Rediscovering Brooklyn

Come, senators, congressmen, please heed Joe's call.

Hey Joe: Although I have lived in Houston for nearly 30 years, my heart has never left the small town that I grew up in: Brooklyn, Illinois. Recently our mother passed and my siblings and I brought her home to be laid to rest. On this journey I learned that Brooklyn was "The Oldest Black Incorporated Town in America." I researched the history and was amazed at what I discovered. We have constructed a Web site, brooklynillinoisourstory.com, to display the documents and history related to our small town.

How can we get our elected officials involved in our efforts to revitalize the city with new businesses and receive the historical designation that we're due? Cathy Thompson, Houston, Texas

Based upon the number of massage parlors in the community, it is understandable why it was labeled Sin City several years back. But those who labeled it as such were unfamiliar with its history. Granted, prior to the strip joints' arrival, the town had undergone several lean years.

Though poverty-stricken, Brooklyn is historically rich. In fact, its history denotes that it is the only original all-American town in the country. With a population of 2,600 — compared to its current 700 — townspeople were naturally colorblind.

Though predominately a black community, at one time Brooklyn had a white mayor. Blacks and whites lived as one and picked their mates by choice. The village was surrounded by railroad tracks — many atop circling embankments — seemingly to separate itself from adjoining townships that adhered to racial separation. It's surrounded by history: A headstone at a gravesite on Brooklyn's outskirts is dated 1840, 25 years before Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.

During my upbringing, blacks in East St. Louis could hold no office higher than precinct committeeman. At the time, Brooklyn's mayor William Terry was as powerful as Richard Daley of Chicago. Terry, who was black, ruled with an iron hand. He was mayor, supervisor and school superintendent and often called the town his own. During his long tenure, he gave no quarter nor took a step to the rear. In a town where every block was replete with a variety of homes, townspeople strived independently. Every inch of land was utilized prudently, the open land used for community gardens. Houses were even placed opposite the railroads. Quinn Chapel A.M.E. Church was connected to Harriet Tubman's Underground Railroad. One of many black entrepreneurs was the Dale family. But first and foremost, the town is the oldest black town in America.

So step up, State Representative Wyvetter Younge and State Senator James Clayborne Jr. Grab Congressman Jerry Costello by the hand and get this town officially declared as such nationally. For many, many, many years St. Clair County Democrats have used this town's votes. If you can't get it done, maybe the Republican Party can. People left this town because of major businesses closing and bad promises. If this history isn't sufficient enough to get it officially declared, then you tell us. Prince Joe Henry, one of professional baseball's original "clowns," was an all-star infielder for Negro League baseball teams in Memphis, Indianapolis and Detroit throughout the 1950s. But up until the late 1940s, Prince Joe didn't know anything about the Negro Leagues. His knowledge of organized baseball was limited to the Cardinals and Browns games he attended during his preteen years at Sportsman's Park, accompanied by lifelong buddy Eugene "Gene" Crittendon, who could pass for white. Perhaps Henry's most vivid memory of those games: Upon entry, white ushers would politely escort the boys to a small section of the left-field stands reserved for "Colored." After climbing past several tiers of bleachers, they'd arrive at their stop, rows and rows behind their white counterparts. Even at a young age, the boys were conscious of the double standard -- and determined to vent their disdain. The opportunity would arise with the urge to urinate. Rather than head for the latrine, the boys would edge their way to the front of the section and let fly. As the liquid foamed its way down the concrete steps toward the white kids, Henry and his pal would ease back and relax, politely rooting for the visiting team to beat the hell out of the Browns or the Cards. After all, Henry and Crittendon hailed from Brooklyn, Illinois, a small, predominantly black township just east of the Mississippi River. So hospitable were the residents of Brooklyn that they were known to take in a rank stranger, treat him to breakfast, lunch, supper and a night out on the town -- and afterward, if he messed up, treat him to a good ass-whippin'. Direct questions on any and all topics to heyjoe@riverf ronttimes.com. If we don't like yours, we'll hit Joe with our own.

 
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