It was located in what is now Bed-Stuy!
Over the years there’s been a resurgence in interest regarding Black life pre and post-slavery. New knowledge has emerged regarding the origins of enslavement in America and its continuous impact on Black life, various contributions of Blacks during and after the Civil War in major American cities, and the presence of affluent Black communities that were impacted by racial violence. One of these communities, Weeksville, was located in Brooklyn before Brooklyn was a borough in New York City. Here’s everything you never learned about the once-thriving Black community:
According to BlackPast.org, Weeksville was built during the nineteenth century, one of the first towns created post-slavery for free Black people. In 1838, 11 years after slavery ended in New York, James Weeks, a free Black man, purchased an area of land from Henry C. Thompson, another free Black man. Weeks then went around the community, encouraging Black people to settle on the land, selling various lots and forming the community before naming it Weeksville.
In no time, residents in Weeksville thrived, and it became a refuge for African-Americans fleeing the terrors of slavery in the South as well as Black people in the North looking to evade draft riots and racial violence. By 1850, Weeksville was considered the second-largest neighborhood for free African-Americans pre-Civil War. Not only did Weeksville ensure that Black residents had employment opportunities, it was also a community filled with various doctors, entrepreneurs and professionals who were able to launch their private practices and maintain a steady clientele. The community developed their own schools, churches, elder care centers, benevolent associations and opened an orphanage by 1860. The community was also home to The Freedman’s Torchlight, one of the first African-American newspapers to debut in the country.
The community was a safe haven for abolitionists and community members galvanized around anti-slavery initiatives, promoting equality for free Black people, voting rights, Black conventions, and opposition to the New York City Draft Riots of 1863. After the Civil War, residents focused their efforts on promoting Freedmen’s schools in the South, supporting Black Nationalist endeavors in the North and strengthening racial pride through community empowerment. By 1900, Weeksville was home to more than 500 families, the community existing until the 1930s when Brooklyn began to grow, becoming virtually nonexistent by the time urban renewal came in the 1950s.
In 1968, engineer James Hurley and pilot Joseph Haynes uncovered four wooden cottages in the town formerly known as Weeksville. They worked to save and preserve them and the now Hunterfly Road Houses are the only existing remains of the once flourishing Black town. While the houses were initially set for demolition after their discovery, Joan Maynard, the first Executive Director of the Weeksville Society, and other community members, worked to preserve the historic landmarks, achieving official landmark status in 1971. In 2005, the homes were fully restored and open to the public.
Today, the “Weeksville Heritage Center is a historic site and cultural center in Central Brooklyn that uses education, arts and a social justice lens to preserve, document and inspire engagement with the history of Weeksville.” The center now focuses on being a place for scholarship and research on Weeksville and other free Black communities of the 19th and 20th century.
Now 185 years since its founding, Weeksville remains a blueprint for what can be accomplished when Black people are committed to creating communities that are for us and by us.
Here’s everything you never learned about Weeksville, the once-thriving Black community in Brooklyn. Weeksville’s Hunterfly Road Houses. Photo Courtesy of Devin Yalkin/The New York Times