a clip from "A Walk Through Brooklyn"
About weeksville from the Weeksville Society site
In 1838, only eleven years after slavery ended in New York State, free African American James Weeks purchased a modest plot of land from Henry C. Thompson, another free African American. That land in what is now Central Brooklyn became Weeksville, a thriving, self sufficient African American community. Weeksville quickly became a safe haven for southern Blacks fleeing slavery and free northern Blacks fleeing racialhatred and violence, including the deadly Civil War draft riots in lower Manhattan.
Weeksville Residents Established as a suburban enclave on the outskirts of Brooklyn, by 1850 Weeksville became 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.
Dr. Susan Smith McKinney-Steward By the 1860s, Weeksville had its own schools, churches, an orphanage, an old age home, a variety of Black-owned businesses and one of the country’s first African American newspapers, Freedman’s Torchlight. Almost 500 families headed by ministers, doctors, teachers, tradesmen and other self-reliant citizens lived in Weeksville by the 1900s. Its citizens included Alfred Cornish, a member of the 54th Regiment whose story was told in the film Glory; Dr. Susan Smith McKinney-Steward, the first female African American physician in New York State and the third in the nation, Moses P. Cobb, the first African American policeman in Brooklyn’s Ninth Ward, and Junius C. Morel, a well-known educator, journalist and activist.
Freedmans Torchlight Weeksville covered seven blocks and was a model of African American entrepreneurial success, political freedom and intellectual creativity. 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. According to one historian, Public School 83 in Weeksville became the first public school in the nation to integrate fully its teaching staff."
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 an historical footnote that historian James Hurley and pilot Joseph Haynes set out to research—from the air.
Discovering Historic Weeksville:
James Hurley The search for historic Weeksville began in 1968 in a Pratt Neighborhood College workshop on Brooklyn neighborhoods conducted by Hurley. Because so little was known at the time, the group focused on researching Weeksville. (Interesting fragments about the community was found in Eugene L. Armbruster’s book Brooklyn’s Eastern District.) When the workshop was completed, some of its participants continued their research on old Weeksville.
Joseph Haynes Historian James Hurley and pilot Joseph Haynes consulted old maps and decided to search for signs of the original neighborhood from above. From the air, they noticed an oddly situated lane with four run-down wood-frame houses set back from the street and behind an overgrown yard.
To their delight, the lane they spied from above was found to be a portion of Hunterfly Road, once a main road on the eastern edge of 19th century Weeksville. The run-down houses turned out to be the last remaining residential structures of 19th century Weeksville. They had been hiding in plain sight all those years because other roads and newer houses had been built around them. While dilapidated, these 19th century structures were still standing. However, they were being threatened with demolition because the land was about to be cleared for a new city housing project.
The Weeksville Lady Racing against time, Hurley organized an archeological dig at the site. Conducted by local boy scouts, children from nearby schools and a host of community volunteers, the archeological dig taught youngsters, college students and community residents about the area’s forgotten history. They learned how African Americans really lived in the 19th and early 20th centuries. A treasure trove of interesting artifacts was unearthed, including a 19th century tintype photograph of an unknown woman, later to become know as “the Weeksville Lady.” While some people volunteered with the archaeological dig, others gathered oral histories about old Weeksville from those who had once lived in the area.
The 19th century Hunterfly Road houses became a rallying point for the 20th century residents of Weeksville. In fighting to save the four old houses from destruction through urban renewal, the community also fought to save its own history. In the process, the 1960s Weeksville residents became as self reliant, creative and entrepreneurial as their 19th century counterparts.
The Hunterfly Road Houses The grassroots efforts to save the houses were widespread. School children collected and donated their money. They also held bake sales and a history fair. Historians, local activists and community residents reached out to various government agencies demanding that the old houses be restored and made into a museum. The New York Times and other newspapers reported on the rediscovered houses and the community’s efforts to save them.
These unrelenting efforts to call attention to and restore Weeksville’s only surviving structures eventually proved successful. The Hunterfly Road Houses were officially declared New York City landmarks in 1970. In 1971 and 1972 they were placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Community efforts to save the houses also led to the establishment of a modern-day Weeksville institution. When the Pratt Workshop led by James Hurley ended, a dedicated group of individuals continued the work of rediscovering Weeksville with Project WJoan Maynard Weeksville. The Society for the Preservation of Weeksville and Bedford Stuyvesant History was established in 1968. The Society was chartered as a not-for-profit, tax-exempt organization by the New York State Department of Education in 1971. James Hurley, the first director of Project Weeksville, became the Society’s first president. Joan Maynard , an artist and ardent supporter of the efforts to save the houses, became a founding member of the Society. In 1972, she became its president. She served as executive director from 1974 to 1999, when Pamela Green succeeded her.