In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we’ve collected the stories of a few remarkable Brooklyn people (and places) who fought for racial justice — from the groundbreaking politician Shirley Chisholm to the rebirth of Bed Stuy, and the role of the Slave Theater in Afro-centric activism.

So grab a nice cup of coffee or tea and settle in to read a few tales to make you Brooklyn proud.

Judge John L. Phillips. Photo via the Slave Theater website

For many people in Bedford Stuyvesant, home to Brooklyn’s largest African American community, Fulton Street’s Slave Theater is not just a building — it’s a metaphor.

The name has always been uncomfortable. Who wants to be reminded of slavery? Who wants to be reminded of slavery when going to the movies, of all times?

That’s just why Judge John L. Phillips chose the name.


Photo by Brownstoner reader Augustiner

The new owners of Bed Stuy’s iconic Slave Theater filed permits on Wednesday to demolish the once-vibrant hub of civil rights activism.

Spurred into action at the prospect of demolition, 81-year-old Clarence Hardy — a former caretaker of the space who claims to be its rightful owner — climbed atop the Slave’s marquee on Friday and threatened to jump if the theater wasn’t saved.


Bed Stuy’s historic Slave Theater — a bastion of Afro-centric culture and activism since the 1980s — and two adjacent lots were sold to developer Eli Hemway for $18,500,000, according to The Real Deal. Permits have yet to be filed for development or renovation at any of the three sites: 1215 Fulton Street, 10 Halsey Street, and 16 Halsey Street.

Given the theater’s embattled history (more on that below), a kerfuffle is likely.


The Times ran a story looking into the long, ugly battle over competing claims of ownership to Bed-Stuy’s Slave Theater. Last week the city put a vacate order on the property, locking out two tenants who each claim to have a stake in the property. The article chronicles the back stories of the various players in the theater’s drama, starting with Judge John L. Phillips Jr., who bought the theater in 1984 and “filled the Slave with African-American political art and murals celebrating the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Marcus Garvey and other figures from black history.” The judge was placed under guardianship in 2001 and died in 2008 without a will. Meanwhile, Rev. Samuel Boykin, of Ohio, is the judge’s nephew and the administrator of his estate. Boykin has been trying to evict two longtime tenants from the building: Clarence Hardy, who used to sell DVDs in a concession area until last week and claims the judge wanted him to take control of the property, and a televangelist named Rev. Paul Lewis who held regular services in the building and says he once had an agreement to buy the theater for Boykin for $1.6 million. As it stands now, the judge’s estate owes millions in taxes, and Boykin is looking to sell the building, though it’s unclear what that means for the future of the property:

Charles Barron, a councilman from Brooklyn, said the theater should not become just “another commercial entity,” especially as the neighborhood reshaped itself around development dollars. In the Slave’s heyday, he said, going to the theater was like being in an African marketplace. “They’d have the most profound lectures from scholars and historians, and people would be selling socially conscious books and art, and food from around the world. You’d see the diversity of our culture — and it provided people with an income.” Mr. Boykin said he hoped to sell the theater to a church or community group.

Tug of War Over a Civil Rights Legacy [NY Times]
Judge Slaps Vacate Order on Historic Slave Theater [NY Daily News]
Photo by bondidwhat