Although they hail from different personal and professional backgrounds, Brian Merlis and Clarence Taylor make quite the team.
Merlis — a self-proclaimed “localist” — has been an avid collector of historic Brooklyn photographs for many years, publishing a number of visual history books focusing on neighborhoods throughout the borough.
Taylor, on the other hand, is fully part of academia, studying modern African American history and religion at Baruch college.
Merlis and Taylor’s new book, “Historic Black Brooklyn: 400 Years of Struggle and Hope,” is the culmination of over two years of work, drawing on skills both authors learned through their own unique experiences.
“I was very interested in learning about my neighborhood when I was growing up,” Merlis said during a recent interview. “What was this place like? What is it now?”
As a young man, Merlis began attending postcard clubs and other hobbyist meetings throughout Brooklyn that focused on the borough’s history. Through these events he was exposed to a world of photography that stretches all the way back to the 1800s, accounting for many oft-forgotten aspects of the larger New York story.
“I started collecting these things by trading with people,” Merlis explained. “Before I knew it, I had a pretty good collection myself.”
Still chasing his initial curiosity about the way neighborhoods change over time, Merlis began to publish a number of visual history books about particular areas in Brooklyn, including Bushwick, Williamsburg, and Brooklyn Heights.
When he began work on what eventually became “Historic Black Brooklyn,” Merlis first envisioned a book focused solely about Bedford-Stuyvesant. However, he soon realized that there was a lack of substantial visual history books for a number of predominantly Black neighborhoods in central Brooklyn, such as Brownsville and Ocean Hill.
Eventually, Merlis decided that it would be best to expand the scope of the book to study the Black experience in Brooklyn as a whole, yet he knew such a project would be too much to tackle alone.
Enter Taylor, a published author in his own right and a longtime friend of Merlis, who agreed to coauthor the project.
“Working with Brian on this was fairly easy,” Taylor said. “We made sure the information was factual and that our interpretation was substantial.”
Encompassing a 400-year period, “Historic Black Brooklyn” starts with the arrival of the first African Americans in New York, many of whom were enslaved, and continues up until the modern day.
Using Merlis’ pictures and other visual resources as a guide, Taylor applied his vast knowledge of African American history to weave together a social, political, and personal narrative of the Black experience in Brooklyn.
“I’m a social historian, and obviously what we need are examples to show how history played out in the lives of everyday people,” Taylor explained. “The images inform the book so much and are extremely powerful to study. Brooklyn is such a rich subject to study. It’s a place that shows so much of the Black experience, hardship and struggle but also leisure and family.”
“We thought a diverse approach would be best for this book,” Merlis added. “We came from different sides of the tracks, as some people might say. Clarence is Black and grew up in public housing, I grew up in a private Jewish household.
“He’s also from the world of footnotes and tables, the academic world,” Merlis continued. “I’m more of a localist, focused on the visual history of neighborhoods.”
The pictures used in “Historic Black Brooklyn” come from a variety of sources, including the personal collection of a former Greenpoint firefighter and the Public Service Commission’s archival photos of subway tunnel construction.
By combining a rich collection of images with substantial historical analysis, the book offers unique insights into the history of Brooklyn’s African American community on both the macro and micro levels.
“What surprised me is how many commonalities I found, maybe more than differences,” said Merlis. “Obviously African Americans had to face more prejudice than many of Brooklyn’s other ethnic groups, yet they still shared many of the habits and middle-class aspirations as the borough’s other residents.
“Black Brooklynites went to Coney Island, watched games at Ebbets Field, went to school, and worked overtime to make a little more money,” he added.
Taylor agreed that the images found in the book offer interesting examples of integration throughout the borough’s history, including in public housing and churches.
“It’s often said that 11 a.m. on Sunday is the most segregated time in America when everyone goes to church,” Taylor said. “That is largely true, but it’s fascinating to see times when people really worked to bridge that gap.“History’s exceptions are some of its most fascinating parts.”