Born into enslavement in the village of Flatbush, New York, Samuel Anderson later was emancipated and became the second Black person in King's County to own property, thereby, making him the second Black person in the county able to vote, according to New York laws at the time. Samuel Anderson was a devout Christian, helping found a Methodist Church adjacent to his property. He was also a lover of growing things — including both plants and the deeper seeds of the Black New York community, in what would later become Brooklyn.
Anderson was born in 1810 in Flatbush, which was then a separate village and not yet a neighborhood absorbed into Brooklyn. This made him subject to brutal enslavement laws in New York at the time, passed in 1799, which required all children born by those who were already considered enslaved to remain enslaved until 28 years old, for men, and 24 years old, for women.
Despite having a large population of emancipated Blacks, predominantly living in Manhattan, and a reputation as being more politically liberal than their southern counterparts, New Yorkers would continue to be permitted to enslave individuals until 1827. Unlike the south, though, most households in New York could only afford to hold just a few enslaved individuals, who would live in inferior quarters most often in the same building, similar to servants. This differs from the conditions commonly thought of with American racial slavery, where large groups of enslaved peoples would reside in separate communities.
Growing up under such circumstances was no less difficult, demeaning, or dire for individuals like Mr. Anderson. While he lived and performed forced labor at the farmstead of Jeremiah Lott in Flatbush, his father was held in bondage by the Remsens, a family who lived in the King's Highway area. Like other enslaved individuals, Anderson was forced to perform daily chores and other hard labor. His experiences within the community, however, exposed him to a lifelong passion for prayer, the church, and a desire to contribute to the building of community with others.
As part of his duties, Mr. Anderson was required to attend services at the Flatbush Dutch Reformed Church with the Lott family. Often, he would be in charge of stoking the old hickory coal stove during frigid services in the fall, winter, and early spring — toiling while the preacher delivered sermons in Dutch about loving thy neighbor and respecting the sanctity of life.
Despite the prayers being delivered in Dutch and his obligations to work while others prayed, attending church had a profound impact on Anderson, encouraging him to seek out spirituality of his own.
In an excerpt of an 1898 interview of him by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Anderson recounts:
“I attended services in the old Flatbush Dutch Reformed Church regularly and occupied a seat in the gallery, the men on one side and the women on the other. I remember well Dominie Schoonmaker’s Dutch Sermon, and I also remember John Antonidas, who was sexton, chorister and grave digger. It was also his duty to go around to give death notices and invite relations and friends to the funeral services.”
By the age of 19, Anderson endeavored to find a church of his own. He would regularly attend services at the AWME (African Wesleyan Methodist Episcopal) Church in Brooklyn Heights. Often, he would walk the long way around Prospect Park, saving his money compared to taking the horse-drawn trolley (which would have required him to ride on the top, per racist segregation laws at the time).
It is presumed that Anderson was able to have his freedom recognized when New York law formally emancipated all enslaved peoples in 1827. Despite being "free", he would still face severe restrictions and limitations of his rights. Nevertheless, he endeavored to purchase seven acres of property, building a cottage home near what is now Church Avenue and Kings Highway. He contributed finances and labor towards the construction of a Black Methodist Church adjacent to his property, which was funded in part by other Black Methodist Churches and contributions from residents in Flatbush and the Flatlands area. Known as "The Church in the Woods," Anderson was not only a member but a frequent speaker, delivering sermons on occasions during Sunday revivals.
Perhaps inspired by the natural beauty of the farmlands he grew up in, as well as the stately homes found throughout Brooklyn, Anderson tended his property well and used it to cultivate a beautiful homestead for him and his family. Ivy grew over the cottage, with a beautiful flower garden out front, and vegetables in the back. Anderson also raised hens, selling the eggs to help support the local Church in addition to his own family.
By the time of his death in 1903, Mr. Anderson was a somewhat familiar sight in Flatbush and parts of Brooklyn. He would walk regularly with his cane (more so to keep dogs at bay, he told interviewers, than for support) and attend services at his local churches.
After his own purchase of property, Anderson was followed by a man named James Weeks, whose "Weeksville" neighborhood he helped develop was an early independent Black neighborhood, acting as a foothold for Black individuals in New York to find property and a place to open their business. Weeksville also served as a refuge for Blacks fleeing "slave-catchers" who were actually kidnappers, sending Black individuals south where enslavement was still permitted, regardless of whether or not they were considered emancipated.
When Anderson died at the Brooklyn Home for the Aged, he was the last surviving person born into enslavement in Flatbush. The world had changed greatly, although life was still difficult for New York Blacks as a result of segregation, discrimination, and both institutional and de jure racism. His vision of owning property and helping build a spiritually engaged community came to fruition, making him an important figure in the history of Flatbush, Brooklyn, and the United States as a whole.
The above recounting of Samuel Anderson's history is a very important story for a number of reasons, which are listed below:
Obtaining property in Brooklyn for someone like Samuel Anderson was considered a monumental achievement in the late 19th Century, but in some ways it can seem even more difficult now!
Developers, speculation, and gentrification efforts are erasing our history while edging hard-working individuals out of the property ownership market. Without people like Mr. Anderson, churches and communities like Weeksville may not have been able to flourish as they did, showing why it's so important for locals and like-minded newcomers to be able to own property where they want to live and work.
GrowHouse NYC is a non-profit that hopes to stem the tide of gentrification while helping Black communities in New York grow and flourish.
Their stated mission: "We empower Black people and our allies to become developers of our communities through collective ownership of artistic production, neighborhood real estate and land, businesses, and cultural institutions."
You can support GrowHouse NYC through donations, volunteering, and spreading awareness of their message and goals.