For Us By Us: Save Weeksville Heritage Center

In 2015 I was taking one of my first Africana Studies classes in college. As part of our grade we had to visit Weeksville Heritage Center and write a short paper on it. At the time I had no clue what Weeksville was and was shocked when I realized the center was located in a neighborhood that I frequented often. Crown Heights, Brooklyn. I went to high school not to far from the center and it’s existence was never brought to my attention. After visitng the center I was blown away by the history that lived there. It truly was one of the turning points in my life, where I promised myself to learn as much of my history as I could, whether someone decided to teach it to me or I dug it up myself. I’ve learned so much since that day and I thank Weeksville Heritage Center for opening my eyes to a history that was so lost to me.

There are so many communities like Weeksville that existed across the nation, now wiped away and replaced with few people even knowing they were there. Our history is literally being erased right infront of our eyes and we are hesitatnt to do something about it. Whether you are from Brooklyn or not, as a Black person living in this country, this history is a part of all of us and we must fight to preserve it.

In the past month or two, following the tragic death of Nipsey Hussle, we’ve seen so many people praise him for the way he uplifted and protected his community. Many of us vowed to continue his work. Let’s stay true to our word. This center needs us. Lets protect and preserve our history. If we don’t care then why should anyone else. Let’s show them what we can do when we really come together, that we won’t be erased that easily.

If you need more persuasion look up communities like Seneca Village (now Central Park), Freedman’s village in Arlington (now Arlington National Cemetery), and the forgotten history of U Street in Washington, DC to understand why preserving Weeksville is so important. Other places include sections of Atlanta, Tulsa, and California.

Here is a piece of a paper I wrote back in 2015 and I hope it inspires you to open your hearts and your wallets to DONATE or help in any way, no matter how little. It all helps.

No one is going to save us but us. 

Weeksville Heritage Center 158 Buffalo Avenue Brooklyn, NY 11213

Rediscovered in 1968 by a class study taking place as part of a class at Pratt Institute, Weeksville Heritage Center is Brooklyn’s largest African American cultural institution dedicated to preserving the history of a 19th century community. Weeksville, Brooklyn, named after James Weeks, a longshoreman from Virginia, came about after he purchased a sizeable amount of land in 1838. Little did he know that this land would go on to blossom into a thriving and self sufficient African American community. Weeksville became a safe haven for runaways and free blacks who wanted to get away from racial hatred and violence. One of American’s first free black communities, Weeksville is the 2nd largest known independent African American community to exist pre-civil war. This was the only black community where residents were distinctive for their urban occupations, as opposed to rural ones. They had their own schools, churches, black owned businesses, and one of the country’s first African American newspapers, The Freedman’s Torchlight. As Brooklyn began to expand, Weeksville began to diminish. City street grids began to run through houses and farm lands, Weeksville Cemetery was destroyed to make room for Eastern Parkway, and residents either adjusted to the changes or left.

Covering seven blocks, Weeksville served (and still does) as a model of African American entrepreneurial success, political freedom, and intellectual creativity. Residents took part in major national movements against slavery including the Black Convention Movement, Suffrage, the Underground Railroad, and much more. The historic Hunterfly Road Houses are the only remaining remnants of this community. These homes were continuously inhabited from their construction up to 1968 when purchased by the Weeksville Heritage Center. 

What is often referred to as The Great Dig took place in 1968 in an effort to preserve this part of African American history. Members of the community (parents, children, teachers, archeologist, historians, etc.) came to together to save these homes. They needed to prove their historical significance, so an archeological dig took place that uncovered the evidence they needed. Hunterfly Road Houses were officially declared a New York City landmark in 1970. In 1971 and 1972 it was placed on the Nation Register of Historic Places. Without these houses all evidence of this community would have vanished. Notable residents include Dr. Susan Smith Mckinney-Steward (the first African American doctor in New York state) and Junius C. Morel (a well known educator, journalist, and activist) just to name a few. 

Seeing the houses really intrigued me. As I was standing outside in front of them I tried to picture what this road would have looked like on a typical afternoon. Standing in a place with so much real historic value, gave me a great sense of pride in my people. Unlike what we are taught in our school systems, it’s amazing to see the real history of my people up close and personal. The houses were beautiful inside and out, showing that black people were not just poor, low-class citizens. We were able to develop our own and thrive in the process. It saddened me as I looked around at the present day surroundings of these homes. To know that this part of central Brooklyn went from being a thriving and successfully free African American community, to one that is poverty stricken and filled with people who are so dependent on others. Looking across to Kingsborough Housing Projects I tried to picture what it looked like in the past. How could a community change so drastically when the foundation for a successful and growing black community was laid out for future generations. Lack of knowledge and information leaves us with an attitude of taking whatever we can get. I pray that all of us learn from the people of Weeksville and can someday replicate what they once gave birth to.

The family portraits, the dolls laid out on the bed, and the furniture all touched me deep. It made me want to know these people. What were their personalities like, what did they aspire to be? What were their lives like? I especially liked the last house on the end. When I walked inside I immediately was taken back by the beauty of the furniture. The bedrooms upstairs gave me a feeling that someone was there. I was very interested in the preservation of these homes and being able to stand in the same space as these people was an amazing feeling.

Looking back on Leslie M. Harris’ book, In The Shadow of Slavery, her talk of free African American communities developing and thriving left me wondering what other places like this have vanished from our sights. Many of these families, as told to us in our readings, were not poor and could do for themselves. This spoke volumes about the economy of New York back then and black labor. These people were able to work and acquire a space that they could call their own.

Take a moment to DONATE and share this information with family and friends. Let’s protect what’s ours!

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