An Hour Precious to Liberty

An Hour Precious to Liberty

At noon today at the Old Stone House we will commemorate the Maryland 400, the brave group of soldiers who gave their lives at the Battle of Brooklyn – just 7 weeks into the young life of our nation – so that Washington could safely retreat the rest of the freedom-fighters across to Manhattan and eventually New Jersey. Washington called their sacrifice “an hour more precious to liberty” than any other. We are still in their debt, and it is honor to take part in remembering them.

In recent years, we’ve been talking more about the Maryland 400, in part as a result of the idea that some have of the possibility that their remains (never found) might be buried under a lot on 9th Street (next to the American Legion post, between 3rd and 4th Avenues), where the NYS School Construction Authority (SCA) is planning to build a new pre-kindergarten center.

From the historians and archaeologists I have talked to, it seems pretty unlikely that their remains are there. The historical record is  unclear, and the area was largely swampland at the time. Nonetheless, I’m glad for two things: First, that the SCA is conducting an extensive and careful excavation, to find and respect anything that might be there. And second, that we are talking about the Maryland 400, so that more people learn about their sacrifice and our history. It is not an exaggeration to say that we might not have won our freedom without them.

Over the past few days, another possibility has surfaced: that the lot is not the resting-place of the Maryland 400, but may instead contain the remains of slaves. In the wake of the critical conversation – especially after Charlottesville – about how we commemorate history, this is especially salient. We should do more to learn, honor, commemorate, and reckon honestly with the history of slavery in Brooklyn and America.

As with the remains of the Maryland 400, I think it is pretty unlikely that we will find any remains there. The historical texts are vague, and describe an extremely large swatch of Gowanus (which again, was mostly a swamp before it was filled in during the industrial era). But I’m glad that the SCA is working carefully, consulting with historians and archaeologists, and digging carefully.

If they find something, then of course we will have a collective, serious conversation about how we memorialize anyone – minuteman or slave – who was laid to rest there.

And even in the more likely event that no remains are found, I’m deeply grateful we are having this conversation. We should do more to learn, teach, and honor our Revolutionary War history – so that we understand what it means to fight for freedom. And we should do more to learn, teach, and honor the history of slavery – so that we understand its deep and long-running impact, as we work to uproot the continuing impacts of systemic racism, and work for a world where all are truly created equal. 

This moment, too, is an “hour precious to liberty.” I hope we’ll be more willing to learn our history – and look it more squarely in the eye – as we work to form a more perfect union.

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