Imagine being told your entire life that you were not really a citizen of your town or country. Imagine being treated as an inferior, offered only the most menial of jobs, and told to be happy with your lot in life. Imagine being banned from churches, stores and theaters, even cemeteries, because they did not serve “your kind.”
Now imagine finding a town where you were accepted — a town where you were able to build your own home, worship in your own church, buy from stores owned by people like you, and raise and educate your children in a place where they would be welcome. A town where you could reach old age and pass on in dignity and equality.
For Brooklyn’s African-American population in the 19th century, some of whom were recently freed from slavery, this remarkable town was called Weeksville. And it survives today in bits and pieces, some of which now comprise a historic center in present-day Crown Heights. Here is its story.
Slavery, Abolition and the Founding of Weeksville
By the time the Revolutionary War began, most of Central Brooklyn belonged to the Bedford branch of the Lefferts family, who were among the largest landowners — and slaveholders — in Kings County.
The Lefferts’ vast estate was farmed with the help of tenant farmers and, of course, slaves.
After much effort by abolitionists black and white, slavery was abolished in New York State in 1827. By the 1830s, the newly formed City of Brooklyn began laying out a comprehensive street grid, mapping areas that would long remain farmland.
Around the same time, John Lefferts began selling off parcels of his estate, starting with the 8th Ward, as far eastward as one could go and still be in Brooklyn. (Brownsville and East New York were then a part of Flatbush — still an independent town within Kings County.)
Henry C. Thompson, a leader in the African-American abolitionist movement, purchased 32 lots from the Lefferts holdings. He sold those lots to other African Americans, including two bought by longshoreman James Weeks, who built himself a house and started a community that would bear his name — Weeksville.
The Growth and Decline of Weeksville
By the 1850s, Weeksville had become a successful community of more than 500 people, boasting more opportunity for homeownership, employment and success for its black residents than any other part of Brooklyn, and well beyond. It was a safe haven during the Draft Riots of 1863.
The town’s borders were approximately East New York, Ralph, Troy and Atlantic avenues. James Weeks’ home was located near Schenectady Avenue and Dean Street.
Weeksville had its own churches, schools and businesses. It supported the Zion Home for Colored Aged and the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum. It had its own cemetery and its own newspaper called The Freedman’s Torchlight.
Weeksville was home to many of Brooklyn’s black abolitionist leaders. Dr. Susan Smith McKinney, the state’s first African-American female doctor, was born here, and the town was home to New York City’s first African-American police officer.
By the 1880s, development began to catch up to Weeksville. The street grid was expanded east, often running through homes and farm stands. Weeksville’s cemetery was destroyed for Eastern Parkway.
Wood-framed houses were replaced by masonry row houses. The city of Brooklyn grew up, around and through the town. Weeksville slowly disappeared, as its residents adjusted or left.
By the 1930s, Weeksville had been almost totally absorbed by Brooklyn, and by the ’70s it was just another part of the huge neighborhood of Bedford Stuyvesant. Though Weeksville is now within Crown Heights’ borders, until the ’80s it was considered to be Bed Stuy.
But some people still remembered the small town.
Weeksville’s Rediscovery and Rebirth
In 1968, historian James Hurley and local resident and pilot Joseph Haynes were doing a research project at Pratt, where they found references to Weeksville in 19th-century histories of Brooklyn.
They took to the air and saw what was left of Hunterfly Road, one of Weeksville’s streets, and the row of four forgotten houses on it, nestled amid the much larger neighborhood. It was like finding buried treasure.
But time was of the essence, as the city was preparing to tear down the entire area for new housing.
Their preservation efforts led to the Weeksville Project, and with the unflagging support of the community, archeologists and historians, the houses were saved and began the slow process of preservation and protection.
The Weeksville Project evolved into the Society for the Preservation of Weeksville and Bedford Stuyvesant History; its first president was Joan Maynard, who was already legend in the Bed Stuy community.
Maynard made the Weeksville houses her mission and secured city, state and national landmarking. She also was a tireless fundraiser for the site, and the Society purchased the houses in 1973.
By 2005, the site was renamed the Weeksville Heritage Center. The houses had suffered vandalism in the ’80s, and three were renovated to depict specific time periods. One house was remodeled as offices and a small exhibit space.
A Modern New Building for the Weeksville Heritage Center
It was soon apparent that the Center needed a much larger building to expand its mission, which finally happened in 2014 after a huge fundraising campaign and years of financial delays.
Caples Jefferson Architects designed a starkly modern L-shaped visitor’s center that hugs the outer edge of the property; in the center is a large meadow garden designed by Elizabeth Kennedy.
The mixture of old and new, modern and early-19th century, works. Caples Jefferson’s award-winning design includes subtle decorative elements evoking African design motifs, deftly referencing the distant past but not beating you over the head with it.
Visiting the center is like stepping into the country in the middle of a city.
One can imagine the area’s agrarian past, when Weeksville’s residents raised chickens and grew vegetables on their land. It’s still happening today.
The Center maintains a market garden, run by local teens and volunteers. The produce, eggs and honey are sold at the center’s market, just as they were 160 years ago.
In 2016, the center provides valuable programs that educate visitors about life for African-American Brooklynites in the 19th century. They also have an impressive collection of artifacts and research materials for scholars.
Guided tours of the houses are offered on select weekday afternoons. The center also has frequent celebrations of historic and contemporary African-American culture, which may include dance, tours, live music, film screenings, food and face painting.
The increased funding and the new facilities will enable researchers, archeologists and historians to discover more of the depth and breadth of the town, as well as the rest of Brooklyn’s rich African-American history.
Weeksville is an important part of American history, and the center should be a must-see for everyone.
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