Population (2010)

749

Introduction

Driving through Brooklyn, there’s barely a hint of the town’s long history as a refuge and enclave for African American freedom. The oldest incorporated black-majority town in the US, Brooklyn has seen good times and bad, but today’s residents are hoping that honoring their past will pave the way to a better future.

History

Brooklyn was founded around 1830 when “Mother” Priscilla and John Baltimore led a group of eleven African American families—some free and some who had escaped enslavement—across the Mississippi River from St. Louis to found a sanctuary they called Freedom Village. When the village was established, the east bank of the Mississippi River at St. Louis was a collection of farms mixed in with floodplain forests; there were few settlements.

Quinn Chapel AME Church; Brooklyn, IL

Mother Priscilla was active in the Methodist Church and worked with the Reverend William Paul Quinn in the 1830s to establish the first African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in the Midwest. According to oral histories, Reverend Quinn preached about freedom in some creative ways; in winter, for example, he walked out onto the frozen Mississippi River to the middle of the river and preached loud enough for enslaved workers to hear him. He also had a part in founding St. Paul’s AME Church in St. Louis, which is the oldest black church in St. Louis. Quinn Chapel AME Church in Brooklyn was part of a chain of AME churches the helped move enslaved people to freedom along the Underground Railroad. Antioch Baptist Church in Brooklyn also played an active role with the Underground Railroad.

In 1837, five white abolitionists platted a town at Freedom Village and named it Brooklyn; the village grew into a biracial community with a black majority population. Brooklyn provided a refuge for formerly enslaved people but also attracted white laborers. The village was had the misfortune of being platted during an economic depression, so it didn’t get out of the gate very quickly. When the railroads chose Illinoistown (now East. St. Louis) as their terminal instead of Brooklyn, the town’s fortunes took a hit again.

In 1850, the town, still unincorporated, counted 300 residents, 60% of whom were black. African American residents farmed, ran stores, worked as unskilled laborers, as well as in skilled professions as artisans and craftspeople. Brooklyn incorporated in 1873, but the post office began referring to it as Lovejoy in 1891 because there was already a town in Illinois called Brooklyn, in Schulyer County. The name came from the first school in the city, which was called Lovejoy in honor of the abolitionist leader, Elijah P. Lovejoy, who had been killed in Alton, Illinois, by a pro-slavery mob in 1837. The Lovejoy school was part of a successful effort by African Americans in Brooklyn to integrate schools.

For the first thirteen years after incorporation, white residents had a 4-3 majority on the Board of Trustees, even though they were a minority of the town’s residents. In 1886, John Evans led a successful campaign for the black majority to win control of the Board; he became the city’s first black may