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First Black incorporated town in U.S. placed on Illinois ‘endangered’ list

A woman points to a monument honoring Brooklyn, Illinois.
Jennifer Colten
Roberta Rogers looks at a monument at Quinn Chapel AME Church marking Brooklyn, Illinois, as a historic freedom village and honoring founder Pricilla "Mother" Baltimore. The monument now has been removed and is waiting to be placed at another location.

Brooklyn, Illinois, was founded as a freedom village in the 19th century. Now, its rich history is at risk of being lost.

Located just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis in St. Clair County, the town was recently listed on Landmarks Illinois' 2023 Most Endangered Historic Places in Illinois.

“Brooklyn is a place that is near and dear to my heart,” Robert White III said. He grew up in Brooklyn during the 1980s and now serves as the president of the Historical Society of Brooklyn, Illinois.

“The founders of Brooklyn were driven by a spirit of self-determination, set out to establish an intentional community where they were supporting one another. They had a vision for freedom for not just themselves, but even for people like me,” he said.

The town was settled in 1829 when Priscilla “Mother” Baltimore, a free Black woman, led 11 Black families out of Missouri into Illinois. Brooklyn was a safe haven for people escaping slavery, and in 1873, it became the first majority-Black town to be incorporated in the U.S.

Quinn Adamowski is an advocate with Landmarks Illinois, a nonprofit dedicated to historic preservation in Illinois. He is working with Brooklyn residents and the Historical Society to develop a long-term plan to preserve and re-invest in the town.

“Oftentimes we look at a building and [think] it's pretty, and therefore it should be saved. But really … it’s about the people, stories, the shared histories around those buildings. Brooklyn, though a lot of its built environment is now gone, is a place with people,” he said. “We can't lose that history.”

Members of the Antioch Baptist Church's Sunday School circa 1930s in Brooklyn, Illinois.
Roberta Rogers
Members of the Antioch Baptist Church's Sunday School circa 1930s in Brooklyn, Illinois.

The town’s Historical Society was founded in 2007. The effort grew out of Roberta Rogers’ work to honor the legacy of her late mother and ancestors.

A limited economy, population decline and challenges pertaining to the city government present obstacles to preservation efforts, Rogers said.

“Right now Brooklyn doesn't have any businesses other than the adult entertainment industry. What we were trying to do was to create green spaces that would encourage people to come to Brooklyn and create an economy for Brooklyn by promoting history,” Rogers said.

She explained that memorials, art murals and green and historical spaces can be a pathway to revitalizing the town and uplifting the community. She hopes these efforts will help the town reclaim its proper place on the historic Route 66.

For the full conversation with Roberta Rogers and Quinn Adamowski about what it would take to preserve Brooklyn’s history, listen to this St. Louis on the Air episode on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google Podcast, Stitcher, or by clicking the play button below.

Why Brooklyn's history is at risk of being lost

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Ulaa Kuziez is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org

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Ulaa Kuziez is a junior studying Journalism and Media at Saint Louis University. She enjoys storytelling and has worked with various student publications. In her free time, you can find her at local parks and libraries with her nephews.