A Macaulay Honors College at Brooklyn College Project

Author: Miriam Zami

Annexation and Consolidation

Another important part of Flatbush’s history near the turn of the century was its annexation to Brooklyn and the consolidation of Brooklyn into New York City. In 1894, Flatbush was annexed into the City of Brooklyn, quite some time after the other towns of Kings County.[i] The Brooklyn Eagle reported celebration among the citizens of Flatbush upon the annexation in May.[ii] Two years later, the Eagle wrote of the tremendous growth of the population of Flatbush, particularly in the last two years since the annex. Confirming this, the censuses of Kings County show that there was a drastic increase in population from 1890 to 1900, nearly doubling its total. The Eagle stated that because of this, new financial institutions were necessary, especially in the 29th Ward—Flatbush—where the nearest bank was two miles away from the business center.[iii]

While newspapers remained relatively quiet about the annexation at the time, they could not stop writing in anticipation of the consolidation of Brooklyn and the City of New York, which happened in 1898. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, for one, reported about the possible consolidation from before Flatbush was even annexed, and was not particularly favorable towards it. Such opposition stemmed from a fear of racial minorities and the loss of the Protestant nature of the city.[iv] There was a lot of debate leading up to consolidation; factors like lighter taxes were argued against losing their sense of individuality.[v] In 1894, the Eagle reported that 26 Brooklyn districts voted no on the matter of consolidation. Flatbush, however, was not one of these 26 districts. Ultimately, the consolidation bill won by a slight margin in Brooklyn (fewer than 300 votes), due to attention to the issues of finance and water supply.[vi] The New York Times presented the consolidation as accepted “without the slightest friction,” and noted with a degree of exaggeration that the “anti-consolidation feeling, which had long been sentimental, had long since almost entirely disappeared.”[vii]

[i] Jackson and Manbeck, The Neighborhoods of Brooklyn.

[ii] “Music, Speeches, Good Cheer: All Combined at the Flatbush Annexation Celebration,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 20, 1894.

[iii] “Flatbush Citizens Discuss the Formation of a Trust Company,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, February 4, 1896.

[iv] Kenneth T. Jackson, Encyclopedia of the City of New York. (New Haven & New York: Yale University Press, 1995).

[v] “A Sale of Franchises: A Memorial From the Single Tax League,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, January 7, 1893.

[vi] Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 1232.

[vii] New York Times, January 2, 1898.

Schools in Flatbush

Flatbush had an “unusual number of fine schools”to be proud of by the turn of the century. It obtained “for their schools the highest possible standard of excellence in educational work.” At the time of the City of Brooklyn’s annexation of the Town of Flatbush in 1894, there were only one or two schools. The Eagle reported in 1896 the need to expand the number of schools due to rapid growth.[i] Twelve years later, in 1908, there were six or seven beautiful buildings, all teaching the most modern education methods with top of the line educators.[ii] Flatbush was known to maintain the “highest possible standard of excellence in educational work.”[iii]

Erasmus Hall Academy was considered the top of all the high schools, the pride and joy of Flatbush. It was deeply loved and revered by everyone in Flatbush since its founding in 1786, and was even considered the best school in the state. Dr. Walter B. Gunnison was the principal of the school since it was given to the city in 1896 until his death in 1916. Dr. Gunnison was just as admired as his school. The Eagle wrote frequently about Erasmus Hall and Dr. Gunnison; he was a man of distinctive “character and scholarship,” a “splendid principal,” and “a son of thunder as Erasmus Hall’s head.”[iv] Regarding a surprise party the students threw for Dr. Gunnison in 1910, the New York Times wrote that “he is greatly beloved,” and that he never took a vacation except the time allotted by law. He transformed the school from being ruled by an iron fist to a partially run by a student government system, under which the students flourished.[v]

Erasmus Hall High School in 1908. Source: Gunnison, Herbert Foster. Flatbush of Today. Brooklyn, NY, 1908.

Erasmus Hall High School in 1908. Source: Gunnison, Herbert Foster. Flatbush of Today. Brooklyn, NY, 1908.

Erasmus Hall was known for its successful educational methods. The enrollment was at 2,700 students by the early 1900s.[vi] When the school became public and part of the Board of Education in 1896, a celebratory night was held on October 15th in the Flatbush Reformed Dutch Church. Every seat was filled, the Eagle reported, and there were even people standing. The article states that for two hours, “the audience … listened to six speeches not just with patience but with evident relish.” Of all the speakers, Dr. Gunnison, the principal, was given the most attention.[v] Erasmus Hall was not just a school, but a “school-home.”[iv]

Erasmus Hall buttons. Source: Gunnison, Foster. Flatbush of Today, Brooklyn, NY, 1908.

Erasmus Hall buttons. Source: Gunnison, Foster. Flatbush of Today, Brooklyn, NY, 1908.


[i] “Suburban Schools: How the Residents of Flatbush, New Utrecht, Parkville, and Windsdor Terrace Fare in the Matter of Educational Facilities,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, August 30, 1896.

[ii] Herbert Foster Gunnison, Flatbush of Today (Brooklyn, New York, 1908), 25.

[iii] Fisher, Flatbush Past and Present, 57.

[iv] Brooklyn Daily Eagle, October 15, 1896.

[v] “Surprise for Dr. Gunnison,” New York Times, April 23, 1910.

[vi] Gunnison, Flatbush of Today, 29.

Demographic Changes

During these years, Kings County saw a huge influx of people and drastic changes in its demographics. In 1850, the foreign-born population of Kings County was numbered at 56,201. The 1920 census reported the foreign born population as 659,287—over 10 times as large. The Irish and German were the dominant ethnic groups in the mid-19th century; in 1870, the Irish amounted to over 50 percent of the total foreign-born population. Another popular group was the English. By the 1900s, Kings County saw the arrival of Italians and Eastern European immigrants in great numbers, and over the next 20 years, the immigration of these ethnic groups outnumbered that of the previous ones.[i]

In 1850, the foreign-born population of Kings County was numbered at 56,201. The 1920 census reported the foreign born population as 659,287—over 10 times as large.

The immigrants were not always welcomed with open arms. They were regarded as having a “bad influence” on “Christianity and Americanism.”[ii] Starting all the way from 1851, the Brookyn Daily Eagle writes in nervous anticipation of Irish waves of immigrants,[iii] which later resulted in “malignant hatred of Irish immigrants.”[iv] Foreigners were feared for being “uneducated and unskilled,” but the biggest fear was their “incapacity to earn a livelihood.” The newspaper’s report of immigration statistics was considered “perhaps a tragedy,” and not the story, of the nation.[v] Native New Yorkers saw the immigrants as breaking down traditional American values and customs; “the peasants … fall short of measuring up to the American standard.” Citizens also perceived the outsiders as draining the city of money. The Eagle claimed that forty-five percent of some immigrant groups were asking for financial assistance from the government.[vi]

[i] Allbray, Flatbush: The Heart of Brooklyn, 59.

[ii] “Immigrants’ Bad Influence,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 1, 1908.

[iii] “Immigration,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, February 28, 1851.

[iv] “The Presidential Election,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, November 15, 1860.

[v] Frederick Boyd Stevenson, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, September 20, 1903.

[vi] Ibid.