Brooklyn History Still Speaking to Us

Exhibition Title Image, Brooklyn Historical Society

When you’re next at The Brooklyn Historical Society, be sure to visit their exhibit Until Everyone Has It Made: Jackie Robinson’s Legacy  on the life of baseball great Jackie Robinson.  While he’s best known for desegregating this sport, throughout his life Robinson was thrust into the turmoil around racial integration.  Born in Cairo, Georgia in 1919, the following year his family moved to a white neighborhood in Pasadena, California where Robinson learned to stand up for himself.  While attending the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), this multi-talented athlete played on their basketball, football, track & field, as well as their baseball team, winning letters in all four of these sports.  In 1945, he played one season for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues. 

In the U.S., attitudes towards racial segregation had been changing, and Branch Rickey, the manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers understood that integrating baseball could be good, and signed Jackie Robinson to the team.  

Opening day at Ebbets Field, April 15, 1947, was historic – 26,600 fans, of which 14,000 were African Americans, turned out to see Robinson create history – until then, baseball had been segregated.  However, even though he could now play with white team mates, when they traveled in the South, Robinson couldn’t share facilities, hotels, or restaurants with them.

Wheaties ad featuring Jackie Robinson

But Robinson’s talent couldn’t be denied: in 1947 he won the Rookie of the Year Award, in 1949 he became the first black player to receive the National League Most Valuable Player Award, and he later earned other accolades, including six All Star awards. Like other sports stars, his image was used to sell various products, including Wheaties.

Display with magazine covers featuring Jackie Robinson

Testament to Robinson’s star power can also be found in the display which features several of magazine covers he graced, including such major publications as Time and Life.

Throughout his career, Jackie Robinson faced threats and insults, especially as he became more involved in the civil rights movement, touring the country with the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and supporting black businesses. But he never stopped.

His retirement from sports in 1957 led Jackie Robinson to business, where his achievements including becoming the first black Vice President of a major American company, Chock full O’Nuts, as well as helping to establish Freedom National Bank. 

Jackie Robinson passed away in 1972.  Despite all he achieved, there’s clearly more work to be done to fully honor his legacy.  A good place to start is with this exhibit, Until Everyone Has It Made: Jackie Robinson’s Legacy, which  will be up until June, 2018.

Circular Yacht in Prospect Park, Harper’s Weekly, July 27, 1878, Terrence J. Allen Prospect Park Collection, Brooklyn Public Library

While you’re at the BHS, stop by  The Means of a Ready Escape: Brooklyn’s Prospect Park  which celebrates the park’s 150th Anniversary.

Created by Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux, who also designed Manhattan’s Central Park, Prospect Park is often described as the park they wanted to build. 

Indian Villages, Paths, Ponds and Places in Kings County, 1946, C. W. Nenning and James A. Kelly, Brooklyn Historical Society

The exhibit begins by pointing out that Brooklyn was the home of various Native American tribes, especially the Lenape Indians, for over 9,000 years before the Europeans arrived in the 1600’s.  Be sure to take a look at this great map created in 1946 by then Brooklyn Borough Historian James A. Kelly.

First the Dutch, then the British began establishing farms and towns in the area.  The local inhabitants were caught up in the historic events of the Revolutionary War when, in 1776, the land that is now Prospect Park was the site of a major battle between the Continental Army and the British (including the Hessians who fought for them).

It wasn’t until 1861 that the first plan for what is now Prospect Park was created – however, the Civil War deterred it’s implementation.  After the war ended, in 1865 Olmstead and Vaux were invited to submit their design, which they created with the intent of giving park-goers the illusion that they were no longer in a city. 

Lawn Tennis in Prospect Park, Harper’s Weekly, July 11, 1885, Bob Lenine Collection

The exhibit highlights the ways in which use of this 585 acre tract has changed over the years.  The park now includes active uses such as an ice skating rink, a bandshell, baseball fields, as well as a zoo.

It also makes clear that you can’t separate the park from it’s urban surroundings, detailing how the park suffered during the NYC fiscal crisis in the 1970‘s and subsequent reductions in government funding. However, in 1980, Tupper Thomas was appointed the first administrator of the park, which led to its turnaround.  She also helmed the Prospect Park Alliance, created in 1987, which raises funds and other support for the park’s upkeep.  (This exhibit is presented in partnership with the Alliance)

The Means of a Ready Escape: Brooklyn’s Prospect Park will be at the Brooklyn Historical Society  through July 13, 2018. 

Every month, the BHS has a FREE Friday evening program.  They also offer – at a very low cost – some wonderful lectures, author talks and films on the history of Brooklyn, as well as current issues that affect us all, no matter where we live. I’ve been to several – in addition to learning something new, I’ve always enjoyed them.   Be sure to bookmark their Calendar  

The BHS is located at 128 Pierrepont Street in Brooklyn Heights.  (Go for a stroll along the Promenade or at Brooklyn Bridge Park when you’re done!)

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