The Weeksville Heritage Center. Photo: Epicenter NYC

Walking along Crown Heights’ Buffalo Avenue, it’s easy to miss a significant piece of New York City’s Black history: the four remaining homes of Weeksville, a historic African American community established in the 1830s, which once occupied what is known today as Crown Heights, Bed Stuy, and Brownsville. Residents were self-sufficient and politically active. 

Earlier this month, Epicenter NYC hosted a tour at the Weeksville Heritage Center, and as the new editorial director, I had the opportunity to attend. I thought I already knew a lot about Weeksville’s history, but the experience revealed how much more there was to learn. 

The intentional creation of Weeksville

The 1830s was a difficult time for Black New Yorkers. While slavery had been abolished in the state, freedom didn’t necessarily mean peace. African Americans still faced racial violence and discrimination in housing, employment, and education, and those who were business owners often dealt with vandalism. 

Black men could only vote if they owed $250 worth of land, which was about a yearly income. 

However, an African American abolitionist, Henry C. Thompson, understood the importance of land ownership. 

In 1837, when a financial crisis caused wealthy white landowners to liquidate their holdings, Thompson bought 32 lots of land from the Lefferts family, whose presence in the area dates back to the 1600s, when they began settling parts of what would later be called Flatbush. He encouraged other Black families to purchase land. 

In 1838, a Black dock worker named James Weeks bought two lots from Thompson. Weeks built a house for himself and essentially started the Black community that bore his name: Weeksville. 

Weeks and other founders built the community because they needed a better life for their families. 

By 1855, there were more than 500 people who lived there. They were farmers, abolitionists, and doctors. They were from the northern states, the South, and the Caribbean. Some were enslaved and escaped, while others were born free. Weeksville had schools, churches, and at least one newspaper, Freedman’s Torchlight. They even had a competitive baseball team.

And because many were property owners, Weeksville also had social and political power. 

“We get this real sense of a diverse community that’s finding each other and building something together,” says Dominique Jean-Louis, the chief historian at the Center for Brooklyn History, which is a part of the Brooklyn Public Library. 

At the time, NYC wasn’t incorporated. Manhattan and Brooklyn were separate cities without connecting bridges, and Brooklyn remained rural. This isolation and lack of infrastructure allowed Weeksville to thrive undisturbed by racism.

The four houses at the Weeksville Heritage Center are known as the Hunterfy Road Houses. Photo: Epicenter NYC

Support in the fight against slavery

Weeksville families were protected from the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which mandated the return of freedom seekers to their enslavers, even in free states. This meant any Black person in New York City could be kidnapped and sent South based on an accusation they were enslaved. But the seclusion of Weeksville gave them safety. 

The seclusion and solidarity may have also given safety to those traveling along the Underground Railroad. 

“There’s not a smoking gun. We don’t know for sure that Weeksville was a quote-unquote stop,” Jean-Louis explains.  

She says it’s clear that the political affinities and the social networks that existed would have been sympathetic to ending slavery and offering freedom to people who were seeking it. Considering some residents there were born in the South, this leads historians to believe that if it weren’t a stop on the Underground Railroad, it would have been a place where people who had emancipated themselves ended up or a place where its residents were providing support for those who were fighting against slavery. 

“While the Underground Railroad is important, it’s so necessary that we understand that the larger abolitionist movement and the larger network and support system that was needed to fight against slavery does not begin and end with the Underground Railroad,” Jean-Louis says. She explains that while historians can make an educated guess that Weeksville was involved in the Underground Railroad, it wasn’t the only way residents might have played a role in the fight against slavery. 

The Mid-Hudson Anti-Slavery History Project, which is a part of the Underground Railroad Consortium of New York State, is creating a map to locate other free Black communities. Executive Director Peter Bunten has been researching how they worked together. 

The mythology of the underground railroad is all of these poor, downtrodden, enslaved people running away and getting helped by all these wondrous white Quakers and other white people to get into Canada. That’s a myth,” he says.

Throughout New York City, there were operations set up to help freedom seekers, including boat workers, a common occupation for both free and enslaved Black people, says Bunten. “Some were boat pilots, some were stewards, etc.,” he says. “There would be some natural affinity between the freedom seekers and the free Blacks who were already working to help that movement along.” 

Some of those operations were connected to Black towns like Weeksville because freedom seekers knew they could be trusted. 

The Draft Riots

During the 1863 Draft Riots, Weeksville became a safe haven for additional Black families. The federal government needed more men to fight in the Civil War. It initiated a draft that impacted male citizens, which included Irish immigrants, many of whom were already upset over fears that Black people from the South would take their jobs after emancipation. 

African Americans couldn’t be drafted because they weren’t considered citizens. 

For five days, angry Irish immigrants unleashed terrorism in Manhattan—the largest social uprising in New York City’s history, according to Jean-Louis.

“The death count, it’s hard to tell exactly, but the numbers range from dozens to a thousand,” she says. 

The Colored Orphan Asylum in Midtown was set on fire. Children were forced to escape out of a back door and watch the only home they knew burn to the ground. 

Many, even if their homes or businesses were not set on fire or loved ones killed, left for Weeksville craving safety.

Rediscovering Weeksville

Through the years, the demographics of Brooklyn have changed. Many of Weeksville’s homes were demolished, and Brooklyn’s growth overshadowed it. Weeksville’s significance was largely forgotten until 1968, when a historian and a pilot surveyed the neighborhood from a low-altitude plane. They discovered four small buildings: dilapidated, overgrown with bushes, but still standing along a dirt path once called Hunterfly Road. Neighborhood volunteers, including children, held an archeological dig and uncovered artifacts. 

In 1970, the Weeksville Heritage Center was established, and in 1972, the buildings became an official city landmark listed on the National Register of Historic Homes. 

The Epicenter NYC group at the Weeksville Heritage Center. Photo: Epicenter NYC Credit: Epicenter

Preserving history and shaping its future

The Weeksville Heritage Center offers guided tours, which I went on with other Epicenter NYC members. 

We visited three homes depicting life from the 1840s to the 1930s. They were filled with pieces of the past. One home had a straightening comb women would heat on the stove before running it through their hair. The experience gave us a glimpse into the life of Weeksville’s founders and their families. 

“To have those physical remnants and to be able to take people through the houses and tour them is a gem,” says Erica Harper, the vice president of the Weeksville Heritage Center. 

Epicenter NYC members on the tour agreed. 

I think I waited far too long to come,” said Brooklyn resident Mark McNulty. “I appreciated not only the emphasis on knowing history but that history changes over time as new information is uncovered and recontextualized,” he says. 

Park Slope author Tonya Hopkins says she’s grateful that the homes miraculously survived for nearly two centuries. “They are tangible ways to time travel and to really experience history,” she says. 

The Weeksville Heritage Center serves as a reminder of the resilience and ingenuity of the African American community in New York City. However, as the demographics of the surrounding neighborhoods change, the risk of historical erasure becomes pronounced. Yet, Weeksville offers a bridge between past and present, inviting visitors to uncover and celebrate this history. Through engagement and education, Weeksville not only encourages the preservation of its stories but also ensures they are shared and embraced by all New Yorkers. 

“We’re really at risk of losing the fabric of this community. And so to have Weeksville smack dab in the middle of the neighborhood, I think, is so incredibly powerful. People pass it every day. They don’t always know what we are, but we smile at them through the glass, and they come in and are able to walk through the space, engage in it, and hopefully learn something right,” Harper says. 

You can support the Weeksville Heritage Center by taking a tour or donating here. 

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