How the Free Black Community of Weeksville Rose in 19th-Century Brooklyn
In 1838, free Black people determined to have a safe haven of their
own established Weeksville, a settlement tucked away in what is now the
Brooklyn, New York, neighborhood of Crown Heights. Four wood-framed cottages,
known as the Historic Hunterfly Road Houses (shown above), are all that remain today of this
pre–Civil War enclave, which once was among the country’s largest independent
19th-century Black communities.
Weeksville attracted Black people from the North and South. Some had been born free and others had been born enslaved and escaped, but all who moved there wanted the opportunity to thrive. They found that in Weeksville. Their rich stories came to light in the rediscovery of these houses more than five decades ago.
“Growing up in Brooklyn, I didn’t know about Weeksville until I was an adult,” says Zulmilena Then, who oversees the maintenance and restoration of the Hunterfly Road Houses as preservation manager at the modern-day Weeksville Heritage Center.
Believed to have been constructed between the 1840s and the 1880s, the houses were threatened by nearby redevelopment in the late 1960s. They were spared when rediscovered by locals who then teamed up with community members to form a grassroots preservation effort.
“These buildings are an anchor to our people and connection to … our past. [They] add to the pride that one feels about the neighborhood itself,” says Then.
Pride is also what Weeksville’s settlers felt for the community they established not long after slavery was abolished in New York state in 1827. Eight years later, African Americans started buying property as part of a rush of land speculations across the country.
“Weeksville tells a slightly different history than is traditionally told around 19th-century people of African descent and what was happening at that time,” says Prithi Kanakamedala, a historian and professor at Bronx Community College of the City University of New York.
“Weeksville is not an exception,” she says. “It’s a symbol of what was possible for free Black communities in the 19th-century United States, specifically in the city of Brooklyn. Black men in early 19th-century Brooklyn were seizing freedom for themselves and not waiting to see which way things were going to go in terms of legislation, in terms of legal rights.”
African American activist and abolitionist Henry C. Thompson knew the significance of land ownership for Black people in Brooklyn. He bought 32 lots that previously belonged to the Lefferts family, one of the city’s wealthiest landowners, and encouraged others to acquire property, as well. Thompson’s property was near a new railroad, making it accessible for commuting. In 1838, a Black stevedore named James Weeks bought two of the lots and built a house on his new land, establishing the community of Weeksville. It was located just outside Brooklyn’s boundaries at the time, roughly bordering Fulton Street, East New York Avenue, Ralph Avenue, and Troy Avenue.
Other African American investors soon followed, building houses of their own in a rural landscape amid hills and woods. Black newspapers even ran advertisements about land in Weeksville. It was affordable and a place where Black people could build a community. But more than anything, buying property in Weeksville secured political power.
After New York state amended its constitution in 1821, white men no longer needed any property to qualify to vote. But the restriction remained for Black men, who were not permitted to cast a ballot unless they owned $250 worth of property. “To put that in context, that [amount] would be a working man’s annual wage,” says Kanakamedala.
Essentially, African Americans started buying affordable property in Weeksville so they could vote. A year after James Weeks settled, a Black shoemaker named Francis P. Graham arrived. Born around 1800 in South Carolina, Graham would become a substantial landowner in the neighborhood. Historian Judith Wellman wrote in her 2014 book Brooklyn’s Promised Land: The Free Black Community of Weeksville, New York that Graham reportedly bought 24 lots on Hunterfly Road, as well as other lots nearby. Sylvanus Smith, a prosperous African American farmer, was another early investor who purchased multiple lots. By 1840, 27 families lived in the community. Of that number, 24 families were Black and three were European.
And the growth only continued. With a population of more than 36,000 in 1840, Brooklyn was the second largest city in the state after New York City. The Brooklyn docks connected city ports with other destinations across the country and in Europe, creating a constant flow of goods, which meant jobs. Weeksville residents were able to provide for their families by working as seamen, stewards, manufacturers, farmers, and grocers. A few became educators and preachers.
“It is an intentional free Black community that is self-determined. It intentionally has its own schools, newspapers, churches, businesses,” says Kanakamedala.
Along with owning land to obtain voting rights, Weeksville founders placed a priority on education. In 1840, Colored School No. 2 opened in the community.
Junius C. Morel became one of Weeksville’s most prominent educators. Born in the Carolinas, Morel became an abolitionist and a prolific writer, penning a number of articles promoting education and integration in public schools for Frederick Douglass’ newspaper The North Star and for The Christian Recorder, the national newspaper for the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church. Morel settled in Weeksville around 1847, becoming the principal of Colored School No. 2.
Weeksville continued to thrive into the 1850s. By 1855, there were around 521 residents, a sizable community at the time, says Kanakamedala. Weeksville also had at least one newspaper, Freedman’s Torchlight, as well as an active religious community that attended Bethel Tabernacle AME Church and Berean Missionary Baptist Church. Eventually, there was even a baseball team called the Weeksville Unknowns, and a cemetery. (The latter was ultimately sold to the city and the remains there were re-interred at another cemetery.) The founders had succeeded in establishing a community where Black people could earn a living, educate their children, and live safely in their own homes.
But however stable homelife appeared in Weeksville, white mob violence was still a threat elsewhere in the area.
“White supremacy was very much the norm in Manhattan and Brooklyn. These weren’t isolated incidents,” says Kanakamedala. “Black Brooklynites realized that they wanted somewhere that would offer both safety and refuge.”
Protection within the community of Weeksville became essential in the years leading up to the Civil War.
When the Fugitive Slave Act passed in 1850, no state could protect the rights of any Black person accused of escaping slavery. African Americans who’d been enslaved and had found freedom in the North could still be wanted in the South for fleeing. Given that they were at risk of being kidnapped by slavecatchers patrolling the North, escapees used Weeksville as a hiding place, and it likely became a stop on the Underground Railroad.
The Dred Scott decision in 1857 (video), in which the Supreme Court ruled that Black people could not be citizens, served as a further blow to the African American community. Just a year later, Black abolitionist Rev. Henry Highland Garnet, a Weeksville resident, and a few other leaders in the community founded the African Civilization Society to promote emigration to Liberia. The organization later established its headquarters in Weeksville.
Rev. Garnet’s push for Black emigration didn’t materialize, and racial conditions continued to deteriorate in New York. Irish Americans angry about being drafted to fight in the Civil War argued that they had not benefited from slavery and were also marginalized. They unleashed a litany of destruction known as the 1863 New York Draft Riots. Over three days, they destroyed government buildings and property in Manhattan, including the Colored Orphan Asylum, forcing children to escape out the back door as the building burned. The riot turned into a targeted attack on Black people, particularly Black men, who were exempt from the draft as non-citizens. More than 100 people were killed and thousands of African Americans were driven from their homes, some fleeing to Weeksville.
After the war, Weeksville continued as a Black community and welcomed more people. The Howard Orphan Asylum and the Zion Home for the Aged opened. But as Brooklyn expanded, demographic changes had a domino effect on the community. By 1865, more Europeans had moved in, and Weeksville was no longer majority African American. The founders were also dying: James Weeks, Junius Morel, and Rev. Simon Bundick (the pastor of Berean Missionary Baptist Church) all died in the 1860s or ’70s.
A new generation with roots in Weeksville kept the community significant after the war, nonetheless.
Susan Smith McKinney-Steward, daughter of original investor Sylvanus Smith, was the first Black woman medical doctor in New York state. Born in 1847, McKinney-Steward graduated from New York Medical College for Women and began practicing in 1870. Her older sister, Sarah Smith Tompkins Garnet, born in 1831 and married to Rev. Henry Highland Garnet, became the first Black woman to serve as principal of a New York public school in 1863.
But a new wave of successful professionals couldn’t stop urban changes. Brooklyn’s grid system added parkways, paved streets, and roads—flattening Weeksville’s hills and woods while demolishing structures in the process. The Brooklyn Bridge opened in 1883, and Brooklyn became a borough of New York City in 1898. By then, Weeksville was completely absorbed into Brooklyn, losing much of its original features and history.
During the first half of the 20th century, Weeksville all but disappeared. The orphanage and aged home moved locations and most of the wood-framed houses were demolished; row houses often took their place. In 1941, the New York City Housing Authority replaced all the buildings on Francis P. Graham’s land with the Kingsborough Houses, a public housing project spanning four blocks and comprising more than 1,100 apartments, directly across from the Hunterfly Road Houses.
“A lot of the history is erased in demolition in the name of urban renewal,” says Zulmilena Then.
But the pre–Civil War community was rediscovered in the late 1960s, after Brooklyn educator James Hurley surveyed the historic neighborhood from a low-altitude flight with pilot Joseph Haynes. Their flight sparked a wave of publicity about the remaining wood-framed cottages.
The Hunterfly Road Houses, which originally lined Old Hunterfly Road, have current addresses of 1698, 1700, 1702-1704, and 1706-1708 Bergen St. and range in size from 858 to 1,472 square feet, says Then. Records suggest that the houses were likely moved to their current location when the lots were owned by German carpenter Frederick Volkening in the early 1870s. But the architecture evokes pre–Civil War features and indicates that the structures were built before 1850, as described in Wellman’s book. Such details include heavy timber framing and hand-wrought and hand-cut nails, as well as central chimneys, interior fireplaces, and gables that were parallel to the street.
Because the Hunterfly Road Houses were endangered, Hurley and others summoned the community to organize an archaeological dig before it was too late. With the help of the Boy Scouts, youth groups, neighborhood residents, and children from P.S. 243 (now also called The Weeksville School), many artifacts were uncovered near the four houses, including an 1890s tintype known as the Weeksville Lady. The threat of development receded, and by 1972 the Historic Hunterfly Road Houses had been named a city landmark and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The restoration and fundraising took years and is still ongoing. The late artist and community organizer Joan Maynard, a Crown Heights resident and the first Black trustee of the National Trust, led the campaign to preserve the houses, giving slideshow presentations, directing tours, and raising money. Maynard became the first executive director of the Society for the Preservation of Weeksville and Bedford-Stuyvesant History, now known as the Weeksville Heritage Center.
Under Maynard’s leadership, the houses received new roofs in the 1980s. But the process of preservation came with money struggles and setbacks. One of the houses burned down in the 1980s, and a replica was built on its site. Another was vandalized and looted. Architecture firm Wank Adams Slavin Associates restored the buildings with porches, wood fences, and outhouses in the early 2000s.
After Maynard retired, Pamela Green became executive director in 2001, continuing to raise money for preservation and for a state-of-the-art community building. In 2014, the new Weeksville Heritage Center opened. The energy-efficient, 23,000-square-foot complex designed by Caples Jefferson Architects includes a 110-seat performance theater, cafe, and exhibition space, with gardens designed by landscape architect Elizabeth Kennedy.
The Hunterfly Road Houses are furnished to reflect various time periods in which they were inhabited, including the Civil War era, the early 1900s, and the 1930s. Reproduction newspapers, photographs, and other period features are on display. The center offers public tours throughout the week, as well as exhibits, performances, and educational programming. In 2018, the Weeksville Heritage Center received a $75,000 grant from the National Trust’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund to create the preservation manager position currently held by Zulmilena Then. In 2019, the fund provided another $200,000 to the site through the William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust.
Anthropologist Raymond Codrington signed on as president and CEO of the Weeksville Heritage Center in 2021, two years after Weeksville became part of the city’s prestigious Cultural Institutions Group. Membership in this distinguished cluster makes it easier to obtain municipal funding, which is vital to the site’s mission to engage the community and preserve its storied history.
As Maynard said in a 2001 New York Times interview: “The Weeksville houses were a source of hope to the people who once lived here and they can be hope for the people who live in this community now.”
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