Brooklyn has always been a thriving New York City borough, but many people are unaware of its strong ties to the struggle of African-Americans for freedom. Historian Fred Laverpool, 66, started his Braggin’ About Brooklyn tour company six years ago to help educate people about the role Brooklyn played in the history of Blacks in America.
“So many people do not know Brooklyn’s contribution to America and the American Revolution,” says Laverpool, who started his tour company after he saw a general-tour bus going through his hometown. Here, he thought at the time, would not only be a way to have his own business but to show off sites of African-American interest. “My sister said, ‘Go for it,’ and I did,” says Laverpool.
Laverpool offers several tours year-round, most of them on Saturdays at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Generally, they are three-hour bus and walking tours that include “The Underground Tour,” which highlights the Underground Railroad stations in Brooklyn. Brooklyn is home to several of these stations, which slaves secretly used to escape from the South to the North and freedom. One of them is the Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims, located in Brooklyn Heights. Built in 1849, the church has been dubbed the “Grand Central terminal of the Underground Railroad” because it was a central hub on the runaways’ route.
“From this church are routes and tunnels to other Black churches in Brooklyn that connected the Underground Railroad,” says Laverpool. Among them was Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church in Fort Greene, which was built between 1860 and 1862.
Braggin’ About Brooklyn also features “The African American Heritage Tour,” which takes tourists from Fort Greene to Bedford Stuyvesant to Crown Heights. “We go all over. There’s so much here in Brooklyn that has been overlooked for years,” says Laverpool. “Many people, for example, don’t realize that 900 Blacks were buried in Fort Greene Park. These were Africans who were captured by the British during the American Revolution and held as prisoners of war.”
Prospect Park, notes Laverpool, was vital to the Revolution. “It was there that George Washington fought the Battle of Long Island . . . and lost. It was Blacks who held the British off so Washington could escape,” he points out. The tour also stops at the Weeksville Houses, a national historic landmark that was recently renovated. Located in Crown Heights, the Weeksville Houses were home to the oldest community of free Blacks in Brooklyn. Established in 1838 by James Weeks, an African-American longshoreman who worked in what is now the South Street Seaport, only four homes remain of the original, pre-Civil War Community.
“These tours are based on the contributions of African-Americans to the development of Brooklyn,” says Laverpool. “There is no comparison to the richness of African-American culture found in Brooklyn. The presence of Africans in Brooklyn is nearly as old as Brooklyn itself.”
One of the company’s most popular tours is “Harriet’s Pilgrimage Tour,” an all-day hike that goes from Brooklyn or Manhattan to Harriet Tubman’s home in Auburn, N.Y., and takes in her gravesite in Fort Hill Cemetery; the church she attended, Thompson Memorial AME Zion Church; and visits with several of Tubman’s relatives. It includes a continental breakfast and a catered “shady tree” lunch. Tubman was laid to rest at the cemetery in 1913 with military honors. The Empire State Women’s Federation erected a monument at her gravesite within a year of her death. In 1937 it was replaced with the current three-foot granite marker. Tubman’s gravesite is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Most of the Laverpool tours are $25 for adults, $20 for students and seniors; the Tubman tour is $55. His clientele has been growing steadily. “I get calls from all over the country. There has been an increased interest in people wanting to learn their roots. As African-Americans get more disposable income, they are taking more tours,” he says.
For more information on Braggin’ About Brooklyn, call 718-771-0307 or visit www.brooklynx.org/tourism/braggin.