Waterfront workers were at the vanguard of the labor movement; the word “strike” has its origins in work stoppages on the London docks in 1768, when sailors “struck” the sails of ships to keep them in port. In New York, skilled shipworkers organized some of the earliest trade associations, and they agitated for steady wages and reduced working hours as far back as the 1820s. At the Brooklyn Navy Yard, federal regulations and political patronage often stifled workers’ ability to strike, but by the time of World War II, the massive workforce of the Yard was heavily unionized, and the good-paying jobs would form the backbone of Brooklyn’s middle class. In this virtual program, we will examine the long history of labor organizing at the Yard, how workers fought for their rights in the absence of formal unions, and how the unions ultimately proved powerless against changing politics and economics of the shipbuilding industry in New York.
The history and legacy of the Second World War can be seen all around us in Brooklyn. Once home to hundreds of factories, shipyards, and warehouses, and responsible for sending millions of service members off to the front lines, Brooklyn was arguably one of the most important communities in waging and winning the war. Using locations from communities across Brooklyn—including famous sites like the Brooklyn Navy Yard and Brooklyn Army Terminal, and lesser-known sites that help tell stories about labor, housing, and culture—as well as primary source documents and oral histories, this program will help illuminate Brooklynites’ experience of World War II.
The (Re)connecting Brooklyn’s History series brings the fascinating work of historians to an audience of students and educators through online presentations and resources for sustained engagement with local history topics.
Celebrate Valentine’s Day as we share some of our favorite love stories from history from the places that we work. We will share long-distance love letters from World War II, milestone weddings in Prospect Park, workplace romances at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and people who found their loves in public markets. We will share artifacts, newspaper clippings, oral histories, and more from various archives, and we invite participants to share their own love stories and family histories in this Zoom meeting.
Concrete is the world’s most ubiquitous building material, and many important milestones of its development took place in Brooklyn. In this virtual program, we will examine concrete’s history, production, and chemistry, then discuss some of the landmark structures that drove the development of steel-reinforced concrete in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. From Gowanus to DUMBO, Prospect Park to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, we will look at monumental buildings and small details designed by some renowned architects, including Cass Gilbert, Albert Kahn, and Calvert Vaux.
To mark the 80th anniversary since the attack on Pearl Harbor, this virtual program will examine the connections between the fleet in Hawaii in 1941 and the Brooklyn Navy Yard. We will look at the histories of the eight ships built at the Yard that were moored in Pearl Harbor that Sunday morning, including the battleships Arizona and Tennessee. We will also discuss the role the Yard played in salvaging the Pacific Fleet in the aftermath of the attack, as more than 1,000 skilled Brooklyn shipworkers volunteered to go to Hawaii to help rebuild.
On Thanksgiving, we’re looking back at an unsung hero of the holiday during World War II, a merchant ship called SS Great Republic. This ship helped execute the great turkey-lift of 1944, delivering turkey to nearly two million American soldiers fighting in Europe. As we’ll discover, delivering this meal stretched the military’s supply chain, and the New York Port of Embarkation, to its limits.
Celebrate Navy Day with a discussion of one of the least-known units of World War II, the Navy Armed Guard. Serving in the U-boat-infested waters of the Atlantic, these sailors served in small detachments aboard merchant ships manning the deck guns. This virtual program will be hosted from the Sunset Park waterfront, where many sailors departed from the docks of the Brooklyn Army Terminal and Bush Terminal, and where the largest Armed Guard Center in the country was located, the Second Battalion Naval Militia Armory that once stood on 1st Avenue and 52nd Street. We will discuss the creation and evolution of the service during World War II, listen to oral histories of Armed Guard sailors, and visit one of the few memorials to the sacrifices of these brave men.
Photo Credit: Official US Navy photograph, taken by Clarence F. Korker
At the dawn of the nineteenth century, the US Navy established six naval shipyards to build, repair, and outfit the fleet. From the “original six”—Boston, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Portsmouth, Norfolk, and Washington—the public shipyard system would expand over the next 150 years, peaking at 11 in 1943. Today, only four Naval Shipyards still exist, but as the other sites have been decommissioned over the past five decades, they have been repurposed as industrial parks, residential neighborhoods, container ports, and more. This virtual program will examine the history of these yards’ closure, the challenges and successes of their repurposing, and the future of the country’s active public shipyards.
Concrete may seem like an odd material for shipbuilding, but during World War I, severe shortages of steel led to this innovation. Devised by Norwegian immigrants the Fougner brothers, they built one of the first such ships in the US at their shipyard in Flushing, Queens. The technology reached its apex during World War II, when the US built over 100 ships and barges, and they were used as freighters, tankers, and even floating ice cream factories. Large-scale concrete shipbuilding is a thing of the past, but we will examine the fates of these wartime ships, and discuss many examples of concrete boatbuilding today.
Behind the gates of the Brooklyn Navy Yard lies a network of streets that are a mystery to most New Yorkers. Named for naval heroes, shipyard operations, and even a numbered grid, these streets trace the Yard’s history from the War of 1812 through World War II. While new attention has been given to how and whom we memorialize in our public places and streets, we will unpack the stories of the people behind these street names as we virtually walk through the history of the Yard.