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For the Wise Man Who Used His Wealth to Change His Community: “Weeksville Heritage Center”















There is a house near my family home that always stands out in my mind. I have passed it countless times and each time I always seem to look up at it when I approach it. It is the first home I believe I ever saw that was a historic landmark. This house is even more special because it is in the hands of its private owners. There are no tours, no photos, and no modern additions. It looks the same as it always has to me for the last thirty-three years. I bet it has stood there much longer. Strangely I have never seen any of the occupants coming or going. It is always just standing there looming over the street waiting for some one to notice it. I always have.

There is something about old houses that have remained in the same condition. I feel like there is a story to be told and having a visual into the past makes it more realistic. There is a presence when you stand inside looking around trying to see a structure that holds amazing stories. It is the epitome of “if these walls could talk”.

When I am stepping back in time I always listen carefully taking in as much of the message as possible. In some ways I feel that it is my purpose to then share what I have witnessed, learned with others. There are these magical reminders of past, true stories that we could all benefit from. I hope that the enjoyment I have I can share with those who wouldn’t have otherwise known about it.

With that in mind there are a lot of historical places I want to see. To narrow it down I have only researched those that are in New York that I can reasonably get to. Others go in a travel folder.

Brooklyn isn’t often thought of as a land laden with historic homes. But the more I seek out these relics the more I am finding. For instance there is Greenwood Cemetery, a plethora of history that all New Yorkers can be proud of (see links below). I particularly fancy their Battle of Brooklyn annual event as well as their historic trolley tour.

I am trying to have an aggressive approach to scratching off the items on my 2105 to-do list (http://thequeenoff-ckingeverything.blogspot.com/). More than ever I am anxious to be out and about finally seeing what I have wanted to for so long. The perfect example is the subject of today’s blog, Weeksville Heritage Center.

A few years ago when I had first started making annual to-do lists I was so impressed with all that was around me that I had not known about or seen. It was then when a friend mentioned Weeksville to me. I had not previously heard of it so I began to research it. I was fascinated with what I learned. 

This brief piece illuminates Weeksville:


Upon looking into this tip I learned so many things it was almost too much to process. Actually it really seemed too good to be true. How had I never heard of this? Work of mouth on social media needs to be more excessive that is for sure. This is half of the reason I am writing this.








The neighborhood of Weeksville dates back to the 1830s and a man named James Weeks.  He bought plots of land that he then sold to fellow African Americans that came from all over the country. Here they would be landowners and thus able to vote. This community eventually grew to include several hundred members, among the most notable was the first African American cop and female doctor. Residents went to work as ministers, farmers, teachers, and so on. This was the first free African American community.












The people that lived and worked here were creating a middle class neighborhood and among the first to include African Americans as homeowners. This is unfathomable to me as slavery was still legal in much of the rest country. Just thinking of the inclinations of this dichotomy makes my head spin.

Furthermore there was even Colored School Two (now P.S. 243) which was the first school in the country to integrate BOTH teachers and students. Besides schools, 
the Weeksville society also had its own churches, orphanages, cemetery, old age home, and even their own newspaper, The Freedman’s Torchlight. Many historians believe churches in this area were probably stops on the Underground Railroad. Sadly there are no traces left.

There are now four remaining houses still in existence from the Weeksville era. Many were lost as the area now known as Crown Heights built up and out. The old houses were razed gradually and as the houses disappeared so too did the memory of their significant existence.

This all changed when Hunterfly Road was rediscovered and made a historic national landmark in 1970. This was the original road (now only appears as a dirt path) used to get to water. You really have to imagine this as another world; at least that’s how it seemed to me. The four remaining houses were added to the historic national landmark list in 1972. In 2005, current presidential candidate Hillary Clinton led the ceremony formally opening the houses to the world after restorations were completed. 

Along side Hunterfly Road stand the four houses that comprise the remaining Weeksville. In 2013 the Weeksville Heritage Center was created. It was built by the City of New York and receives city funding through the Cultural Affairs Department. It is also heavily reliant on private donations. Going forward the visitor’s center entry will have exhibits on the relics, artifacts, and personal belongings to further educate those who enter. Along with the actual houses, these items bring those who lived here back to life. As is, I almost half expected to see someone come out of the house like I was just stopping by.

The short walk from the center to the houses builds the excitement. It is important to note that the center doesn’t only provide information and entry; it protects these homes from the outside. The fence that surrounds the entire facility acts as a home for this entire period of history.

While there was no photography allowed in the houses, I managed to get many shots of all exteriors. If I turned left I was in the past when I turned right I was back in 2015. It is that clear of a distinction. The houses stand in a time period that no longer reflects its ancestors. Those visuals just increase the appreciation I felt being there.

The houses were bigger on the inside than I expected especially for the 1800s. There were multiple floors with reasonable sized rooms. I know that the families that lived here had several or more children and so things were more cramped than the empty rooms I was seeing. But you could picture the people that slept, ate, and lived there. These well-preserved Weeksville houses are a piece of nineteenth century history truly frozen in time.

This experience was just a vast difference when you compare these houses to the tenements (http://thequeenoff-ckingeverything.blogspot.com/2012/03/for-lessons-in-getting-by-tenement.html) immigrants lived in upon arriving to this country. Those too can be visited and picturing the large families that lived there it is more than clear it was a struggle.

To date this is the most positive experience I have had when tracing the history of African American culture. Normally we are focused on the Underground Railroad, slavery, and burial grounds (http://thequeenoff-ckingeverything.blogspot.com/2012/04/for-power-of-proper-burial-african.html). All are telling the story with all the negativity that surrounds those periods of time. However here I felt restored. I was still in awe but now there were positive images and stories. One was more impressive than the next.

Even after my visit I am still completely fascinated with this story. I can’t get over the fact that these treasured properties from the past are still in tact and that people have been walking past them for years before the center opened. I am still trying to imagine what the entire area looked like way back when. It makes me appreciate all conservation efforts, something I believe we do not do enough off in this country, state, city, etc. Thus making places like the Weeksville Heritage Center even more remarkable.

The Center is open for tours Wednesday – Friday each week with a tour staring promptly at three p.m. Each month they open for a Saturday tour, for this month that will be this Saturday, April 18th. There is a five-dollar entry fee with all profits going back to the center for future projects and restoration.

For More Weeksville Heritage Center Information:



For Brooklyn Historic Homes:



For Greenwood Cemetery:




Comments

  1. Great Blog, so interesting.. Sorry I missed this one..

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