As I move through the present-day enclave of Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, I often find myself wondering how did men and women of African heritage fare in 19th century Brooklyn? When they decided to relocate to Brooklyn’s Weeksville Village, what were they looking for? Were they looking to make a “political” statement? Was this finally an opportunity to escape oppression and establish of a community they could now direct? Was this their chance to emulate a world that, until now, they could only impact from the periphery?
In reality, those who made their home in Brooklyn’s Weeksville Village did very well for themselves. They were part of a community that was structured, precise and confirmed to the highest standards of excellence. They were leaders, activists, business men and women who were held in high esteem. If you are ever able to spend time with Pamela (Pam) Green, Executive Director of Weeksville Heritage Center, the history lesson you will receive underscores their many accomplishments.
You can hear the pride in Pam’s voice as she recounts the Center’s decision to renovate the Hunterfly Road Houses which are all that remain of Weeksville Village; one of the few surviving pre-Civil War African-American communities. In 1838 James Weeks, a free man who was also a stevedore, purchased a parcel of land in Central Brooklyn’s Ninth ward from another free man Henry C. Thompson. This transaction took place 11 years after the abolition of slavery in New York State.
Weeksville was home to prominent ministers, teachers and other professionals, including Dr. Susan McKinney Steward, the first female African-American physician in New York State and Wiley Overton the first African-American to be hired by the Brooklyn Police Department (prior to 1898 incorporation of the five boroughs into the City of New York).
Weeksville had two churches, Bethel Tabernacle African Methodist Episcopal Church and Berean Missionary Baptist Church. Of the two churhes, Berean is still in operation today. There was also a school, an orphanage, a cemetery, an old age home, a benevolent society and one of the first African-American newspapers, the Freedman’s Torchlight. During the violent New York Draft Riots of 1863, the community served as a refuge for many African-Americans who fled from Manhattan.
Pam and the Center’s Board of Directors have an awesome vision for Weeksville’s future. Later this year construction of a 19,000 square foot Certified LEED Gold Sustainable Education and Cultural Arts Building will be complete. This facility will house a resource center, classrooms and a media lab, workshop space and an oral history studio. There will also be a 700 foot gallery space and a 200-seat performance space. The grounds will boast a 1.5 acre landscaped space with a micro farm and heritage-based botanic collection. Pam is hard at work overseeing fundraising for this project and is excited about the future.
In Pam’s own words:
“I thought that this was an institution that needed to be preserved. And it needed care, it needed visibility,” Green said. “And it had, and it still has, tremendous potential to not only teach people about a little-known aspect of African American history, but also, use that history, making it relevant to the 21st century.”
For this vision, we at Brooklyn Legends proudly salute Pamela E. Green, preserver of our legacy for the future!
We encourage you to make Weeksville Heritage Center the next stop on your tour of Brooklyn.
Pamela E. Green courtesy of the National Park Service
Hunterfly Road House courtesy of nylandmarks.org
Weeksville Interior courtesy of Weeksville Heritage Center