New Monument Commemorates Metro East Community’s History As First Incorporated Black Town
Editor’s note: This story was originally published by the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.
BROOKLYN — In the country’s oldest incorporated Black town, there aren’t any monuments celebrating the town’s rich history.
Like other predominantly Black towns that are under-resourced in the metro-east, there are clusters of vacant lots, abandoned homes and pothole-ridden streets. It’s easy to overlook Brooklyn, a population of less than 500 residents that was founded as a safe haven for enslaved people in the 1800s.
A local group wants to highlight the town’s often hidden history.
The Historical Society of Brooklyn, Illinois is hoping a new monument will bring more awareness to the village’s founding and its history.
“Our history is Priscilla Baltimore,” Ronnie Steele, the treasurer for the society, said. “We call her the mother of Brooklyn because she led 11 families, sold 11 families’ land, and they started the little town. This is a continuation of what we’re trying to do. Most of the historical buildings in Brooklyn are gone, and we need some kind of historical preservation to get any kind of grant funding, to do some of our projects.”
The monument honoring Brooklyn’s founding will be unveiled during a ceremony on Saturday. The historical society hopes that the monument will be the signage needed for the village to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
But, for now, the group is mainly hoping the monument, along with Saturday’s event, will inform more people about the town’s history.
“It’s commemorating Brooklyn,” Steele, 63, said about the monument. “It tells what we went through and how we’re the first Black incorporated town. We may not be the first Black town, but we’re the first incorporated town, and that means a lot to us [Fort Mose, Florida, founded in 1783, was the first Black settlement]. None of our names are on it, but it just tells our story. It tells Brooklyn’s story.”
In the 1820s, Priscilla Baltimore, an abolitionist and former slave, led 11 families, both free and enslaved, on a journey from St. Louis to Brooklyn, which was founded as Freedom Village. Baltimore, known as “Mother Baltimore”, wanted the settlement to be a refuge for former and escaped slaves who were looking for more economic opportunity. The town was officially incorporated in 1873.
Roberta Rogers, president of the historical society, said she wasn’t aware of the village’s heritage until 2007, when she founded the society with Steele.
“That was the year that my mother passed,” Rogers, 62, said. “I was going through her belongings and found this commemorative book. Those were books that the churches in Brooklyn used to raise funds for their annual celebrations, and it would have ads from different businesses in the area. This particular book was from Quinn Chapel Church. In there, it was this little narrative at the front and it said Quinn Chapel in Brooklyn was founded by Priscilla Baltimore who led 11 families, some free, some enslaved, to Illinois, something to that effect. I’d never heard that story before.”
Reading the story of her hometown is what encouraged her to start the historical society. Since then, the group has worked simply to educate others of the town’s founding via social media or its website.
For the past decade, the group has tried to raise the nearly $7,000 needed to acquire the monument, which is one of the major projects. The historical society, which is composed of 10 people, also hopes to have its own location in the future.
“(It’s a) small town, people are hesitant, most of the people in that town are on welfare,” Ronnie Steele, who now lives in St. Louis, said about the time it took to acquire the monument. “Most of the people that had good jobs moved away or they died and their kids or grandkids decided to move elsewhere. We persevered.”
A stop on the underground railroad
Saturday’s event will start at 11 a.m. with a visit to Mother Baltimore’s gravesite at Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis and end with a question-and-answer session at Brooklyn Park at 1:45 p.m. The dedication ceremony will begin at 12 p.m. at Quinn Chapel A.M.E Church, where the monument is located.
The founding of the church is directly tied to the founding of Brooklyn, which is why the monument is located there. Mother Baltimore and Rev. William Paul Quinn, a circuit missionary who traveled from Philadelphia to Brooklyn, founded Brooklyn A.M.E Church in 1825 as the first meeting space for Black people in the area. Baltimore wanted to form a religion-based town. The church was later renamed to Quinn Chapel A.M.E Church in 1839.
Along with being a social setting for Black people in the town, the original church was also a stop on the Underground Railroad and an essential aspect of the town’s anti-slavery attitude.
“At one time it was called Freedom Village because the slaves were freer there in Brooklyn than they were in St. Louis,” George J. McShan, the church’s current secretary, said. “It was in certain places in St. Louis, in the county, where they went because Priscilla Baltimore and Elder Quinn patrolled the Mississippi River because at one time they were patrolling that riverfront out there to catch runaway slaves and so when they came over they hid underneath the church there in Brooklyn until they could go on. Some of them went on to Alton and some of them stayed in Brooklyn.”
McShan, 87, has been a member of the church since the 1940s. He’s also a historian of the church who started writing down facts about it after learning from older members. One such member was Anthony Speed, the first Black deputy sheriff in St. Clair County.
“Mr. Speed, he was there when I was there as a child,” McShan said. “….. You can see that he was there during the slavery time, and he was aware of a lot of things going on in the town even before I was born, so he used to talk about them. When I got a little older, I started writing down a lot of the information that he would give. Blacks did not write down a whole lot of things. It was all voice, person to person. A lot of things they remembered, I wrote it down as far as the history of the church.”
The Historical Society of Brooklyn, Illinois often uses McShan as a source for their research.
For Roberta Rogers, continuing to preserve the history of Brooklyn is honoring her promise to older people who live and work in the town, like McShan, that Brooklyn’s story won’t be forgotten. Rogers, whose family came to Brooklyn in 1910, currently lives in Texas. She moved there in 1978. But that isn’t stopping her from telling Brooklyn’s history.
“Brooklyn was like a beacon of hope for those who desired to be the architect of their own destinies,” she said.
She recalls stories like that of David Wyatt, a well-respected Black teacher in Brooklyn. He was lynched in Belleville in 1903 after shooting a superintendent who refused to renew Wyatt’s teaching license due to allegations of him abusing his students.
“...They lynched him and mutilated his body so that there was nothing left to bury,” Rogers said. “Usually what they would do when they would lynch Blacks back then was tie their backs onto the horses and drag them through the town. They didn’t come to Brooklyn to do that.”
She added: “We had two churches, Antioch and Quinn Chapel, where they would hide escaped slaves. The whole town was anti-slavery. They stuck together in protecting escaped slaves, providing shelter, food, clothing, whatever, providing safe passages up to Jacksonville. Brooklyn was fierce when it came to protecting those who were enslaved, and nobody came and messed with them either.”
Rogers hopes people remember that spirit of Brooklyn on Saturday.
“(I want them to know) the resilience and the tenacity of the people, of the ancestors that founded that town and have kept it going. If they can just remember the ancestors and their spirit, that would be enough for me.”
Brooklyn Mayor Vera Glasper-Banks hopes the event will make Brooklyn less of an afterthought.
“People would love for us to pack our bags and move,” Mayor Glasper-Banks, 75, said. “This is home for us. I live here. We live here. As long as I can find a way, I would love to see Brooklyn stay Brooklyn. I want it to be a town that you want to be in as opposed to a nice town you want to be from.”
DeAsia Paige is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.