In Episode 20 of Brooklyn Historical Society’s podcast Flatbush + Main, co-hosts Zaheer Ali and Julie Golia use one seemingly inconsequential manuscript collection to explore themes of memory and history-making over many generations. In 1915, Brooklynite Francis Morrell wrote a small tract called “Recollections of Old Williamsburgh.” This self-published work of genealogy reminds us that historical writing tells us just as much about the time that it was written as about the time period it purports to study.
Segment 1: Histories and Ideas
In segment 1, Zaheer and Julie introduce listeners to Francis Morrell, an amateur genealogy from an established family with deep roots in the neighborhood of Williamsburg. They give a brief history of that neighborhood, emphasizing the constancy of cultural, demographic, and economic change in Williamsburg. They also talk about how Morrell’s 1915 manuscript tells us just as much about the moment that he wrote it as it does about the period he writes about – the 1850s.
Here are some images of the manuscript:
Segment 2: Into the Archives
Julie and Zaheer analyze segments of Morrell’s manuscript that describe African Americans living in Williamsburg in the 1850s. They contextualize Morrell’s racist portrayal of Black Brooklynites in the context of American race relations in 1915, when Morrell wrote “Recollections of Old Williamsburg,” tying the manuscript to everything from national advertising campaigns to the release of the D.W. Griffith film “Birth of a Nation.”
For an engaging examination of the Lost Cause and American popular culture, check out Gary Gallagher’s book Causes Won, Lost, and Forgotten: How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What We Know About the Civil War.
Segment 3: Voices of Brooklyn
Zaheer and Julie listen to the recollections of Elizabeth Guanill. Guanill was born in 1924 to Puerto Rican migrants who moved moved to the DUMBO neighborhood of Brooklyn in 1915. When she was ten, her family moved to Williamsburg, where she spent the remainder of her youth.
Segment 4: Endorsements
As a special holiday treat, Julie and Zaheer endorsed two BHS events each. All the events take place at BHS’s Brooklyn Heights location.
Julie endorsed an upcoming book talk by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jennifer Egan on Thursday, November 7, at 6:30pm. Egan’s most recent book, Manhattan Beach, takes place on Brooklyn’s waterfront, and she did much of her historical research at BHS. Egan sits down with historian and author Alexis Coe to discuss her extensive research and the process of building the book’s vibrant characters. Tickets are $5 and free for members. Sign up here.
In keeping with the waterfront theme, Julie also endorsed another book talk with historian Robert Watson about his new book, The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn. The talk is on Wednesday, December 13 at 6:30pm. Watson shares tales of the thousands of Americans who suffered on the HMS Jersey, a British prison ship moored in Wallabout Bay off the coast of Brooklyn, during the Revolutionary War. Tickets are $5 and free for members. Sign up here.
Zaheer endorsed a book talk with historian Leigh Fought, author of Women in the World of Frederick Douglass, on Monday, December 11, at 6:30pm. Fought discusses Douglass’s relationships to his mother, grandmother, slave mistresses, wives Anna Murray and Helen Pitts, and many other women who nurtured, challenged, and united with him in shared struggles for emancipation, the right to vote, and equality. Tickets are $5 and free for members. Sign up here.
Zaheer also endorsed “Unlocking Public Space: Placemaking in Brownsville,” on Monday December 18 at 6:30pm. Ginia Bellafante of the New York Times moderates a conversation with Erica Mateo and Deron Johnston from the Brownsville Community Justice Center and David Burney, Director of Pratt’s Urban Placemaking and Management program, about ways that Brownsville residents and grassroots institutions have leveraged urban planning tools to transform neglected spaces into safe, vibrant public hubs. Tickets are $5 and free for members. Sign up here.