Historian Prithi Kanakamedala grew up in Liverpool, England in the 1980’s in one of the four South Asian families living in the port city at the time.
“Growing up in Liverpool, racism was a part of everyday life, it was quite normal,” she said in a phone interview in New York. “Social justice, or the lack thereof, surrounded you.”
Three decades later, as the curator of a new exhibit about abolitionists at the Brooklyn Historical Society, she realized that her early exposure to discrimination and racism shaped the direction of the exhibit: a showcase of the anti-slavery movement’s unsung heroes, a story, really about ordinary citizens who made a difference.
“History is entirely based on interpretation of evidence and sometimes to reveal the truth of the past you have to be willing to go back and see if the stories we tell about people and movements really reveal the full accuracy of how we used to live,” she said.
The exhibition, on display for the next four years is part of a public history project called “In Pursuit of Freedom” organized by the Irondale Ensemble Project; a drama group, the Weeksville Heritage Center; a contemporary museum that houses artifacts and is a historical site of a free African American settlement in Brooklyn and the Brooklyn Historical Society.
The exhibition includes a collection of advertisements, flyers, letters, landscape painting, maps and a rare copy of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by Abraham Lincoln. According to Kate Fermoile, the project manager, weekly attendance numbers have more than doubled since the opening of the exhibit.
“Before this exhibition we didn’t have too many people visiting,” said Jennifer Ramos, a receptionist at the Brooklyn Historical Society. “But now there’s a huge increase and it’s been really exciting to see that.”
For Kanakamedala, the positive reception and the increasing popularity of the exhibition have been humbling. She explains how the exhibit perfectly coincided with her own academic interests in the history of marginalized voices through written works by people of color. She studied anti-slavery discourse academically at the University of Sussex. The basic but simple message of people resiliently fighting for their freedom despite the harshness of oppression moved her.
“These people were as ordinary and as complicated as you or I, but left a lasting legacy on this city and nation’s history,” she said.
The middle of the exhibition features four ‘activist stations’ where screens and panels are hung from the ceiling that show changing portraits of African American men and women. Visitors gently pull on strings in order to scroll through images and stories.
For her, the study of Atlantic slavery and the voices of people who went through horrific oppression and yet managed to dignify their lives were inspiring. The project In Pursuit of Freedom was already created to look at abolitionism in Brooklyn. But she says that it was her decision to make the focus on ordinary people – people whose names were unknown.
Kanakamedala says that while every single Brooklyn abolitionist was important and made a contribution in many different ways, she particularly grew attached to Elizabeth Gloucester’s story. Gloucester was an African American businesswoman and property owner who invested heavily in Brooklyn real estate. She died one of the wealthiest women in the United States in 1883.
“There is usually a complete silence about the role of women, particularly women of color in conventional history and then there was Elizabeth Gloucester who defied all the norms,” she said “It’s amazing on so many levels.”
For Kanakamedela being given the opportunity to share her work with people outside of the traditional classroom is fulfilling.
“It’s important for students, adults, and the public at large to have access to history, especially historical narratives that are not celebrated very often,” she said. “When I think about people from the past who are less celebrated in history simply because the archives contain silences on their achievements or they’ve been forgotten, I’m thrilled to be able to be make it my life profession.”
Kanakamedela’s decision to focus the exhibit so sharply on the lives of less celebrated activists appears to be working, according to project manager Fermoile.
“The people depicted in these stories resonate, they connect to ordinary residents today,” she said. “Maybe that’s why we have had an increase in our visitorship.”
What: The Brooklyn Abolitionist Exhibit
When: Runs from now till Winter of 2018
Where: Brooklyn Historical Society
128 Pierrepont, Brooklyn, NY