Brooklyn's Weeksville Heritage Center
H-CivWar readers, today I am happy to present an impassioned review of a unique historic site that is little known outside of its Brooklyn home, the Weeksville Heritage Center. The author of this enlightening piece is Carlos A. Santiago, a professional public historian based in New York City. He is the Digital Collections Assistant at the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society. Carlos is also currently a student of the history of tourism and the New Deal in Puerto Rico. (Glenn D. Brasher, series editor)
Community and Resillence is the Brooklyn Way: The Weeksville Heritage Center
Carlos A. Santiago
"NEW YORK had slaves?!"
According to a former classmate of mine now teaching high school, this expressed shock is a common response from high school students every year in her class. This is concerning, but not at all surprising. I am sure that many Americans would also react with surprise to learn that American slavery did not start out as solely a southern problem, with even New York having a long relationship with the institution.
Still, when my friend told me about her students I wondered if there were any public history sites in New York that could educate students and general audiences about slavery here, or about the struggles of freed African Americans once slavery ended.
This led me to the public history gem that is the Weeksville Heritage Center in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. Weeksville was a community made possible in New York State after the Gradual Emancipation Act of 1799. This law freed enslaved black children, requiring them to be indentured servants until they reached young adulthood. In 1817, a new law passed freeing enslaved individuals born before 1799 with the condition that they would not gain their freedom until 1827. Thousands of enslaved blacks were freed in New York State as a result.
Weeksville was created in an era when African Americans viewed land ownership as a path to true freedom. Despite the high price of land in a time of rampant land speculation, in 1838 James Weeks, an African American dockworker from Virginia, managed to buy land in Brooklyn from a free African American land investor named Henry C. Thompson. This land became the core of a thriving African American neighborhood. Despite economic turmoil after the Panic of 1837, the community of Weeksville built its own institutions, including a school, charitable organizations, churches, an orphanage, and an old age home. Publishing one of America’s first African American newspapers, Freedman’s Torchlight, Weeksville was active in the abolitionist movement and was also home to many black professionals, including New York State’s first black female physician.
The lives of those freed African Americans and their descendants is the story Brooklyn’s Weeksville Heritage Center tells. The public history site faithfully preserves the four remaining houses belonging to African American families during New York’s antebellum and Civil War era. According to historian Judith Wellman, the Weeksville properties represented “physical safety, education, economic self-sufficiency, and political self-determination” for formerly enslaved blacks and their children. Weeksville is unique in that preserved buildings from pre-Civil War northern black communities are rare.
I visited the site this past fall. Upon entering the establishment, I walked through a modern facility surrounding the Weeksville houses. The facility serves as a buffer between the street and the houses. This space is used for events and displays art from black artists conveying the African American experience in New York City and the United States. This art is emotionally powerful. The poetry on the walls of the galleries, for example, expresses the trauma of the black diaspora, as peoples from sophisticated West African kingdoms were subjected to the barbaric inhumanities of western slavery.
Yet in between the trauma, I found resilient messages of beauty and hope through fashion, hip-hop, and photography. Viewing this art perfectly set the stage for what I experienced when I got to the site’s original houses.
To get to the houses, I stepped through a set of doors opening upon a grassy path. Walking on the grass felt like being transported to the mid-nineteenth century as I left the city’s concrete behind. The only reminders that I was still living in the twenty-first century were the facility behind me as well as the noise and tall buildings of modern-day Brooklyn that surround this historical oasis. Seeing the houses after walking passed trees that briefly blocked them from view was emotionally powerful. It was as if the branches were stage curtains slowly rising to signal that I was going to experience something majestic.
Still, my first observation was that by today’s standards these homes are small. Yet this does not make them any less important. They are well preserved, demonstrating that these homes meant the world to the black families that owned and lived their lives in them. Their preservation is a testament to the African Americans that came to Weeksville with the hope of creating a community where they could have their own schools, churches and businesses. Observing the houses in a state of solemn quietness made this experience feel sacred to me. The stillness here in the midst of the chaos of the city made me feel safe; a feeling many of the people that moved to Weeksville sought as they escaped the violence of New York City.
As I got closer, I found a mere panel in front of one of the homes that briefly details the significance of Weeksville. This panel speaks to the establishment of Weeksville and its role in opening its arms to the African Americans that were threatened and terrorized by the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act and the infamous draft riots of 1863. Blaming the war on blacks and fueled by a belief that freed blacks were taking their jobs, during the riots whites killed over 100 people on the streets and in fires, most of them black. Once order was restored, the black population in New York City declined. This caused many African Americans to move to Brooklyn, which was not annexed as a borough of New York City until 1898.
Weeksville welcomed many of these refugees and helped them feel safe amongst the rest of the community. Many of the folks that lived here were attempting not only to escape racism and violence, but were seizing the opportunity to create their own version of the American Dream. It is because of the industrious character of the community that it survived and flourished.
Today, the Weeksville Heritage Center emphasizes Weeksville’s legacy of survival and resilience, both in the preserved homes and its archival collections (available to both scholars and the general public). These themes still resonate for many reasons, not the least of which is because the institution has struggled to stay afloat financially. Most of Weeksville is now gone, so it is a minor miracle that these few homes still exist despite the gentrification that threatens predominantly African American and West Indian neighborhoods like Crown Heights. Despite this public history site being listed as a New York City Landmark and listed in the National Register of Historic Places, it had to temporarily close during a part of Summer 2019 due to lack of funding. Thankfully, the institution’s fundraising efforts led them to reopen before the fall season commenced.
Unfortunately, Weeksville clearly does not have the resources to have many interpretive markers and programs (walkup tours are limited to just three days a week and only at 3 PM). The main drawback to this is that the lack of more interpretation makes the site less understandable and therefore underappreciated by those that are most unfamiliar with the antebellum and Civil War history of this neighborhood and New York.
Despite its limitations, the Weeksville Heritage Center is more than an historic site. This sacred place gives the public a glimpse of pre-Civil War black life in New York in a way that is difficult (if not impossible) to effectively interpret anywhere else. The Weeksville Heritage Center needs more funding to improve its interpretation for general audiences and to become better advertised. However, it will never improve if it closes its doors. We cannot let that happen. It is our duty as academics, public historians, and citizens to make sure Weeksville keeps its doors open.
If spreading love is the Brooklyn way, we can only hope that the Weeksville Heritage Center will get its fair share of love in the form of funding and attention sooner rather than later. A well-supported Weeksville Heritage Center provides us with the opportunity to teach the public that slavery’s legacy stretched well beyond the boundaries of the southern states. The essence of the story told here is that many of New York’s formerly enslaved African Americans built, sustained, and thrived in a neighborhood called Weeksville, which makes a place like this living proof that community and resilience is also the Brooklyn way.
Carlos A. Santiago, New York City