Monday, February 12, 2018

Freedom Village, Illinois was America’s first Negro town founded in the early 1820s. Renamed Lovejoy, it's now called Brooklyn, Illinois.

In the early 1820s, "Mother" Priscilla Baltimore and her husband John led a group of eleven families, composed of both fugitive and free blacks, to flee slavery in St. Louis, Missouri. They crossed the Mississippi River to the free state of Illinois, establishing a freedom village in the American Bottom, naming it Freedom.

"Mother" Baltimore was said to have purchased her freedom as an adult from her master, a Methodist minister, and saw to it that religious faith would be one of the guiding pillars of her new community. She also hoped the community would be a refuge for others fleeing slavery. She also bought the freedom of members of her family. Born in Kentucky, she tracked her white father to Missouri and bought her mother's freedom from him.
1940 Aerial Photo of Brooklyn, Illinois.
Shortly after forming their new settlement, the townspeople were visited by Bishop William Paul Quinn, a missionary minister for the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church. After meeting with the families in the Baltimore home, Bishop Quinn helped found the Brooklyn A.M.E. Church in 1825. In addition to its public role as the community's church, Brooklyn A.M.E, later renamed in 1839 to Quinn Chapel A.M.E. Church, became part of a network of A.M.E. Churches that formed the Underground Railroad in Illinois. Tunnels still exist under the building that at one point secreted fugitive slaves.
Quinn Chapel A.M.E. Church, Brooklyn, Illinois.
The location of Brooklyn on the Mississippi River across from St. Louis, Missouri, helped its residents to become financially independent, providing opportunities for brick masons, carpenters, coopers, and boatmen. Nonetheless, the economic activities of blacks in Illinois were restricted by the Illinois Black Codes, enacted when the state joined the Union in 1818. These laws restricted the occupations blacks could pursue, virtually eliminated their civil rights, and controlled the entry of new blacks into the state. Aiding runaway slaves was a felony under the law, and authorities could expel any black who could not maintain an income.  
"Mother" Priscilla Baltimore Headstones.
In 1837, five white abolitionists platted the land and created an unincorporated, nearly all-black town. Thomas Osburn was one of them, documented as having lived in the area for decades. Priscilla Baltimore built a house on his former land, which she occupied from 1851-1872. In the 1840s and 1850s, the black population of the village was about 200. The white settlers dominated the town politically since blacks in Illinois were not allowed to vote. Still, it wasn't until 1886 that black voters, as the majority of the local electorate, regained political control of the town. 

Regional capital investment largely bypassed Brooklyn in the competing East St. Louis, Illinois, which gained the all-important railroad connection. Other white-majority towns also benefited by being part of the network of investment. "Almost none of the all-Black towns obtained a railroad." The small village soon became all black.

In 1891, then-Mayor Evans dedicated the town's new post office named Lovejoy (after the abolitionist Elijah P. Lovejoy, who had been assassinated in Alton, Illinois, in 1837). The later high school was also named after him. Black autonomy did not automatically yield unity in the village. Tensions ran high with class and color conflicts by the early decades of the twentieth century and evidence of political corruption. In addition, with the growth in the number of young, single male workers attracted to industrial jobs, the demographics changed, and family life in the village declined.

Archeological and Historical Research
A state archeological survey was required before construction of the Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge between St. Louis and Illinois, which would require realignment of part of Rte. 3 near the village. In 2002, work revealed extensive prehistoric artifacts, so many that the researchers named the site "Janey B. Goode" after the popular Chuck Berry song, "Johnny B. Goode." This site lies within Brooklyn's incorporated limits but just east of the historical residential part of town. It lies along the southern margin of the Horseshoe Lake meander just north of the East St. Louis Mound Group of earthworks. By the end of the 2007 field season, the team had excavated 7,000 prehistoric features, making this one of the largest sites ever excavated in the U.S.A. Most of these features are associated with the Late Woodland Patrick phase and early Terminal Late Woodland Lloyd phase, approximately from 600 AD to 1200 AD. They suggest a more complex and dense indigenous community than researchers had known lived in the area.

In association with its work, the Illinois State Archaeological Survey (ISAS) (formerly ITARP), a joint project of the state and the University of Illinois, conducted outreach with the village of Brooklyn, volunteering to survey some of the areas associated with its early 19th-century history. A team of archaeologists led by Dr. Joseph Galloy found evidence of early Negro occupation from 1830 to 1850, as well as material in other areas from 1850 to 1870. This discovery suggests that the remains of Mother Baltimore's Freedom Village survive beneath the surface in Upper Brooklyn. It also means that artifacts and other evidence of the town's founding may be revealed if additional excavations are conducted there. This would enhance the town's historical significance and research potential.

Since the turn of the 21st century, residents have rallied around new work related to documentation of the village's rich historical past. They have worked to collect oral histories and personal accounts of the town. In 2007, residents founded the Historical Society Of Brooklyn, Illinois. The historical society, together with the ISAS' Drs. Joseph Galloy, Thomas Emerson, Miranda Yancey, Dr. Chris Fennell of the University of Illinois, and the Illinois State Museum are working to preserve the history of Brooklyn.

ISAS also helped the historical society to review documents to locate "Mother" Priscilla Baltimore's unmarked grave at Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis. In September 2010, the Brooklyn Historical Society installed a gravestone in her honor at the cemetery. In addition, ISAS will assist the village in surveying the Brooklyn cemetery to detect gravesites and try to document the history.

Surveys in 2008 revealed that "the archaeological record of Brooklyn lies intact beneath the extensive open spaces of current-day residential parcels." In the summer of 2009, an archaeological field study began to excavate Mother Priscilla Baltimore's freedom village. The results of this collaborative project are expected to yield material that will aid the town in gaining designation for a historic district to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Historical Society of Brooklyn and its collaborators are seeking national designation for three particularly significant sites: the late prehistoric Janey B. Goode archaeological site, identified as 11S1232; Brooklyn's historic cemetery, identified as 11S1233; and Quinn Chapel A.M.E. Church. Built in 1836, Quinn Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church was the first of that newly formed, independent black denomination to be built west of the Appalachian Mountains and the first in Illinois. The A.M.E. Church was founded as a denomination by free blacks in Philadelphia and its region in 1816. 

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D. 

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