A Visit to Weeksville: NYC’s African American Architectural Past
During these days when most travel and exploration are virtual, it is exciting to make a new in-person discovery. Having read in the New York Times about Weeksville, a pre-Civil War African American community, one of America’s first free Black towns, we decided on an outdoor visit to see Weeksville’s four surviving wooden houses on an old Indian Lane in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. The preservation of these homes stems from the efforts in 1968 of two New Yorkers, James Hurley, a historian, and Joseph Haynes, a pilot. Intrigued by a reference to Weeksville in a 1942 book, these two urban archaeologists were determined to locate what remained of this significant community. Based on their study of old maps and ingenious plane flights over Brooklyn, they found the site of historic Weeksville, a cluster of homes built around a central farm field.
Subsequent research, much of it spearheaded by the late Dr. Joan Maynard, a preservationist and activist, revealed that the community was founded in 1838 by a free Black man James Weeks, a stevedore. Weeks, who had purchased property from another free Black land investor, built an impressive house that became the cornerstone of the neighborhood. Eventually over 500 people, from the South as well as from all over the East Coast, lived there. Notably, almost one-third of the men in Weeksville owned land there at a time when to qualify as voters in New York, non-white men had to own real property valued at $250 or above.
Weeksville had its own churches, a cemetery, an old age home, and its own school, PS 2, the first school in the US to integrate both staff and students. Now known as PS 243, the school has kept its identification as the Weeksville School. Other significant cultural institutions, including the headquarters of the Freedmen’s Torchlight, one of the first African American newspapers, as well as the African Civilization Society and the Howard Colored Orphan asylum were located there. The community also provided safety for Black Americans escaping the violence in Manhattan during the 1863 draft riots.
Post-pandemic, we look forward to experiencing the interiors of the restored homes with their period furnishings, and to learning more from the personal stories of Weeksville’s original residents. Today an architecturally compelling contemporary education and cultural center adjacent to the site, the Weeksville Heritage Center, offers creative programs to further illuminate the history and artifacts, and the arts and legacy of freedom in Weeksville.