My family migrated to Brooklyn from Jamaica in 1979. I lived in Brooklyn through college graduation in 1987, after which I moved to North Carolina. In many ways, Brooklyn is home. I graduated from junior high, high school and college. I became an adult in this borough where communities were segregated, and yet the borough was as diverse as the four corners of the world. My family still lives there, in Brooklyn. I visit Brooklyn to see my parents, my brother and sisters, nephews and niece. Brooklyn is a big part of my life, my family’s and my teenage years. And yet, there was more to discover about this place I visit to see family and re-center my life from time to time.
My years in Brooklyn, particularly when I returned there to live while attending seminary, were years of self-discovery. I learned more about getting around the borough and explored places that I read about but never visited as a busy young adult. Returning to New York to live after being away for 11 years, brought me back to the city with a fresh eye and a gleaming curiosity. Places like the Brooklyn Public Library, the Brooklyn Museum and the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, are all places I visited upon return to see and explore rather than to do research or by-pass in a hurry. I learned about the history of its neighborhoods and became the proud owner of a coffee table book of Brooklyn’s Neighborhoods. I even know of some of the Underground Railroad stops in Brooklyn Heights.
Brooklyn is about its neighborhoods. Each one different, with a different set of peoples – or so it was – back in the day. Brooklyn Heights. Red Hook. Fort Green. Bedford-Stuyvesant. Midwood. Crown Heights. Prospect Heights. Sheepshead Bay. Bensonhurst. Flatbush. East New York. A long list of neighborhoods that afforded different sights and sounds that make for textured living in a city that does not sleep. I thought I knew Brooklyn.
However, on my last visit, on a beautiful spring afternoon in April, I had a profound lesson on the history of Brooklyn and was once again disturbed into the reality that there is so much that we miss or do not see in the places and people that are closest to us. I have spent so much time in Brooklyn that I was very surprised (and even embarrassed) to learn about the Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn. The center is a mere 0.7 miles from my parents house in Brooklyn where I lived for many years and visit often.
This history of Brooklyn is significant, because it is a hidden history of the lives of free Africans and their descendants who left Manhattan for a life of freedom in Brooklyn. It is a story of resilience and vision, in a time of enslavement and despair. I listened and took serious notes as the Tour Educator, Zenzele took the group through the story of these early Black residents of Brooklyn. The Weeksville Heritage Center was a welcome teacher, a keeper of a historical treasure, a place where the names of the Ancestors are remembered and treated with deep reverence.
The Weeksville Heritage Center is a museum and community center that is dedicated to preserving the history and legacy of this community in Brooklyn. The original Weeksville community was a part of what is now the Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhoods of Brooklyn.
Weeksville was one of the earliest and largest free Black communities in the United States. The community was started with the first land purchase in 1832. James Weeks, for whom Weeksville is named, made his purchase in 1838. Weeks’ purchase and those of the residents and investors of Weeksville came after the abolition of slavery in New York in 1827, but they were well before the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. Over 500 residents lived in this community of working blacks who were dedicated to being a self-sufficient community away from Manhattan.
Not much is known about James Weeks who was a 44 year old stevedore at the time of his land purchase. Mr. Weeks was neither the first nor the largest Black investor in this Brooklyn enclave. His may have been the vision for this intentional community where people of African descent could be self supporting and live in freedom and safety. His may have been the vision that started this community of affordable homes for Blacks where education was valued and provided for all. As Weeksville grew, it would eventually have its own school, churches, newspapers and homes for children and senior citizens. Businesses to support the community were also present: dressmakers, shoe makers and all industry needed to sustain the residents of Weeksville. The residents of Weeksville represented a variety of professions, a working people determined to have a better life fir themselves and their children for generations to come.
The plaque from the New York Landmarks Preservation Foundation (1989) now sits in front of the four modest frame houses that are the remnant of the Hunterfly Road Houses and the Weeksville community. The plaque tells some of the history of Weeksville:
HUNTERFLY ROAD HOMES
NOS. 1688, 1700, 1702-04, 1706-08 Bergen Streets
These four wooden houses, built around 1830, stood on the Old Hunterfly Road, used by the dutch as early as 1687, and abandoned with the introduction of the grid system in 1838. These houses were within the boundaries of the area known as Weeksville, a predominantly free Black community which grew up after the abolition of slavery in New York State in 1827. Many Black families took refuge here during the Civil War draft riots of 1863. At its peak, Weeksville had seven all Black institutions, including the African Civilization Society, the Colored Orphan Asylum, and the Home for Aged Colored People.
Weeksville took care of its own!
Hunterfly Road was a part of the Native American trail that later became the road used by the Dutch in the early days of Brooklyn. Brooklyn, like the other boroughs of New York City was the home of the Lanape who hunted and fished the rivers of early Brooklyn. The Dutch had already established settlements in other parts of Brooklyn when Weeks and others started buying property that was subdivided into lots and sold to Blacks. Weeksville was in the ninth ward – the furthest point away from Manhattan.
Weeks and other freed people of African descent who moved to the community were investing in the community, in themselves and in their future. Many of the residents of Weeksville were landowners, although some were renting. Landownership was necessary for Black men to vote. According a New York Times article on Weeksville which was printed 29 May 2016, there was power to owning property in Weeksville. “The New York State Constitution had been revised in 1821, granting universal suffrage to white men over 21, but black men had to own $250 worth of property to be eligible…The property requirement for black voters was not overturned until 1870 by the 15th Amendment.” Weeks wanted this place where Black men could own land to attain the right to vote.
The Weeksvile Heritage Center brings life to the Ancestors who occupied these homes and surrounding properties long demolished. Each of the four homes are from a different period in time. Our Tour Educator regaled us with tales and names of families who occupied the homes we visited. There were copies of the Freedman’s Torchlight on display with its news headlines and pages of resources for educating the community and teaching people to read was also used for Sabbath School education. The Freedman’s Torchlight and the National Monitor were at least two newspapers that were founded and published by the Weeksville Community.
The homes on display date back to the 1860s, 1900s and 1930s. The Johnson Family occurred one of the homes. Some of of the Weeksville Homes were rented, others were owner occupied. The Williams family lived here too. Their home is on St, Marks Avenue. Weeksville was 10% owner occupied. The furnishings of the homes and their structure transport visitors to another time, another world impacted by a lack of safety for Blacks in New York.
Weeksville grew in the aftermath of the 1863 New York City Draft Riots. The riots started as a protest against laws passed by Congress to draft men to fight in the Civil War which started in 1861. Those who did not want to be drafted could pay $300.00 or send a substitute. Others were entered into a lottery. What started as a protest against the draft, eventually turned into race riots that resulted in the lynching and killing of black men, women and children by angry mobs. At least 11 black men were lynched in the five days of 13-16 July 1863. Many Blacks residing in Manhattan fled to the safety of Weeksville and other parts of Brooklyn, far from the threats of life in Manhattan as White mobs took to the streets. Between 1860 and 1865, there was a significant increase in the Black Manhattan population, as increasing tension pushed Blacks out of Manhattan.
These July riots came months after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on 1 January 1863. Fear of the influx of slaves from the south, the mounting tensions as slaves were no longer free but paid labor in competition with White laborers, fueled the tensions in New York and other cities as the Civil War continued and the perceived threat and escalating fear of the free Black community increased.
The rolling hills of the lakes and streams of the community made for a flourishing community and safety for these residents. The growth of Weeksville occurred in the shadows of historical events that shaped and changed the United States. The New York City “draft riots” were as much about the draft as it was about economics and the Emancipation Proclamation. The protests were fueled by fear that led to the loss of lives of Black people who were deemed as less than Whites who were being drafted to fight the war at a time when Blacks were not being drafted. After all, Blacks were not
The Berean Baptist Church was a part of life in 19th century Brooklyn, much like the hundreds of other congregations that supported this new community. Judith Wellman wrote of this early church in her book Brooklyn’s Promised Land (also available from Amazon or at Weeksville Heritage Center). Hellman writes of Berean Baptist Church:
“On August 1850, a year after the official incorporation of Bethel A.M.E. Church, Berea Baptist Church was incorporated, also in the Ninth Ward. Unlike Bethel A.M.E. Church, Berean Baptist was originally a biracial church (Wellman, 61). The Whites eventually left Berean.
The heritage of James Weeks and the residents of Weeksville continue to influence this community. The Weeksville School bears the name of this historic community in which it sits. Outside on the wall of the school, a mural with an invitation to value a history long forgotten. The residential high rises that now mark the community are the result of urbanization of the 1960s in New York City. These residential buildings operated by the New York City Housing Authority are the landscape that replaced the rolling hills, streams, lakes and the modest homes of Black families who bought land so they could vote and fled to Brooklyn to be free. I like many, have seen the signs that are the school and the homes and look no further to discover what lies beneath the surface. I like many, did not take the time to stop and listen to the stories of a community and a past that is my own.
By the 1900s, Weeksville was a mixed race community. European migrants moved into the community and the lynchings increased. Then came Reconstruction and a renewed gentrification in the community. By the 1960s, Weeksville was no more. Much of the community of older homes was destroyed. Among those standing was the Williams home which was occupied by the grand-daughter of the original residents when the house was discovered in 1968.
The urbanization of the 1960s led to the re-discovery of Weeksville and laid the foundation for the Weeksville Society and its efforts to preserve the heritage and history of these freed Africans and their descendants, men and women who left their enslaved confines and lived in freedom. Men and women who themselves dared to fight for the freedom of others as a part of the anti-slavery moment.
May the lives, legacy and vision of these Ancestors give us boldness and courage to rise up with courage – one more time. Cherish the Past!
To learn more: Weeksville Heritage Center
Weeksville Heritage Center
150 Buffalo Avenue (between Bergen and St. Marks Ave)
Brooklyn, New York 11213