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Weeksville , New York (1838-- )

 

Weeksville Heritage Center
Image Ownership: Public Domain

Weeksville was a nineteenth century free black community located in what is now the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn, New York.  It is remembered today as a historic site for its community programs, urban employment opportunities, and the promotion of racial respectability. In 1838, only 11 years after slavery ended in New York, Weeksville was formed by a free black man named James Weeks when he purchased a substantial area of land from Henry C. Thompson, another free black man.   Weeks then encouraged other blacks to settle on the property as he sold lots to the newcomers who named the community Weeksville.

Weeksville quickly became a self-sufficient and thriving free black community.   It also became a refuge for southern blacks fleeing slavery and for northern blacks who desired to escape racial violence and draft riots in New York and other cities. By 1850, it was the second largest community for free blacks in pre-Civil War America.
The community was known for employing blacks in urban occupations and it was a community where black doctors, professionals, and entrepreneurs were able to practice skills and develop clientele. Weeksville residents established churches, schools, benevolent associations, an elderly home, and had an orphanage by the 1860s. In addition to housing a variety of black-owned businesses, Weeksville saw the creation of The Freedman’s Torchlight, of one of the country’s first African-American newspapers.

Weeksville not only provided opportunities for blacks to attain entrepreneurial success, but also offered political and intellectual freedoms and was a site for abolitionist action. Community members participated in a wide range of anti-slavery action and promoted equal rights for free blacks, including voting rights campaigns, the black convention movement, and resistance to the 1863 New York City Draft Riots.  After the civil war it encouraged Freedmen’s schools in the South and supporting Black Nationalists aspirations across the North.  By the post-Civil War era, Weeksville had become an emblem of community empowerment and racial pride. By 1900, the community was home to over 500 families comprised of doctors, ministers, tradesmen, teachers, and laborers.

Even though the community existed until the 1930s, it was overtaken by the growth of Brooklyn and almost forgotten amidst urban renewal plans of the 1950s when many of its old buildings were replaced by newer structures.  In 1968, subway engineer James Hurley and pilot Joseph Haynes rediscovered and worked to save four wooden cottages, now known as the Hunterfly Road Houses, that are now the only existing remnants of 19th Century Weeksville. The homes were threatened by demolition plans shortly after their discovery but Joan Maynard, the first Executive Director of the Weeksville Society, was successful in leading youth groups and members of the community in a campaign to preserve the houses.  Weeksville achieved landmark status in 1971. In 2005, the four homes were fully restored and open to the public.

Sources:
Nicole M. Christian, “Hidden in Brooklyn, A Bit of Black History; Freedmen’s Homes Seen as Attraction,” The New York Times (October 29, 2001); Anthony Ramirez, “Haven for Blacks in Civil War Riots Now Safeguards History,” The New York Times (June 5, 2005); http://www.aaregistry.org/historic_events/view/weeksville-jewel-brooklyn-ny; http://www.weeksvillesociety.org/?page_id=37.

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