After nearly 12 years of leading tours at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, one of the most difficult questions we get – and almost always from young people – is this: Were there slaves here?
This question is vexing not just because of the complex and painful subject matter, but also because the historical record is incomplete. The result is usually an imprecise and unsatisfying answer. In short, yes, enslaved people were an integral part of life at the Brooklyn Navy Yard for the 60 years leading up to the Civil War, just as they were across Brooklyn and New York City.
This is an effort to unpack that complexity and get somewhere closer to the historical truth of the matter.
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Two hundred and thirteen years ago today, the Brooklyn Navy Yard was founded, the last of the six original shipyards established by the US Navy. Today we celebrate the yard’s history of shipbuilding and innovation, and its continued importance to the economy of Brooklyn as an industrial park, but it almost never existed. Its founding in 1801 was rife with controversy, and around it swirled one of the central political battles of the early American republic. Today the Navy is one of the cornerstones of American power – possessing 10 of the world’s 11 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and more than one-third of all the naval tonnage in the world, the US Navy is 3.5 times the size of its nearest competitors, China and Russia. But at the end of the 18th century, the American navy was small and, at times, a non-existent force. While it achieved some notable victories in the Revolutionary War over a far superior British adversary, by 1785, economic constraints forced the nascent republic to sell off the last of its warships.>> Continue reading