Brooklyn, Ill., is a small, predominantly African-American town, just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis.
What little revenue the town brings in comes mostly from strip clubs. But there’s more to Brooklyn than that.
Archaeologists from the Illinois State Archaeological Survey have been digging for evidence of Brooklyn’s pre-Civil-War past, trying to solve some of the mysteries about its origins.
Like Alton, its neighbor about 20 miles upriver, Brooklyn appears to have played a role in the Underground Railroad ― the secret network of routes and safe houses that African Americans used to escape from slavery.
But there are lingering questions about Brooklyn’s early days, and what life was really like for the first African Americans to settle there.
Oral tradition tells one story; written records, another. State archaeologists are hoping they can help resolve some of the apparent contradictions ― and get Brooklyn listed on the National Register of Historic Places for the town's importance in African American history.
The most recent dig was at the corner of 6th and Madison Streets. The archaeologists were looking for evidence of the simple, wood-frame house that stood there in the mid-1800s. It belonged to Priscilla Baltimore, a former slave, who came to what is now Brooklyn and who may have founded one of the first free black communities in the United States.
You can listen to her story, here.
Read on for more about what we know ― and don’t know ― about Brooklyn, and why it’s so difficult to find out the truth.
What does the oral history say?
The story goes that in 1829, a woman named Priscilla Baltimore led 11 African American families from Missouri, a slave state, to Illinois where slavery was illegal.
Joseph Galloy, who led the archaeological research in Brooklyn for the Illinois State Archaeological Survey, put it this way: “The oral history states that Priscilla Baltimore, a former slave, came to the area of Brooklyn and founded a freedom village, [which is] basically a community where the residents could determine their own destiny."
If that 1829 date is correct, it would make Brooklyn one of the earliest free black settlements to have survived to the present day.
Even though slavery was technically illegal in Illinois at that time, the state had “black codes” that restricted the lives of African Americans. If there was a freedom village in Brooklyn, it would likely have had to be clandestine, because anyone there who had escaped slavery would have lived under the threat of being recaptured.
Some people still believe that there is a tunnel running from somewhere in St. Louis all the way to the basement of Quinn Chapel A.M.E. Church in Brooklyn. The tunnel would have been an Underground Railroad escape route for African Americans fleeing slavery. You can listen to what Quinn Chapel’s secretary George McShan has to say about that bit of lore, below.
What does the written record say?
We know that Priscilla Baltimore lived an extraordinary life; written documentation bears that out.
She was born in Bourbon County, Kentucky, in 1801, the child of a white slave owner and one of his slaves.
Her father sold her into slavery at age 10. She was eventually bought by a Methodist missionary who ultimately allowed her to buy her own freedom which, according to newspaper accounts, took seven years.
Archaeologist Miranda Yancey-Bailey did most of the historical research for the recent archaeological dig in Brooklyn. She said once Baltimore was able to buy her way out of slavery, she went looking for her father who, by that time, had moved from Kentucky to southern Missouri. “She tracked him down and purchased her mother’s freedom,” Yancey-Bailey said. “From her father.”
Baltimore also helped found the A.M.E. church in Brooklyn, with the help of the well-known circuit-riding missionary, William Paul Quinn, for whom the Brooklyn chapel is named. She also helped found St. Paul’s A.M.E. church in St. Louis.
Yancey-Bailey’s research shows Priscilla, also known as “Mother” Baltimore, was clearly an influential figure with connections to government officials and church leaders. When she died in 1882, the St. Louis Daily Globe-Democrat published two articles about her ― a very unusual thing for a black woman at that time.
But for all that we know for certain, Yancey-Bailey said she hasn’t been able to find any documentary evidence of the Brooklyn freedom village or of Priscilla Baltimore’s role in it.
In fact, written records show Baltimore lived in St. Louis until the late 1830s. Yancey-Bailey said the first documentation she could find of Baltimore’s presence in the area of Brooklyn dates to 1839 ― ten years after she is said to have founded the freedom village.
Thomas Osburn, a white farmer, owned the land where Priscilla Baltimore and those first 11 African American families are said to have settled. According to Yancey-Bailey, Osburn had been living there for decades. He formally platted Brooklyn in 1837, along with four other white landowners.
After slavery was abolished, Brooklyn voted to officially incorporate. That was in 1873. It has remained a majority-black town ever since.
Why don’t the written and oral records match up, and which one is right?
According to historian Cheryl Janifer-Laroche, when it comes to understanding African American life under slavery, official documents don’t tell the whole story.
LaRoche, who has written about the Underground Railroad and free black communities such as the one in Brooklyn, puts her trust in the stories communities tell about themselves.
“If the oral record says that Priscilla Baltimore comes and starts this freedom village in ‘29, believe it,” LaRoche said. “She may go back to Missouri. She may move back and forth between places. She may start it and go home. But if the narrative says she led these families there, believe it.”
LaRoche said some of the details of any oral history may turn out to be wrong. But she maintains that many historians are too quick to dismiss such accounts altogether.
“History does not like ambiguity,” LaRoche said.
She believes archaeology can help fill in the gaps between the oral history and written record. “But the thing that dooms black history and dooms Underground Railroad history is that when evidence is not found using the conventional methods ― which are already skewed against this history to begin with ― we then we either dismiss or write out this history. We get rid of this oral history. And that’s a mistake,” LaRoche said.
Follow Véronique LaCapra on Twitter: @KWMUScience