WEEKSVILLE HERITAGE CENTER

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History

Weeksville Heritage Center documents and preserves the history of the free and intentional 19th century African American community of Weeksville. The Historic Hunterfly Road Houses (three historic houses dating from 1840 – 1883) are original domestic structures of the historic community. Weeksville provides innovative programs that engage audiences of all ages with 19th century history by contextualizing their experiences of Weeksville’s unique narrative through modern and relevant applications. 

In 1838, just eleven years after the abolition of slavery in New York, James Weeks, a free African American, purchased land on the edge of the settled areas of Brooklyn. This purchase marked the establishment of Weeksville, a village of free African Americans – laborers, laundresses, craftsmen, doctors, entrepreneurs and professionals – who worked and thrived in New York throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. A vibrant and self-sufficient community, Weeksville’s residents established schools, orphanages, old-age homes, churches and benevolent associations, printed a newspaper, The Freedman’s Torchlight, and promoted suffrage and the abolition of slavery.

Over time, the village was subsumed by the growing city of Brooklyn. For decades, Weeksville was seemingly forgotten. Then, in 1968, wooden structures were rediscovered, arranged along what had been Hunterfly Road – long ago a Native American trail and then a colonial thoroughfare. Driven by passionate community-based advocacy, the four small houses have been preserved and extensive archeological research has been conducted.

Today, Weeksville is a nationally significant historic site with a unique story to tell. It is one of the only African American historic sites in the Northeast still on its original property and among the ten most prominent African American cultural organizations in New York City. It is the only one of these focused on post-enslavement history. Weeksville is a primary resource for insight into an underappreciated chapter in American history. Moreover, the qualities of entrepreneurship, engagement, and dedication to community evident in historic Weeksville are a source of inspiration for educational and cultural programming as well as civic engagement that continues to enliven Central Brooklyn.

1850s – 1930s

Established as a suburban enclave on the outskirts of Brooklyn, by 1850 Weeksville had become the second largest known independent African American community in pre-Civil War America. Weeksville was also the only African American community whose residents were distinctive for their urban rather than rural occupations, and the only one that merged into a neighborhood of a major American city after the Civil War. Moreover, Weeksville had a higher rate of African American property ownership than 15 other U.S. cities and more job opportunities than ten other northern cities.

From the beginning, Weeksville offered an alternative to emigration to Africa, Canada, or Haiti, and its residents participated in every major national effort against slavery and for equal rights for free people of color, including the black convention movement, voting rights campaigns, the Underground Railroad, the Civil War, resistance to the Draft Riots in New York City, Freedman’s schools, and African nationalism.

Weeksville was associated with three nationally important African American leaders. Junius C. Morel, born into slavery in South Carolina, lived in Weeksville from 1847 until his death in 1874. Sent North by his planter father, Morel became a well-known educator, journalist, promoter of the black convention movement, and activist. He was almost certainly the prolific correspondent for the African Methodist Episcopal Christian Recorder named “Junius.” Susan McKinney Steward was one of America’s first African American woman doctors. Her father was one of the earliest land-owners in the Weeksville area, and she continued to maintain a connection to Weeksville through her work with Zion Home for the Colored Aged. T. McCants Stewart, lawyer, Brooklyn school board member, and A.M.E. pastor in Weeksville, promoted the integration of Weeksville’s school and later emigrated to Liberia.

1960s - 2005

The community still existed through the 1930s, but by the mid-1950s, Weeksville was all but forgotten, with many of its structures and institutions replaced by new roads and buildings. In the 1960s, Weeksville was only a historical footnote. The search for historic Weeksville began in 1968 in a Pratt Neighborhood College workshop on Brooklyn  history led by historian James Hurley. When the workshop was completed, some of its participants continued their research on old Weeksville.

James Hurley and community member and pilot Joseph Haynes conducted an aerial survey of Bedford-Stuyvesant in a crop plane. They discovered the Hunterfly Road Houses by their irregular angle to the modern street grid system.

In 1968, activists performed an archaeological dig near a set of historic houses identified in the “Greater Weeksville” area that were going to be demolished as part of a “beautification” project. Community members and schoolchildren from PS 243 (originally founded in Weeksville in the 1860s as Colored School #2) assisted in the dig.

The demolition of the historic houses was continually threatened in the late 1960-70s due to “urban renewal” plans and housing project developments. Joan Maynard (pictured below), first Executive Director of the Weeksville Society, led community members and youth groups in a sustained fight to save the houses. Using the archaeological evidence they uncovered, students from PS 243, activists, historians, and archaeologists testified before the New York City Landmarks Commission to save the historic Hunterfly Road houses from demolition. They were granted landmark status in 1971, thereby preserving the legacy of Weeksville.

In 2005, all three houses were fully restored and opened to the public for the first time in the history of the organization, thereby presenting the history of the self-reliant Weeksville community for an international audience.

Today

In October 2009 Weeksville broke ground to construct a new 19,000 square foot Education and Cultural Arts Building, set to open to the public in 2014. With this new building comes an unprecedented opportunity for expanded research, education and programming. The new building will see Weeksville become one of the country’s largest African American cultural institutions creating vast national and international impact.