Photo of the Week: Brooklyn Historical Society’s building

[Long Island Historical Society, Clinton and Pierrepont Streets], circa 1925, V1974.031.1; Long Island Historical Society photographs, v1974.031; Brooklyn Historical Society.

[Long Island Historical Society, Clinton and Pierrepont Streets], circa 1925, V1974.031.1; Long Island Historical Society photographs, v1974.031; Brooklyn Historical Society.

The photo of the week depicts Brooklyn Historical Society (formerly the Long Island Historical Society) around 1925. The land was purchased in 1868, but the Depression of 1873 stalled building plans until 1878 when enough money was amassed for construction. From December 1877 to February 1878, the Long Island Historical Society held a design competition for the new building location at 128 Pierrepont Street in Brooklyn, New York. George Browne Post was selected as the winner of the contest and his drawings were used as the basis for the construction of the building, which was completed in 1881.

The Queen Anne-style building features a truss system to support the ceiling of the central library, as well as terra cotta ornamentation on the façade of the building that includes busts of Christopher Columbus, Benjamin Franklin, William Shakespeare, Johannes Gutenberg, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Michelangelo Buonarrti. In 1991, the building was recognized as a National Historical Landmark. Brooklyn Historical Society has a newly processed collection that includes the submitted drawings for the competition (including 33 submitted by Post), which can be viewed here.

This photograph is by Ernest Tanare and was commissioned by the Long Island Historical Society. It is part of the Long Island Historical Society photographs collection that features photographs from 1925 to 1980 relating to the Society’s historic building, as well as activities of the Long Island Historical Society. A large portion of the photographs in this collection focus on the exterior, interior, and details of the building. To see more photographs from this collection be sure to check out this gallery.

Interested in seeing more photos from BHS’s collection? Visit our online image gallery, which includes a selection of our images. Interested in seeing even more historic Brooklyn images? Visit our Brooklyn Visual Heritage website here. To search BHS’s entire collection of images, archives, maps, and special collections visit BHS’s Othmer Library Wed-Sat, 1:00-5:00 p.m. library@brooklynhistory.org

 

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Ginger Adams Otis and The Vulcan Society

On Tuesday, July 7, Brooklyn Historical Society hosted a book talk with Ginger Adams Otis, author of Firefight: The Century-Long Battle to Integrate New York’s Bravest, a book about the traditions and infrastructure that shape the FDNY and the impressive men and women of color who have fought for institutional change. Otis was joined by three members of the Vulcan Society, an organization focused on increasing the number of minority groups represented in the FDNY. Members of the Vulcan Society included Regina Wilson, President of the Vulcan Society, Captain Paul Washington, former president of the Vulcan Society, and Lieutenant Michael Marshall, former Vice President of the Vulcan Society and current Fire Department Diversity Advocate.

Otis began the evening with a viewing of excerpts from Black Smoke, Black Skin, a documentary courtesy of  George T. Nierenberg that chronicles the history of black firefighters in the FDNY. The film depicts the work that the Vulcan Society and others have done to diversify the FDNY, and also how difficult this journey has been.

Ginger Adam Otis presented "Black Smoke, Black Skin, a documentary by director John J. Gilstrap.

Ginger Adam Otis presents Black Smoke, Black Skin, a documentary that captures the history of black firefighters in the FDNY.

A major turning point for integration of the FDNY came in 2014 with the settlement of United States and Vulcan Society vs. City of New York, a lawsuit brought against the FDNY claiming that the department used racially discriminatory hiring practices. The settlement resulted in immediate changes in the FDNY’s hiring practices by creating programs to promote the hiring of Black and Latino men and women, creating the position of Chief Diversity Officer, and awarding $98 million for victims of discrimination. Since then, the FDNY hired its most diverse class in history, with 17% Black and 24% Latino firefighters.

As Otis explained, the racial demographics spoke for themselves at the time of the filing of the lawsuit in 2002, and despite improvements since then, they remain uneven today. In one of the most diverse cities in the world where the black population is 26% of the general population, Black firefighters only make up a total 3% of the FDNY, even though that makes the current 570 black firefighters an all-time high.

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Otis explains the story of Wesley Williams, the FDNY’s first black firefighter.

 

Firefight focuses on the story of one of the first Black firefighters, Wesley Williams. While technically the third African American man hired by the FDNY, he was the first to get put on assignments and save people’s lives during fires. Williams also was one of the founding members of the Vulcan Society.

The Vulcan Society has received a lot of criticism from the FDNY and other organizations for one of their primary efforts: to change the fire academy’s examinations. Captain Paul Washington, a 27-year-veteran of the FDNY and former president of the Vulcan Society, explained that the test, a written exam, unfairly discriminates against minority applicants without truly testing their ability as firefighters. Washington said that “the fire department gives the test and on the written test, Blacks are on the bottom of the list, but that would be fine if the test tested for how good a firefighter you were going to be.”

Panelists noted that another problem with the assessment of fire academy students was the disparity in dismissals due to the medical examinations, where only 12% of white students were disqualified as opposed to the 30% of Black students. Lieutenant Michael Marshall, a 33-year veteran of the FDNY, shared his own experience with discrimination on the medical exam: The FDNY medical examiners disqualified him because of a minor discrepancy on his hearing exam, and it was only after an understanding medical officer realized it would not affect his abilities as a firefighter that he was given a passing grade.

Vulcan Society President, Regina Wilson, talks about the demographics of women in the FDNY.

Regina Wilson, President of the Vulcan Society explained that the staggering low percentage of women in the FDNY is a major problem in the appointment process as well. Share said that “We are still dealing with trying to get basic human rights. We still don’t have female bathrooms in some firehouses to this day.” Among the 10,628 NYC firefighters, only 46 are women. In an effort to promote change, Mayor de Blasio’s administration signed the FDNY Diversity Legislation on June 2 requiring the FDNY to track the ethnic and gender make up at each hiring stage. You can learn more about that decision in this Village Voice article.

The event concluded with follow-up questions from a lively audience about changes in the examinations administered by the fire academies. Vulcan Society President Wilson concluded that “change is hard for the fire department and we need to make sure we’re etched in stone. We’re going to stay where we are. We’re never going to move.”

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Photo of the Week: Cabinet Cards

[Portrait of Josie E. Burton with dog on prop balustrade], ca 1885, V1981.283.40; Burton family papers and photographs, ARC.217; Brooklyn Historical Society.

[Portrait of Josie E. Burton with dog on prop balustrade], ca 1885, V1981.283.40; Burton family papers and photographs, ARC.217; Brooklyn Historical Society.

The photo of the week is a cabinet card of Josie E. Burton and dog (possibly her pet), taken sometime around 1885. Cabinet cards are photographic prints mounted on a commercially printed cardstock, usually displaying the photographer or studio name. In a previous post, I discussed cartes de visite, which are closely related to cabinet cards. Cabinet cards were developed sometime in the 1860s and were much larger in size at around 4.25 in x 6.5 in (compared to 2.125 in x 3.5 in).

The size difference changed how portraits were viewed. Rather than being placed in albums, these larger photographs had to be displayed in sitting room cabinets (hence the name). In addition, the size allowed for more detailed and elaborate portraits that included an increased use of  props, like the dog in this photograph. The size also increased demand for the new art form of photo retouching that involved manipulating the negative prior to printing to remove blemishes or other imperfections.

This cabinet card comes from the Burton family papers and photographs collections which contains 189 photographs, including cabinet cards, cartes de visite, tintypes, and prints with portraits of the Burton Family spanning from 1870 to 1949. The Burton family lived in what is now considered the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. The family consisted of William W. Burton, his wife Virginia Baptista, and their five children: Percival, Virginia E., Minnie, Charles, and Sidney. Percival Burton later married Josie E. Newcombe. To see more photographs from this collection, check out this gallery.

Interested in seeing more photos from BHS’s collection? Visit our online image gallery, which includes a selection of our images. Interested in seeing even more historic Brooklyn images? Visit our Brooklyn Visual Heritage website here. To search BHS’s entire collection of images, archives, maps, and special collections visit BHS’s Othmer Library Wed-Sat, 1:00-5:00 p.m. library@brooklynhistory.org

 

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Photo of the Week: Daisies

[Children as daisies, from Sewing School Class], ca 1910, V1981.284.23; Emmanuel House lantern slide collection, ARC.136; Brooklyn Historical Society.

[Children as daisies, from Sewing School Class], ca 1910, V1981.284.23; Emmanuel House lantern slide collection, ARC.136; Brooklyn Historical Society.

The photo of the week depicts children as daisies from sewing school class around 1910. The Emmanuel House, located at 131 Steuben Street in the Clinton Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn was a civic center and place of outreach run by the Young Men’s League of the Emmanuel Baptist Church. The Emmanuel House offered Sunday school, Kindergarten, and recreational classes such as sewing school, scouts, and baseball to children of the church and neighborhood. Sometime in the mid-20th century, the Emmanuel House was demolished due to the expansion of the neighboring Pratt Institute campus, and all activities were moved to the Emmanuel Baptist Church.

This photograph comes from the Emmanuel House lantern slide collection which contains 87 lantern slides depicting group portraits and scenes from the various activities at the Emmanuel House. This is one of my favorite photographs in the collection—I love that the children are posing in front of real potted flowers. I was curious to understand how this photograph related to the sewing school. In my research, I wasn’t able to find a direct connection, but the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported in 1899 that the closing exercises for the sewing school included the children and instructor performing a “pretty cantata entitled ‘Flower Praise.’” I can’t help but smile at the possibility of the children performing a song about flowers dressed as daisies.

Interested in seeing more photos from BHS’s collection? Visit our online image gallery, which includes a selection of our images. Interested in seeing even more historic Brooklyn images? Visit our Brooklyn Visual Heritage website here. To search BHS’s entire collection of images, archives, maps, and special collections visit BHS’s Othmer Library Wed-Sat, 1:00-5:00 p.m. library@brooklynhistory.org

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Photo of the Week: Sheep in Prospect Park

[Sheep in Prospect Park], ca 1880, V1974.7.107; Adrian Vanderveer Martense collection, ARC.191; Brooklyn Historical Society.

[Sheep in Prospect Park], ca 1880, V1974.7.107; Adrian Vanderveer Martense collection, ARC.191; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Can you imagine witnessing this idyllic scene in Prospect Park’s Long Meadow? In the early years of the park, New Hampshire and black-faced Southdown sheep could be seen grazing in the Long Meadow with lambs in tow. Olmstead and Vaux, the designers of the park, added the sheep for practical and design purposes. The sheep helped maintain the pasture and provided a peaceful tranquility to the park with their tending shepherds and dogs. One report noted the “lambs so tame that they ate from children’s palms.”

In 1934, the New York Times reported that the sheep in Central Park’s Sheep Meadow were added to the flock in Prospect Park to make room for the development of Tavern on the Green. Sometime in the 1930s, all sheep were removed from Prospect Park under the direction of park commissioner Robert Moses. It is unclear exactly why the sheep were removed. With the backdrop of the Great Depression, there is some speculation that the sheep were removed in an effort to protect them from theft. If you have any additional information about when or why the sheep were removed from Prospect Park, please share them in the comments below!

The photo of the week comes from the Adrian Vanderveer Martense collection and depicts sheep in Prospect Park around 1880. The collection contains lantern slides and photographs taken by Martense, an amateur photographer, documenting Brooklyn during the last quarter of the 19th century, in particular the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn and the Blizzard of 1888, as well as other images of Brooklyn. To see more photographs from this collection, including a few additional sheep photographs, check out this gallery.

Interested in seeing more photos from BHS’s collection? Visit our online image gallery, which includes a selection of our images. Interested in seeing even more historic Brooklyn images? Visit our Brooklyn Visual Heritage website here. To search BHS’s entire collection of images, archives, maps, and special collections visit BHS’s Othmer Library Wed-Sat, 1:00-5:00 p.m. library@brooklynhistory.org

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