We Call It Freedom Village: Brooklyn, Illinois’s Radical Tactics of Black Place-Making
This is an excerpt from Alicia Olushola Ajayi’s larger thesis portfolio titled “We Call It Freedom Village: Brooklyn, Illinois’ Radical Tactics of Black Place-making.” It is a part of the Class of 2020’s graduate thesis presentation “Statements from Isolation.”
Brooklyn, Illinois, sits directly across from St. Louis, Missouri, on the east bank of the Mississippi River. Brooklyn, a small commuter town with nearly six hundred residents, the majority of whom are Black, boasts the town motto “Founded by Chance, Sustained by Courage.” Local oral histories claim that in 1829, eleven Black families led by Priscilla “Mother” Baltimore, a free Black woman, left Missouri and crossed the mighty Mississippi into Illinois. The wild river served as the state border between Missouri, a slave state, and Illinois, a free state. Some members were fleeing from their captors and some had already secured freedom through manumission, a legal process enslaved persons used to obtain freedom. Once on the free soil of Illinois, the group settled in a secluded wooded area near the river in what scholars and local historians call a “freedom village.” Notably, Brooklyn’s location, discrete yet with optimal proximity to the state border, allowed for an effective safe haven for runaway Blacks on the Underground Railroad—a complex and vast network of routes and people that secretly helped enslaved people escape the American South. Over the next forty years, the town developed into an organized “biracial pseudo” town with spatial, social, economic, and political infrastructures that Blacks were actively helping to create. As Black property ownership increased in Brooklyn, so did the Black collective power. By 1873, Brooklyn became the first Black incorporated village in the United States, which cemented its legal standing and was recognized by the state of Illinois. In other words, Brooklyn took the next daring step in self-determination and decided to be seen.
I learned about Brooklyn, nearly two centuries after its founding, in my last year as a graduate architecture student at Washington University in St. Louis in 2014. A teacher pointed me towards the small town after I expressed interest in conceiving a spatial practice rooted in my identity as a Black woman. My education rarely addressed architectural thought beyond the European canons and the spatial techniques often used to threaten and perpetuate risks in Black and brown communities. Indeed, historical disenfranchisement reflected in spatial practices was a powerful strategy that needed to be acted against. A few examples of such bias are segratory practices such as state-level-initiated “white flight” movements across the United States. Or an industry that privileges the production of form-driven structures only meant for the elite. It was clear to me that architecture has a hand in creating spaces that do not serve Blacks. However, if architecture could be biased against Blacks, then it could be reversed and used to benefit Blacks as well. As a Black student, struggling to understand my purpose in the architecture world, where whiteness was privileged, the need to define and determine my perception of space felt imperative. My intention became to seek new spatial practices that could benefit Black communities, via Black spaces.
My intial interests in Brooklyn, Illinois, rested on the unusual—or what I percieved to be unusual—optics of a Black town being founded almost four decades prior to the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment (1865), which abolished slavery. However, I quickly learned that Black town-building was an important tactic deployed during the Black protonationalist movement that emerged in the nineteenth century and lasted well into the Jim Crow era (1877–1950s). In the one and only book dedicated to Brooklyn, Illinois, historian Sundiata Keita Cha-Jua refers to early Black settlements founded by free and runaway Blacks as “freedom villages.” Brooklyn’s claim to being the first Black incorporated town and the belief that Brooklyn was actually called Freedom Village at one point indicated a spatial claim that was a point of pride for the local community at present. By the time I learned of Brooklyn, local efforts to uncover more of Brooklyn’s history by community members of the Historic Society of Brooklyn, Illinois (HSBI) and scholars predominantly from the archaeologist and anthropology institutions in Illinois were already underway. Its denotation of being the first legal Black town meant something to Brooklyn’s future. In an effort to support this mission, my final graduate school project proposed Freedom Village Research institute (FVRi), a research institute that would house interdisciplinary research on Brooklyn and other Black town-building efforts during antebellum America. My previous work was limited to speculation about how architecture could foster a future productive relationship between place, history, and untapped scholarship. This research extends to the past to understand how the initial residents of Brooklyn exercise a consciousness of space in order to subvert, redefine, and become complicit with the concept of property.
Why is this important?
The intention of creating freedom villages before the Civil War, and Black towns generally after the Civil War, is an important area of study. The drive for this study places Black agency in a new context. Popular ideas of Black self-determination in the antebellum period are often reduced to single acts of courage from those who were willing to face incredible danger and escape on the Underground Railroad. While these narratives are heroic and deserve accolades, focusing on them also diminishes other tactics by Blacks to achieve freedom. Even the Underground Railroad has fallen victim to the “national imagination . . . [which is a] well-known yet poorly understood icon of American lore.” Due to this omission of an important American historical narrative, Black self-determination efforts that date prior to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s have been silenced.
While research of black town-building is largely unexplored by design fields such as architecture and urban planning, the study of Black towns has intrigued Black intellectuals from other disciplines for some time. Sociologists Mozell C. Hill and Thelma Ackiss wrote Social Forces: A Frame of Reference for the Study of Negro Society (1943), which linked the serparatist approach of Black communities to the significantly benefited upward mobility of Blacks. In their study on “Negro society” in Boley, Oklahoma, their thesis stated “an all-Negro group, or one which is not under the direct influence of the dominant culture, would exhibit some significant differences in class motivation, structure, and characteristics.” Hill continued the research with his seminal text The All-Negro Communities of Oklahoma: The Natural History of a Social Movement (1946), becoming “the premier scholar of Black town studies” according to Cha-Jua. Towards the end of the 1970s, Norman L. Crockett used a historical approach in examining the contradiction in the quest to be Black and American through the efforts of “black-town ideology.” Kenneth Marvin Hamilton takes a different approach from his predecessors in Black Towns and Profit: Promotion and Development in the Trans-Appalachian West, 1877–1915 (1991). Hamilton argues that Black town-building had little to do with racial concerns, and the entrepreneurial desire of the town “developers” was the driving force.
In the last few decades, scholarly work on Black town-building has shifted to uncovering new nodes of study. Cheryl Janifer LaRoche, author of Free Black Communities and The Underground Railroad: Geographies of Resistance (2014), looks at the institution building of churches strategically placed and operated in specific geographies to subvert the law and support the efforts of emancipation for Blacks. LaRoche’s research calls out the Quinn Chapel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, founded in 1825 in Brooklyn and that still exists, as evidence that the settlement was very active in the Underground Railroad. Most recently, Dr. Andrea Roberts, an assistant professor of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning at Texas A&M University, creates a new paradigm of academic institutions and descendent community partnerships working together to preserve their history and create sustainable plans to create better futures. The Texas Freedom Colonies Project, led by Dr. Roberts, has gained considerable momentum and built a public database of over 550 “freedom colonies” to date. Through the lens of social justice, Dr. Roberts’s work not only looks to the past but also to the future, in supporting surviving Black towns through “preservation and protection from development threats” that many face today.
Despite scholarship that spans multiple disciplines and many decades, there are a few things that are still unknown. Firstly, the magnitude (quantity) of the freedom village network is unclear. In the 1960s, geographer Harold M. Rose conducted one of the first studies looking at the “phenomenon” of the Black town network and the regional spatial patterns they created. Crockett goes so far as to suggest that Black towns were “fairly typical” from 1865 to the early 1900s. Many Black town scholars suggest the number is far wider than official records indicate based on clues we as a nation are just now starting to understand. Beyond the numbers, the implications of this history and what it might instill in the present and future are still not widely understood. In a 1981 review of Crockett’s The Black Towns (1979), Lawrence H. Larsen erroneously interprets Crockett’s attempt to paint a full picture of the challenges Black towns faced participating in the same system as their white counterparts with different rules, saying that not only did Black towns not have “any appreciable impact of American urban life” but their town-building efforts were no different than their white counterparts’. He concludes that many of these towns did not last because “[h]uman greed quickly overshadowed idealistic considerations.” While the five case studies in Crockett’s study are Black towns established after the Reconstruction Era (1865–77), Larsen’s shortsighted views illustrate how Black town-building has been overlooked by mainstream academia. However, studies like LaRoche’s Geographies of Resistance (2014) challenge this notion. For instance, Brooklyn’s involvement in the Underground Railroad, like many other Black towns, suggests that it was a node in a spatial pattern that linked Black liberation and place-making as intentional acts motivated in part to subvert racial prejudices.
The intention of freedom village and Black town-building in general is important to question, and that is what drives this study.
Statement of Intent
This work attempts to give voice to those who were denied the right to engrave their stories into American history. I make this work for myself and the Black community in the United States. As the descendent of those who were enslaved, I am touched by this history, as is my future led by it. By activating history, I will attempt to define Blackness and Black identity as it relates to spatial practice. This effort is not meant to be biased-led by forefronting my identity, but it can’t be without bias either. In part, I do this work because of the link to my ancestral histories, making my background essential. I make this work to highlight the significant gaps in American history and how the contributions of Black town-building have been grossly overlooked by a multitude of studies including but not limited to architecture, urban planning, history, cultural studies, and law.
Due to this omission of an important American historical narrative, Black self-determination efforts that date prior to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s have been silenced. Most of these towns or settlements, if mentioned at all, are simply footnotes in thick history books, which begs the question “Who gets to write history?”
Furthermore, this work serves to push the boundaries of architectural scholarship and practice. While I am not undertaking an analysis of Brooklyn’s spatial makeup, this research points to a crucial intersection of race and spatial practices. This work is most concerned with the decision to claim space as a form of racial liberation before the Civil War. By engaging critical research (in history, law, geography, sociology, and architecture) that targets spatial practices of Blacks during the antebellum and postbellum periods, the foundational mechanics of systemic racism in America becomes more pronounced. Significant racial prejudices continue to negatively affect the Black communities today, making research that captures this time period a potential reparative tool. According to Dr. Nicole Blacklock, a humanities researcher, “(t)he reclaiming of our histories, storytelling and sharing testimonies” is the work of research justice.
Lastly, I am dedicating this work to the community of Brooklyn, Illinois. Current residents and the members of HSBI pay homage to those before them but also have hopes of leveraging their monumental place in history to potentially attract heritage tourism. In a recent interview, the current president of HSBI, Roberta Rogers, shared her wishes for Brooklyn:
I’d like to see people pay their taxes to retain their found property and one day, either build on it or put something memorable there so that, as time goes on, history will record that there were a people here.
My hope is that this work is of some use in making this dream a reality by bringing attention to Brooklyn, Illinois.