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December 21, 2011

Exploring Brooklyn's Past: St. Francis Teams With Brooklyn Historical Society

In the dark, wood-paneled library of the Brooklyn Historical Society, students in Eric Platt’s history class pulled on pristine white gloves and began to pore over delicate black and white photos laid out on long tables. Some of the photographs — dating back to around 1900 — are grainy family portraits taken on the Coney Island boardwalk and printed on iron sheets. Later photos, taken in the 1980s in the same location, show graffiti-scarred, dilapidated buildings.

“How does this reflect the time when it was taken?” Platt, an Assistant Professor of History, recently asked a group of students as he pointed to one of the more current photos. “Is Coney Island in better shape today?”

It was the first of several class trips to examine the Brooklyn Historical Society’s archives. Platt’s survey of American history focuses on the history of Coney Island and students work in groups to analyze film clips and images of the famous amusement park and neighborhood through the years. In many ways, the area’s history mirrors the urbanization of America: the effects of the Great Depression, the subsequent decline of cities in the 1950s and 60s, and Coney Island’s more recent renaissance he noted.

Platt said he hoped to grab students’ attention by choosing a topic that’s close to home. “It’s a good lens for American history through the 20th century,” he said. “The goal of the program is to make history come alive for the students. The Internet is a wonderful tool, but it’s really important for college students to use library resources.”

“It’s great to see how history changes through photography, and to compare and contrast. I hope every class has an opportunity to do this,” said Danielle Diniro ’13.

Throughout the semester, classes from St. Francis College have been regularly visiting the Brooklyn Historical Society to sort through the institution’s vast collection of “cultural ephemera”— the photos, posters, lithographs, old ferry tickets and myriad other items tracing Brooklyn’s 400-year history. Led by professors Platt, Athena Devlin, Alexandria Egler, Sara Haviland and Jennifer Wingate, students have used the resources housed in the landmark Brooklyn Heights building to study history, religion, English and fine arts.

The new interdisciplinary program is funded by a three-year grant the Brooklyn Historical Society received from the U.S. Department of Education Fund for the Improvement of Secondary Education.

St. Francis College faculty collaborated with the Historical Society last summer to develop the curriculum, aimed at introducing first-year students to archival research. Classes are capped at 15 to ensure that all students get individual time in the archives.

“St. Francis College is connected to cultural resources and institutions around the city, and it’s really crucial for students to have access to these kinds of things,” said Athena Devlin, Associate Professor of English, director of the American Studies Program and co-director of the Women’s Center. “The Brooklyn Historical Society has been very generous with their time and resources.”

Ultimately, it’s about getting students into the archives and away from Googling, she said.

The Brooklyn Historical Society is also working with Long Island University and the New York City College of Technology. Next summer, students from all three schools will have the opportunity to participate in a month-long, paid internship at the Historical Society. Additionally, St. Francis College students are able to access the historical society’s archives on their own time for the duration of the grant, which covers five academic semesters.

Each of the classes contributed to a website and blog documenting their work and experiences in the program. The students’ final projects are then culled into a digital exhibit.

Undergraduate students get a lot out of actually handling the photographs, pamphlets and other items from the archives, said Robin Katz, Outreach and Public Services Archivist at the Brooklyn Historical Society.

“It’s the kind of stuff that people never intended to keep, but the students piece together a better understanding of history through these objects,” she said. “Primary sources can speak to a wide variety of disciplines, and can be used in innovative ways.”

Jennifer Wingate, Assistant Professor of Fine Arts, chose to focus her American Art Survey course on photography, pulling from the Brooklyn Historical Society’s collections from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Students in the class had the opportunity to handle early forms of photography, such as daguerreotypes—an image made in the camera on a silvered copper plate—and tintypes to study the evolution of the medium over time. As a final project, the students created their own exhibit of juxtaposed images, showing how they contrast.

Several of the faculty members involved in the project said they also hope to give the students a better understanding of their heritage and, in many cases, their hometown. It seems to be working: “Not many people know the history of where they live. It’s good to see the evidence in front of you instead of professor just telling you about [a subject],” said Leah Tribbett ’13.

Sara Haviland, Assistant Professor of History, focused the topic of her class on Brooklyn in the 20th century and the civil rights movement using the society’s Brooklyn Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) collection.

The collection includes correspondences, newsletters, photographs, press releases, clippings and other materials documenting Brooklyn civil rights actions in the 1960s—which included protests against discrimination in employment, housing and schools.

“I want to expand the students’ understanding of the topic beyond the southern point of view…so many of the students are local and this connects them to their history,” she said. “I’m excited to give them the opportunity to do hands-on listening, which is what historians do in archives.”

Students in Professor Alexandria Egler’s religious studies class are working on producing their own religious family trees and oral histories. The goal, Egler said, is to demonstrate how information from 100 years ago can remain relevant in the 21st century. Egler encourages her students to venture out of the classroom, and also leads classes on tours of nearby neighborhood to visit churches, synagogues and a Buddhist Temple.

In the modern world, it’s easy for students to lose sight of the importance of the past.

“They have these moments while looking at the documents or listening to oral histories,” Egler said. “It opens them up to understanding the intellectual process. It makes it fun, and makes it real.”

By Meghan Lewit

St. Francis College, founded in 1859 by the Franciscan Brothers of Brooklyn, is located in Brooklyn Heights, N.Y. Since its founding, the College has pursued its Franciscan mission to provide an affordable, high-quality education to students from New York City’s five boroughs and beyond.


St. Francis College, 180 Remsen Street, Brooklyn Heights, NY 11201

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