Moving to a new neighborhood can be tough. Trading up different amenities and train lines can be a toss-up, re: quality, distance and time. For a New Yorker, every lifestyle comparison becomes a competition. When I move from Bed-Stuy to Crown Heights next week, I’ll be giving up greasy Crown Fried Chicken for hearty Trinidadian Roti, and the gimpy G train for the crowded A/C line. Although I lived in Crown Heights last winter, it was too cold to adventure around much. This means it took leaving (and returning to) the ‘hood before I got to explore Weeksville, in Crown Heights’ eastern stretch. LUNY led a FAM (short for Familiarization) trip there this past Monday.
Moving to Weeksville must have been awfully exciting for its residents. Not only was it the second largest free black community in the nation, but it was also a rarity: founded for and by free African-Americans in 1838. In Dutch New York, the formerly enslaved people had owned land as early as the 17th century, and in 1827 NY State banned slavery. However, this doesn’t mean that things were easy for people of color.
In the middle of the 19th Century, all people of color could not vote unless they owned $250 in taxable property; the average workingman made $300 annually. In the same time period, white men need not own any property and could exercise their right to vote – highlighting the racial discrimination of the law. James Weeks, a longshoreman at the South Street Seaport and a political visionary, realized that only a separate community could provide the safety and security for survival. With the help of other free black entrepreneurs, a plot of land east of the City of Brooklyn became their refuge.
With churches, a school, and one of the first African American newspapers in the country – the Freedman’s Torchlight – Weeksville had over five hundred residents in 20 blocks. Once blacks became free citizens at the end of the Civil War, Weeksville grew in size and diversity: Irish families lived alongside blacks. In one of the houses we visited, Mr. and Mrs. Johnson and their 10 children represented the face of Weeksville, circa 1900. Families from the South, the Caribbean, Ireland and Germany lived amongst the houses. Walking through the kitchen, looking at historic utensils, wash basins and furniture, we learned a lot about life for a working class family in parts of Brooklyn that were still mostly rural.
As the decades progressed and urban blight took hold in the 1950s, Weeksville was abandoned and started “hiding in plain sight, lost in the brush of wild growth” as explained to us by Anna Maternick, an educator at Weeksville. Urban renewal came along and tore down most of the historic area, but in 1968 neighborhood activists started to make some noise. Activist Joseph Haynes and his mentor Professor James Hurley of Pratt Institute, rented a small plane and flew low over the neighborhood (!!) in order to spot these small wooden houses. Weeksville had been rediscovered and heads began to turn. In one memorable and effective event, local Boy Scouts who had been engaged in archaeological digs, presented their artifacts to the Landmarks Preservation Commission in full uniform! The site was landmarked in 1971.
Work and fundraising has occurred over the past few decades, and in 2005 the Weeksville Heritage Center opened to the public. A $23 million, 19,000 square foot expansion will bring a massive addition to the four preserved houses at Bergen Street and Schenectady Avenue. Performance, education and office space including a library, café and sculpture garden are in the throes of construction, and should be open to the public this time next year. Tours are available year-round, and everyone should learn this extraordinary story, hidden in plain sight.
By Jonah Levy