“It’s very spiritual for me to be . . . on these grounds where my ancestors walked and struggled. It’s amazing to be here on this tour,” Brooklyn native Michael Garrett said Saturday as he followed the wide-brimmed hats of New York City park rangers through Brooklyn Heights.
Though snow flanked the sidewalks and the temperature hovered above freezing, Garrett and 19 other New Yorkers considered themselves lucky to have gathered at the base of the Brooklyn Bridge. They, or the friends they accompanied, were selected from a lottery of over 100 applicants to attend the Department of Parks and Recreation’s Brooklyn and the Underground Railroad Walking Tour. This outing celebrated Black History Month by examining New York’s legacy of abolition.
With the Brooklyn Bridge looming above in its stretch to Manhattan, Chris Wood and Peter Bailey, of the parks department’s Urban Park Rangers program, invited their party to imagine the boroughs before they were united as one city—back to the turn of the 19th century when the western shore of Brooklyn was a ferry port. It was here that a Black community thrived as a center for abolitionism—it’s also where people fleeing slavery found refuge through the Underground Railroad.
Due to the city’s proximity to Canada, New York was a gateway to safety for those fleeing enslavement. And though slavery was prohibited in the state, runaways were still vulnerable to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. This federal law permitted runaways from slave states to be kidnapped back into slavery even if they were in free territory. The act intensified the threat facing the formerly enslaved and thus made the Underground Railroad—and its locations throughout Brooklyn—paramount for securing human life and liberty.
As rangers Wood and Bailey led the group up Everit Street and deeper into Brooklyn Heights, they guided their tour through time, pairing the places with history. They would be remiss, they noted, to omit the entirety of Brooklyn’s pertinent background—a background that includes chattel slavery. 65 percent of white Brooklyn families, they explained, had been slaveholders at the turn of the 19th century.
Outside a brick colonial house on Willow Street, Bailey told the story of James W.C. Pennington, a man who fled slavery and found refuge in New York. It was at this home that he worked as a coach driver for a Manhattan lawyer before becoming the first Black student at Yale and an internationally acclaimed minister and abolitionist.
Around the corner and down Orange Street, the rangers stopped across the street from Plymouth Church. It was from this pulpit that famed minister and abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher preached, and it was below these floorboards that escapees hid. It was also in these pews that Abraham Lincoln prayed, and it was through these doors that the most famed operant of the Underground Railroad walked: Harriet Tubman.
And it is this detail that bound the life of the 19th-century church with the 21st-century group of New Yorkers huddled along Orange Street. “Growing up, I had no idea who I was,” Garrett said. “I just started learning as I got older.” And by “who,” he means a descendant of Tubman’s. “I don’t know the words to express how I’m feeling, [being] able to walk on these grounds.”
When his friend Victory won the tour lottery, she knew she wanted to bring Garrett. “I had no idea about the history right here in Brooklyn where I live,” he said as they followed the rangers through his home borough and ancestral legacy. The group wound through Cadman Plaza to Juneteenth Grove where the tour concluded with stories of emancipation.
Over the course of two hours, the tour covered five locations in Brooklyn Heights and nearly a century of history. Many in the group experienced the same sentiment as Garrett—they never knew the historic fights for justice that occurred on their streets. And this, according to City Council member Ydanis A. Rodriguez, is a problem.
Last Thursday, the City Council’s Committee on Cultural Affairs, Libraries and International Intergroup Relations held a hearing to discuss Introduction 0293. This bill proposes establishing a task force to examine the feasibility of creating an official Freedom Trail that celebrates New York’s abolition and Underground Railroad locations. Though some critical places are marked—like some stops along the Urban Park Ranger’s walking tour—many go unnoticed. The Freedom Trail, as proposed by council member Rodriguez, the prime sponsor of the bill, would link the sites through uniform signage, official maps, and programming.
The hearing acknowledged the extensive efforts of the Landmarks Preservation Commission to create New York City and the Path to Freedom, a sweeping tour of New York’s abolitionist history. But this collection is virtual, and thus leaves the locations throughout the boroughs physically unrecognized.
Jacob Morris of the Harlem Historical Society and the New York City Freedom Trail Foundation testified on behalf of the bill and noted that many of these places—like the slave market on Wall Street or the landing dock on the Hudson River where Frederick Douglass escaped to freedom—no longer exist. And it is therefore all the more critical that they be recognized and remembered through signage. He also identified that bringing history to life through an official walking or bicycle tour would be a boon to the tourism and restaurant industries.
The bill awaits further approval, but if passed, would excavate and elevate these pivotal stories of New York’s legacy. Then tourists and New Yorkers alike—New Yorkers like Michael Garrett—could walk the streets and understand what their city is today by recognizing where their city has been.