The Slave Theater Community History Project seeks to create a historical archive of the Slave Theater, the life of Judge John L. Phillips, and the local activism and recent history of the Bedford Stuyvesant Community.


The Slave Theater and Black Lady Theater were started by Bedford Stuyvesant’s pioneer black philanthropist, Judge John L. Phillips.

The Slave Theater is where the past collides with the present. How can an archive capture this collision? Can an archive be a form of activism? How does community history, activist scholarship, and public memory function in archival form? The practice of community history, archive-based work, is about enriching public memory. Community-based, co-created social memory involves civic agency. We can think of public history as community history. We can think of public history as a form of activism. And we can begin to work with history in a different way, in an activist way. The investment in independent collaborative work allows but us to create communities. As we engage communities, we form crowds within crowds. But how are we positioned as scholars in art and activism? The civic necessity of public scholarship is grounded in reciprocity and dialogue.

The nomadic slave theater is a community history project – involving oral history, research, and activist projects, at once personal, civic, and scholarly. The nomadic slave theater captures the cultural resilience and hyphenated-identity of the Bedford Stuyvesant community. But community activism relies on media and mediation. In politicizing the dilemma and historicizing the activism behind the Slave Theater, this archive acts as a form of resistance. The collaborative making of history, the democratic process is about sharing, sharing the process of making the project come into volition. Public history is not so much about coming up with answers as much as raising new questions that either broaden or specify the relationship between then and now. History with and for communities demand mutual respect and collaboration because they are collectively-owned and contested.

A lot of people were shocked by the name, Slave Theater, but I had a reason. I named it after me. I got a slave name, my ancestors were slaves, a whole race of people were slaves. Women were raped and men were lynched, all kinds of murders and no one was ever prosecuted. I say it’s the worst crime known to mankind. This is a reminder of that.” Judge John L. Phillips, The New York Times, 2007

There is nothing like American chattel slavery…in the past, most people who became slaves became so as a result of war; winners enslave the losers. Sometimes, in the case of Rome, you would have a more dominant country, or place, make war and take the manpower – But Europeans systematically turned the capturing, shipping, and selling of other human beings into a business – a business that would develop into the backbone of an entire economy. That’s different. It differed in the manner in which a person became enslaved; it differed in the length of servitude; it differed in the treatment of enslaved people; and it differed…most of all, in the way they were viewed – which were subhuman. Which means that you would never rise to the level of human, which means that you will forever be a slave.” Dr. Joy DeGruy (Leary)


The Numerous arrests of Clarence Hardy Shabazz and the fraudulent theft and ultimate demolition of The Slave Theater were not only part of a scandal involving the District Attorney Charles Hynes, this was the whitewashing of local black activist history during a period of aggressive gentrification and the forced relocation of many black residents from Bed Stuy between the years 2000 and 2015 and ongoing.

If we ignore the historical relationship between the economy and race relations, and the byproducts of slavery and its purported abolition, namely, the ensuing disproportionate living conditions between races, and the racial bias of our criminal justice system, how on earth then will we be able to conceive of an economy that does not ground itself in the capture and exploitation of bodies, black, brown, and low-income bodies in particular, and the partitioning of social relations, in order to function?

The state of the façade of the theater resembles the state of the interior of the theater: the water-flogged theater, the rainroom, the dim chandeliers, the hole in the ceiling, the dazzle of chipping paint, eroded plaster molding, rotten floors, and heaps of debris bespeak of the general economy of entropy, the deteriorating aesthetic of black history. Is it the sad poetry of the slavery, and of a dream of freedom: the painting of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. raising his hand to a crowd of people corroding at his sleeve? Take a tour and tell me you too do not see the walls of black history chipping away in the dimness of a theater-house. You then have to ask yourself, why is this not recognized by the city as a historical landmark? Perhaps the falling apartness tempts us to forget the gasping cries of the slave revolt, latent in the mission to save the Slave Theater from evaporating into the cultural amnesia of gentrification.


On June 19th (Juneteenth), 1865, Union General Gordon Granger, accompanied by 2,000 federal troops, stood on a balcony in Galveston, Texas and read aloud: “…all slaves are free.” On Juneteenth, 2012, Tactical Aesthetics, accompanied by The Slave Theater Historical Society, unveiled a banner from The Slave Theater in Brooklyn, NY, which read: “The Slave Is Not For Sale”

Reenacting Juneteenth on the façade of the Slave Theater in the midst of a property dispute between the rightful community owners (formerly incarcerated father and son) and an aggressive gentrification apparatus seemed necessary as a way of visualizing multilayered history taking place, from colonialism and slavery to redlining and aggressive police enforced gentrification and the utter disregard for an historical site for Black Activism in Bed Stuy!


In collaboration with the Von King Cultural Arts Center, as well as over 20 local community organizations and businesses, we hosted a day of celebration and education in commemoration of Juneteenth (Abolition Day).

Along with music and arts stations for the kids, Tactical Aesthetics worked with Free University and Criminal Justice Reform Field Trainers from the community to create an outdoor “School Against Prison” with a curriculum of teach-ins on issues such as: the school-to-prison pipeline, immigration rights, debt and prison, post-prison expungement legislation, abolitionist landscapes, alternatives to incarceration, community control, and know your rights and copwatch training. Social change comes through public scholarship.

Black Lady Theater

Today the same fight to save Black Lady Theater continues.