelong Brooklynite, told me. He and fellow Brooklynite Chuko Lee had heard that I was interested in seeing what life in Fort Greene was like and agreed to show me around.
During the past decade, as high rents in Manhattan brought more newcomers into Fort Greene, Muhammad could feel the anonymity of Anywhere America gradually blanketing the neighborhood's solid ethnic foundation. With the coming of more affluent whites, the strong core of long-term black residents also faced losing its foothold in the neighborhood.
His response was to rally a group of local merchants who were committed to preserving the neighborhood's cultural heritage.
They were a diverse group: a Senegalese restaurateur who swore he served up the finest chicken stew this side of Dakar; an African American bookstore owner who sold works by Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and other black writers, and organized readings of their works; and about a dozen immigrants from Nigeria, Barbados and elsewhere who had opened boutiques featuring fashions they designed, often using inspirations from back home. They called themselves the Bogolan Association, a reference to bogolanfino, a type of intricately designed fabric or mudcloth from West Africa.