Gowanus Lounge: Serving Brooklyn

Urban Environmentalist NYC: Weeksville History Revealed

June 27th, 2008 · No Comments


Back in 1968, James Hurley and pilot Joseph Haynes set out to research an old neighborhood, Weeksville, for a Pratt Neighborhood College Workshop. After consulting old maps, they decided to search for signs of the old neighborhood from the air. Flying overhead, they noticed an oddly situated lane with four run-down wooden houses set back from the street and hidden by an overgrown yard. These same streets turned out to be the last remaining residences of 19th Century Weeksville. The lane they spied in the air was part of the old Hunterfly Road, once a main road on the eastern edge of Weeksville.

Weeksville’s history is a long and interesting one. In 1838 (11 years after slavery ended in New York), free African American James Weeks purchased a plot of land from Henry C. Thompson, another freedman. That parcel of land quickly became a safe haven for southern Blacks fleeing slavery and free northern Blacks fleeing racial discrimination and violence in the larger community—including the Civil War Draft Riots in Manhattan, one of the more painful chapters in City history. By 1850, Weeksville became the second largest independent African American community in pre-Civil War America.

It had a higher rate of African American ownership of property than 15 other U.S. cities. And by the 1860’s, it had its own schools, churches, an orphanage and an old age home. It also supported a variety of Black-owned businesses and the country’s first African American newspaper. Its citizens included Alfred Cornish, a member of the 54th Regiment, immortalized in the film Glory and Dr. Susan Smith McKenny-Steward, the first African American female doctor in New York State and the third in the nation.

When the houses were discovered by Hurley, they were scheduled for demolition because the site was about to be cleared for a housing development. Racing against time, Hurley, with the community’s backing, organized a grassroots effort to save the house. These unrelenting efforts proved successful. The houses were officially declared New York City landmarks in 1970 and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970/71. For more on Weeksville’s past, current history and future, check the Historic Weeksville website at www.weeksvillesociety.org. To experience its history first-hand, join the Center for the Urban Environment this Saturday, June 28, for a tour guided by Jennifer Scott, staff member at the non-profit. For more information, check Urban Tours at www.bcue.org or call 718-788-8500, ext. 217.

(Ruth Edebohls is the Coordinator of Urban Tours at the Center for the Urban Environment. To learn more about the Center visit us at www.bcue.org.)

Tags: CUE · Urban Environmentalist