Prospect Park, known as Brooklyn’s Backyard, has received a prestigious grant to “ReImagine” the Lefferts Historic House to be more inclusive. Park leadership is embracing a dark legacy of displaced Lenapehoking Native Americans, whose ancestral lands the park’s museum was built on, and the Lefferts family’s enslavement of Africans in the 18th century.
“In a time when history is being censored or selectively retold, Borough President Reynoso believes in what it means to know our true histories. This effort to reimagine the Lefferts Historic House Museum is about owning up to Brooklyn’s past,” said Brooklyn Borough President (BP) Antonio Reynoso’s office.
The museum is a landmarked Dutch farmhouse owned by the Lefferts family in old Flatbush in the 1700s. The farmhouse was originally on Flatbush Avenue near Maple Street, but was moved in 1917 to its current site in the park. The Lefferts were one of Kings County’s largest slave owning families, which is why you can see the Lefferts name on street signs and subway stations, said the BP office.
Maria Carrasco, vice president of public programs at Prospect Park Alliance, said that the move was during a time of “nostalgia” for Dutch colonial architecture and heritage. Carrasco hopes to use the museum as a “vessel” to display how marginalized communities were treated in the 1700s and explore their historic contributions to today’s society.
“Right before COVID, we knew it would be closed for at least a year or two for restorations. That was an opportunity for us to reimagine Lefferts,” said Carrasco. “To shift our focus from the colonizers’ point of view to that of the Africans enslaved by the Lefferts family as well as the indigenous peoples whose ancestral land we stand on and was never ceded. That also came about because of what was happening with Black Lives Matter.”
To date, the Alliance has identified the names of 25 enslaved Black people at the site between 1783 and 1827. The Lefferts family inherited some people, while some were born at the house and others were bought. According to available historical documents, these people rebuilt the Lefferts home after the Battle of Brooklyn during the Revolutionary War and ran the farm.
Of the known 25, the documents indicate that a Black man named Isaac was one who escaped. He was sold by Jacob Bergen in Red Hook to John Lefferts for $250 in 1818. Isaac managed to plot an escape three months later for himself, his wife, Betsey, and her three sons, who were enslaved at a farm across the street. It’s not known what happened to him afterward, said Carrasco.
“People still today will argue with me that there was no slavery in the North and that there wasn’t slavery in Brooklyn, or that slavery was kinder here, which it was not,” said Carrasco. “People were just as brutal here and you’re still enslaving someone. It doesn’t matter how nice you are. It’s still cruel. I definitely want to change that narrative.”
The BP’s office added that too few people understand the violent history of how the Lenape were forced off their ancestral land before it became Brooklyn, first by European colonizers and later by the US government.
Carrasco noted that since most of the old town and village of Flatbush is in Prospect Park, it’s likely that enslaved people at the Lefferts House could be buried at the nearby Flatbush African Burial Ground discovered over two decades ago at an abandoned lot at the intersection of Church and Bedford Avenues in what is now a predominantly Black and Caribbean neighborhood.
Prospect Park Alliance President Morgan Monaco, the first Black woman to hold the position, said that the reImagine Lefferts initiative is a critical step for the Alliance. She is greatly appreciative of the Mellon Foundation for recognizing the importance of the work.
“This project is an important step of many to help to heal deep-seeded wounds from our nation’s past, and help anchor the narratives of those who have traditionally been silenced,” said Monaco in a statement. “The work we are undertaking at the museum would not be possible without those who came before us, and we look forward to partnering with and supporting the many civic leaders and organizations who have led the way in the Brooklyn community over the past many years.”
The park was awarded the $275,000 Humanities in Place grant from the Mellon Foundation. It will be used to fund programming at the park’s museum that recognizes its role as a site of dispossession and enslavement. The Alliance is currently restoring the more than 200-year-old building with $2.5 million in funding from the Brooklyn Delegation of the City Council. When the museum reopens this summer, the plan is to highlight the legacies of these lost Brooklyn souls and create open dialogues around race, colonization, and human rights.
Additionally, the programming will include the creation of a Juneteenth Way, and feature works from renowned Black photographers, as well as Black and indigenous poets.
There is also a community conversation about the museum’s history open to the public on Saturday, Feb. 11, at the Prospect Park Boathouse. RSVP for free at prospectpark.org/reimagine-lefferts-conversation.
Ariama C. Long is a Report for America corps member and writes about politics for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting: https://bit.ly/amnews1
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