Weeksville Heritage Center
The Weeksville Heritage Center is a historic site in the New York City borough of Brooklyn that was an important 19th century free black community, whose residents established schools, churches and benevolent associations and were active in the abolitionist movement.
Weeksville is a historic settlement of national significance and one of the few remaining historical sites of pre-Civil War African-American communities. The Heritage Center focuses on tours, arts and crafts, literacy and historical preservation programs for public-school students. The site is managed by the Weeksville Society, a historical society that maintains the 12,400-square-foot (1,150 m2) site comprising the historic Hunterfly Houses and an open grassy area.
The Heritage Center is located at 1698 Bergen Street between Buffalo and Rochester Avenues in Bedford-Stuyvesant.
History of Weeksville
In 1838, James Weeks, an African-American, bought a plot of land from Henry C. Thompson (another free African-American) in the Ninth Ward of central Brooklyn just 11 years after the abolition of slavery in New York State.
A 1906 article in the New York Age recalling the earlier period said that James Weeks, a stevedore and a respected member of the community, "owned a handsome dwelling at Schenectady and Atlantic Avenues." Weeksville, named after James Weeks, was home to ministers, teachers and other professionals, including the first female African-American physician in New York state, and the first African-American police officer in New York City. Weeksville had its own churches, a school, an orphanage, a cemetery, an old age home, an African-American benevolent society and one of the first African-American newspapers, the Freedman's Torchlight. During the violent New York Draft Riots of 1863, the community served as a refuge for many African-Americans who fled from Manhattan.
Rediscovery of the site
Weeksville was "rediscovered" in 1968 when mention of it was found in a book by a local historian. Its Hunterfly Road Houses are what remain of the community. The houses are New York City landmarks and are on the United States National Register of Historic Places.
The search for Historic Weeksville began in 1968 in a Pratt Neighborhood College workshop on Brooklyn and New York City neighborhoods led by James Hurley. Dolores McCullough and Patricia Johnson, two students in the workshop, became active and important contributors to the Weeksville Project. The existence of Weeksville was first discovered by Hurley in the book, Brooklyn's Eastern District by the Brooklyn local historian, Eugene Armbruster. Hurley, a local resident, researcher and former aerial photographer, and Joseph Haynes, a professional engineer, pilot and long-term resident of Bedford-Stuyvesant later reconnoitered and photographed the historic houses on Hunterfly Road during an airplane flight over the area. Hurley and Haynes had originally met at the Brooklyn Children's Museum and had collaborated on a walking tour of the area sponsored by the Museum of the City of New York. The old lane, located off Bergen Street between Buffalo and Rochester Avenues, was a remnant of the colonial Hunterfly Road. Hunterfly Road was at the eastern edge of the 19th Century Weeksville settlement.
After the rediscovery, an archeological dig was started when Hurley realized that a block of houses bounded by Troy Avenue, Pacific Street, Schenectady Avenue, and Dean Street were about to be cleared to build new city housing under the Model Cities Program. Under the aegis of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Youth in Action anti-poverty program, summer interns of the Neighborhood Youth Corps were employed under what was initially called the Weeksville Project to explore the block as demolition of the houses occurred. The archeological site became the location of the present day Weeksville Gardens Houses belonging to the New York City Housing Authority. The Weeksville Project eventually developed into the longer-term legally incorporated entity, The Society for the Preservation of Weeksville and Bedford-Stuyvesant History, generally known as The Weeksville Society. The name of the historic houses site was updated in 2005 to The Weeksville Heritage Center after a major restoration of the Houses and was formally opened in a ceremony addressed by Senator Hillary Clinton.
2013 renovation and expansion of Heritage Center
The Heritage Center now features a $14 million 19,000-square-foot (1,800 m2) performance and educational program space, including a café and library. It was almost entirely financed with city money, and extends Weeksville’s offering to a broader spectrum of the community. The Heritage Center aspires to increase the number of visitors from the roughly 7,500 who visit annually to about 50,000.