Brooklyn Friends School celebrates ‘150 Years of Light’

February 1, 2018 By Mary Frost Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Members of the Middle School Chamber Orchestra entertained at Friday’s celebration. Shown playing is Breyten Neill, accompanied by chamber teacher Elvira Sullivan and high school student Maya Holtham. Eagle photo by Mary Frost
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A blowout celebration held at the Brooklyn Historical Society on Jan. 29 honored the 150th anniversary of Brooklyn Friends School (BFS). In attendance at the reception and historical exhibit (with music provided by the Middle School Chamber Orchestra) were decades of alumni, joining former and current instructors, students and parents.

BFS, located in Downtown Brooklyn, was founded in the Quaker tradition in 1867. The motion to start the school was passed two weeks after John Roebling was given his commission to build the Brooklyn Bridge, Head of School Dr. Larry Weiss told the large crowd.

Weiss, a longtime student and teacher of history, drew connections between earlier generations at BFS and the school today, as illustrated by the many antique photos researchers uncovered in the archives while preparing for the sesquicentennial exhibition. Despite the numerous changes in political, social and economic conditions, Quaker values live on, Weiss said.

Quakers see a divine light in everyone, hence the “150 Years of Light” name for the celebration, which continues all year.

BFS first opened in the basement of the Brooklyn Meeting House on Schermerhorn Street. Tuition was $12 per quarter for the younger children and $15 for the older ones, both boys and girls.

The school expanded from 1877 to 1925 to the adjacent lots at 112, 114, and 116 Schermerhorn to include an upper division in 1907, with a new high school building in 1920, and the acquisition of Friends Field (on Fourth Avenue near Ocean Parkway) soon afterwards. In 2015, BFS cut the ribbon on a new, 40,000-square-foot facility for the Upper School at 116 Lawrence St.

Among interesting tidbits found in the archives is the fact that the outdoor education movement led to BFS’s philosophy of outdoor learning from roughly 1910 to 1932 or so, after which the rooftop classrooms were converted to recreational space. Pupils sat in padded “sitting-out bags” during icy winter months.

With a strong commitment to tolerance and equality, BFS began enrolling its first African-American students in 1945. BFS was the second private school in Brooklyn to enroll black students, joining the Ethical Culture School. The school’s first African-American graduate, Camilla Church Greene ’60, who became an educator, entered kindergarten in 1947. She attended Friday’s event.

Other African-American pioneers at the school include Dena Douglas, ’83, now a judge, and community activist Freddi Brown Carter, ’73. They also attended the event.

In the ’60s, Friends Field was sold to New York City. With the sale, trustees were able to purchase the Brooklyn Law School building at 375 Pearl St. in 1969, allowing enrollment to more than double to 700 students.

“Anything built right before the depression had the best of everything,” BFS Director of Communications Joan Martin told the Brooklyn Eagle. “Brass doors, high windows, beautiful architecture.”

The law school moved to its current location on Adams Street, and the former BFS school building was leased to the city. It currently houses a small alternative public school.

Oral History Archival Project and Historical Book

The celebration was marked by an oral history and archival project called “All That Dwell in the Light,” conducted by students Lily Edelman ’20 and Salma McLaughlin ’20, as well as history educator Rebecca Krucoff and graphic designer Carl Petrosyan.

In the spring of 2017, the students conducted videotaped interviews of five alumni from the 1940s through the 1980s as well as research in the Brooklyn Friends School archives. They interviewed Henry Altman, ’40; Charles Rosenthal, ’53; Camilla Church Greene, ’60; Freddi Brown Carter, ’73; and Dena Douglas, ’83.

A carefully researched and beautifully designed book on BFS’s history was put together by parents Helene Benedetti, Melanie Rehak and Karen Edelman, who worked for two years on the project. Organizing 150 years of archives was Katie Bednark; Susan Price, ’86, assisted as the school’s first historian. Lekeia Varlack Judge, ’99, reached out to alumni. Emily Cowles coordinated all of the resources to make the book a reality.

Much of the information for the book came from a school publication called “The Life,” which was published 1930 – 1970, Martin said.

“It’s all primary source material,” she said, calling the book “a labor of love.”

BFS has continued to evolve, Martin said.

“We adapted the International Baccalaureate and became first NYC school to partner with Horizons, which gives public school kids an enriched summer educationally and recreationally.” BFS works with five public schools in the program.


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