A look at Brooklyn, then and now.
Charity in post-Civil War Brooklyn was as segregated as the society at large. When it came to the large institutions that were built to help the orphaned or the elderly, they were all geared to helping just one group of people, keeping everyone separate. The Jewish orphans went to the Jewish Orphan Home; the Methodist elderly went to the Methodist Home for the Aged. The Catholics, Baptists, Swedes, Irish, males and females all had their services and institutions carefully divided to serve members of their own groups. It was just The Way It Was Done. And of course, it goes without saying that the Negroes had their own separate institutions as well.
There was a Home for Colored Aged, as well as the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum. Both were in what is now Crown Heights and unlike many charitable institutions for black folks, they were not just set up and run by well-meaning rich white philanthropists or charities, without African American input. Both of these institutions were run by and for African Americans themselves. Not surprisingly, they both came out of the town of Weeksville.
Weeksville was a successful black middle class town established by James Weeks, a black longshoreman. The town was built on land Weeks had purchased from a black man named Henry C. Thompson, who had, in turn, bought the land from the estate of Lefferts Lefferts. Much of Brooklyn’s black population was living in the Downtown/Dumbo area by the late 1830s, early 1840s. Many there were seeking to find a home where racism and segregation would not stop their advancement in education, jobs, or even a place to worship. If white society wouldn’t give them opportunities, then they were determined to build somewhere where they could determine their own destinies. Weeksville gave them that chance.
Today, Weeksville is known only for the small surviving enclave of houses that make up the Weeksville Heritage Center, but the town was much larger than that, and made up a large part of the eastern part of Crown Heights. Here the residents built homes, businesses, stores, churches, a school, established a newspaper, and founded charitable institutions to take care of the youngest and oldest amongst them. The Howard Colored Orphan Asylum was one of those institutions. It once stood at 1550 Dean Street, on the corner of Dean Street and Troy Avenue. (more…)