“Even colored people who had been free all their lives felt themselves very insecure in their freedom, for under this law the oaths of any two villains were sufficient to consign a free man to slavery for life.”
– Frederick Douglass on the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act
A major difficulty in writing about a place like Weeksville is I’m on heavily trodden and sacred territory. Many others — including some who have much stronger personal ties to it than do I — have investigated its importance in much more detail.
One could argue that Fulton Ferry and Clinton Hill have been fairly well mined as well. I would agree; however, the back-stories of those neighborhoods are really only of deep interest to a select few, in particular historians and residents. They don’t hold a special place in the collective history of an entire people. What follows is my attempt to give a sufficient general overview with suggestions for further reading.
For a visual supplement, I recommend Thirteen’s “The City Concealed” piece from 2009.
Slavery ends, Weeksville begins
The state of New York abolished slavery on July 4, 1827. Racial discrimination was still enshrined in its legal code, however; to vote, a black male had to own $250 of property, and must have been a resident for three years. (Any white male could vote, provided he had been a resident for one year.) In spite of efforts by some lawmakers to eliminate this discrepancy, it would remain in place until the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870.
Weeksville was founded just eleven years after the abolition of slavery, in 1838, when James Weeks settled on a plot of land he had purchased from Henry C. Thompson. While both were free African Americans, the honor of the name of the settlement went to Weeks, as he was the first to live there with his family. The area’s prominence as a free-black community — along with the opportunity to purchase land and hence to vote — enticed others to move there.
There is strength in numbers, and in addition to being a voting bloc, Weeksville served as a haven for blacks in several circumstances.
In 1850, the United States passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which threatened fines and prison time to anyone who would “aid, abet, or assist” or “harbor or conceal” escaped slaves. It also allowed whites to claim, in effect, that any black person was an escaped slave, and refused to the unfortunate party the opportunity to rebut such a claim. (The “two villains” referred to by Douglass were the claimant and the person apprehending the victim.) The community was active in supporting the Underground Railroad, but as of now, it is unknown if Weeksville served as an actual stop.
Tensions were intensified by the 1857 ruling in Dred Scott v. Sandford. In one of the worst decisions in Supreme Court history, the Court held that no black could become a citizen of the United States, and that simply entering a free state was insufficient to grant a slave his emancipation.
The Union’s institution of a draft in 1863 incited riots in Manhattan. Those eligible, mostly poor immigrant workers, were outraged at two populations: the affluent and blacks. Rich persons could pay $300 to buy their way out of the draft, while blacks were ineligible, since they weren’t full citizens. Some workers also believed that the Union’s success in the war would be bad for their own interests, as newly freed slaves would migrate north and compete for their jobs. The mob chased down, beat, and murdered several blacks.
Weeksville’s location in central Brooklyn was ideal for asylum. As I’ve noted, getting between New York and Brooklyn was expensive, and this prevented the riots from spreading to the latter city, especially three miles inland. According to the Christian Recorder of September 1863, “several hundred strangers” sought relief from Manhattan in the friendly confines of Weeksville until the anger subsided.
Growth and prosperity
At the end of the Civil War, Weeksville was a bustling black community, spread out over nearly one hundred present-day blocks. It was self-sustaining, with churches, schools (including Colored School No. 2), homes for orphans and the elderly, farms, and businesses. Some sources put it as the second-largest free-black community in the country. It even had its own baseball team, which beat the Colored Union Club of Hoboken 11-0 in 1860, in the first known game between black teams.
Weeksville also published one of the first black newspapers, The Freedman’s Torchlight. The newspaper was used mainly to promote literacy. It enjoyed wide circulation, even to some places out of state; the Heritage Center believes it might have even reached the south, where in some places slavery had ended only in the law and not in practice.
Diversification, decline, and discovery
The turn of the 20th century brought change to Weeksville. The 1883 opening of the Brooklyn Bridge — later supplemented by those of the Williamsburg (1903) and the Manhattan (1909) Bridges — heralded a new era of osmosis between the cities of New York and Brooklyn, which merged in 1898. Weeksville was subject to an influx of immigrants, many Irish and German. The neighborhood was engulfed by the growing Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood and ceased to be an independent community by the 1930s. (Weeksville today is considered part of Crown Heights.)
In 1968, historian James Hurley led a class at Pratt Institute on Brooklyn neighborhoods. Their attention turned to Weeksville, and they set out to unearth more information on the forgotten area. Hurley teamed up with pilot Joseph Haynes to fly over the area(!) in a two-seat plane. They noticed a few wood-framed houses in an alley, off-kilter from the grid. As it turns out, the homes had been on the Hunterfly Road, an ancient Lenape trading-path and, later, a colonial thoroughfare, which had been closed after the grid-system was fully in place in the latter half of the 1800s. (“Hunterfly” was an Anglicization of the Dutch name, Aander Vly, “to the low place” or “to the swampy place”.)
To prevent the houses from being razed as many others had, Hurley and his team needed proof that the buildings were of historical significance. Archaeological digs revealed a plethora of items, and the community rallied around the idea. In 1970, the Landmarks Preservation Commission bestowed protection on the site.
The Weeksville Heritage Center was founded soon after the discovery of the houses. Today, it maintains the site and the collection of artifacts, and gives tours of the buildings, which were opened to the public in 2005 after extensive renovation. (More on these when I recap my trip.) The Weeksville Cultural Center is under construction and is slated to open in early 2013; it will serve as a museum and an educational space.
Crown Heights and Weeksville by Wilhelmena Rhodes Kelly (Arcadia, 2009).
Weeksville then and now: the search to discover the effort to preserve memories of self in Brooklyn, New York by Joan Maynard and Gwen Cottman (Society for the Preservation of Weeksville & Bedford-Stuyvesant History, 1983).