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!)

Golden Venture Paper Sculptures Tell a Story for Today

Statue of Liberty, 1994, Papier-mâché, cardboard and colored markers, MOCA Collection

Fold: Golden Venture Paper Sculptures at the Museum of Chinese in America tells the story of some of the passengers on board the Golden Venture when it ran aground near Rockaway Beach Queens at 2:00am on June 6, 1993.  I remember the confusion in the initial TV, radio and newspaper reports – how many passengers (often referred to as “aliens” or “illegal aliens”), where they came from (“Asia”, “China”) what happened, why they were on the boat, how many died…   

Perhaps the best place to start your tour is in the smaller gallery across from the main exhibition space in which you’ll find the below sculpture and an eye-opening video edited by David Tan & Ya Yun Teng, that provides context for the exhibit and also ties it into today’s debates around immigration.  Made in 2017, the video features lawyers and residents of York, Pennsylvania, talking about not only their efforts to obtain justice for the Golden Venture passengers who were detained in the York County prison, but also about the actions taken over the last 20-odd years to restrict immigration to the U.S.   

Statue of Liberty atop the U.S. Capitol dome within Chinese city walls, 1994

In many ways, the story of the Golden Venture begins in 1989/90, when President George H. W. Bush, angry about the 1989 massacre at Tiananmen Square, issued directives and an Executive Order, which had the net effect of allowing Chinese nationals – even those here illegally – to stay in the US while their applications for permanent residency wended their way through the system. However, that opened the floodgates for smugglers (a/k/a snakeheads). 

Freestanding eagle looking straight ahead, 1994, Folded paper, papier-mâché, glue and colored marker, MOCA Collection

When the Golden Venture crashed, there were 286 migrants on board, mostly from Fujian Province, who had embarked on a 6-month ocean voyage that took them to Thailand, then to Kenya, then around  the Cape of Good Hope, and on to the U.S. Each passenger (and/or their families) had paid the equivalent of US$5,000 to smugglers, and agreed to work off the balance (US$30,000) mainly by laboring in restaurants and sweatshops. 

The Golden Venture  posed a problem for the U.S.: ten passengers died when they jumped off the ship in the Rockaways and tried to swim to shore.   There was a lot of media attention, and it gave the impression that the authorities did not have things under control.  The World Trade Center had been bombed a few months earlier. Anti-immigrant sentiment was starting to grow, and in the previous two years, a number of ships with passengers smuggled in from China had been apprehended in US waters.

Previously, foreigners in the US illegally were not imprisoned – they were required to report to US Immigration periodically, but were effectively at liberty until their cases were adjudicated.  In order to deter other smugglers, the Clinton administration took a hard line, detaining the Golden Venture passengers in various prisons across the country.  Speedy deportation hearings were held; about half the passengers were returned to China, and another 50 were sent to other countries.  A group of men were held in the York County Prison in Pennsylvania, where most of them stayed for 3 years and 8 months. The exhibit is about their experiences, as well as about the art they created.

Golden Venture bird cage, ca. 1994, Rolled paper, papier-mâché, cardboard, glue and colored marker, MOCA Collection

A grass roots group, People of the Golden Vision comprised of residents of York County and pro bono lawyers formed to help the detainees obtain better conditions and asylum; they organized letter writing campaigns, held vigils and fundraisers for over three years, keeping the plight of the detainees before the public.

In 1996, a small group of exceptionally artistically talented detainees were released and given a special visa for “aliens of extraordinary ability.”  In 1996, President Clinton paroled the remaining detainees. Today, 15 former detainees are in the US and still have no clear path to permanent legal residence, even though they work, pay taxes, and even own businesses. 

Large vessel with lid, ca. 1994, folded paper, papier-mâché, glue and colored marker, Courtesy of Jeff and Cindy Lobach

The exhibit features some 40 objects made collectively from papier-mâché (which the detainees fashioned from toilet paper, glue and water)  and from folded and rolled paper (mostly magazines and legal pads).  Over the course of their detention, the detainees made these works as gifts to the people who helped them, or to be sold at fundraisers to pay for their defense.

Many of the sculptures in the exhibit are quite elaborate, and certain images dominate:  eagles, peacocks, boats and bird cages.  Many, such as the pagodas, are also very large.

detail, Pagoda Tower with Eagles and Pineapple, 1994, Rolled, cut and folded paper, papier-mâché, cardboard, blue and colored marker, courtesy of Jeff and Cindy Lobach

While the sculptures are amazing, be sure to watch the videos in this room: one of the male detainees singing Amazing Grace in Chinese and thanking their supporters; another featuring the paper sculptures made by the detainees, who we don’t see (many didn’t want to appear on screen), but we hear them talking about their quest for freedom, the boredom of prison, learning to fold paper, and their yearning for a better life.

Lantern, 1994, Folded paper, thread, plastic beads, glue, colored marker

 

I also encourage you to visit MOCA’s core exhibit With a Single Step: Stories in the Making of America, which details the history of Chinese immigrants in America, beginning in 1784 when the Empress of China left New York City for Canton, to trade tradition Appalachian ginseng, furs, and Mexican silver for Chinese  luxury goods such as porcelains, teas and silks.

Soup Plate, custom-made in China for NYS Governor Dewitt Clinton, ca. 1805, courtesy of the NY Historical Society)

Through photos, paintings and political cartoons, you’ll learn about the Chinese Americans who contributed to the American economy and culture: the anonymous workers who built ships and constructed the railroads; the entertainers who worked on the “Chop Suey Circuit” (Anna May Wong being the most famous); and current icons such as YoYo Ma and Vera Wang.  Renowned Chinese American architect Maya Lin designed the Museum.  There are also, sadly, artifacts detailing the devastating effects of the Chinese Exclusionary Laws, and also the ways in which Chinese Americans were caricatured and discriminated against.

The Museum provides a relevant and much needed lens on the history of immigration in the U.S., reminding us how easy it is for government and citizens to demonize “the other,” and how harsh measures to restrict immigration damage not only the targeted groups, but all of us.

Fold: Golden Venture Paper Sculptures will be at the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) until March 25th, 2018.  But get there much sooner. 

MOCA is located at 215 Centre Street.