Clip Uncovering NYC: New York City’s First Free Black Communities – Weeksville

A closer look at the history and legacy of Weeksville, Brooklyn.

To learn more about the history of Weeksville and to get a tour of the historic Hunterfly Road Houses, visit the Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn, New York.

Watch Uncovering NYC: New York City’s First Free Black Communities – Newtown

Watch Uncovering NYC: New York City’s First Free Black Communities – Seneca Village

Secrets of the Dead: The Woman in the Iron Coffin Premieres Wednesday, October 3 at 10 p.m. on PBS (check local listings)

Streams October 4 via pbs.org/secrets and PBS apps


Executive Producer: Stephanie Carter
Producer/Director: Jacqueline Medina
Producer: Hanna Rioseco
Editor: Ben Phelps
Cinematography: Chelsea Rugg
Camera and Sound: Daniel Rivera
Color Correction: Erin McIntyre
Re-recording Mixer: Gerard Collins
Graphics: Kyle Sweet

Special Thanks To:
Weeksville Heritage Center
Rob Fields
Alphonse Fabien
Stephanye Watts
Dr. Prithi Kanakamedala

Image Credits:
Weeksville Heritage Center
New York Police Department
New York Public Library
Brooklyn Public Library
State Library and Archives of Florida
Library of Congress

Produced by the Interactive Engagement Group for WNET.

© 2018 [WNET Interactive Engagement Group]. All Rights Reserved.

Transcript Print

... Black people were always just trying to find places where they could just live.

There were free black communities all over the place and Weeksville was one of many.

Welcome to the Weeksville Heritage Center, my name is Alphonse, I'm going to be your tour educator.

Let us walk outside and from there we will learn the history of Weeksville.

All right?

Everybody follow me.

Weeksville is a free black settlement founded in the year 1838.

Alright?

During this time in America is slavery, but keep in mind not every single black person was a slave.

1838.

That was 11 years after slavery was abolished in New York State.

The idea was to create this free and intentional community for African Americans.

Communities such has Weeksville intentionally sought to live outside what was then the economic hub of lower Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn and move out.

So that they could live their lives with safety and dignity and with refuge.

And really build what it meant to be an American society.

At that time in 1838 to say 1850, this was all still farm land.

the grid system was not in place yet, Eastern Parkway had not been built --would not be built until 1873, the Brooklyn Bridge would not be completed until 1888.

You had to really want to be here to get here.

Weeksville thrives throughout the 19th century.

It's one of the longest free black communities.

About 500 people lived here, at it's height Weeksville was 88 percent black.

It became the second largest free African American community in pre-civil war America.

During this time period --alright-- in Weeksville, of 1838, the only people who are allowed to vote are men with land.

And so what you find in Weeksville is, that you have the highest number or a higher percentage of property owners than any other free black community.

So by owning land, these African Americans --men unfortunately only at that time-- they had a measure of political power.

They had their own institutions which we think of today that really makes a community thrive.

By the year 1870, Weeksville will establish itself with churches, a school, an orphanage, a cemetery, and even a newspaper called the Freedman's Torchlight.

The Freedman's Torchlight took on the role of not only sharing news, but also served as a way of sort of providing a well-rounded education.

The big names when people think of Weeksville: Moses P. Cobb who lived in the late 19th century, he was one of the first African American police officers to serve in what would become the NYPD.

Susan Smith Mckinney Steward came out of Weeksville, she was the first African American female doctor in New York State and the third in the country.

There is also Peter Vogelsang who is one of the older soldiers, but he absolutely fought in the civil war in 54th Massachusetts regiment.

So there were a number of factors that would lead to Weeksville simply being eroded.

Weeksville was not destroyed by like racial violence, unlike other black towns you may read about like Tulsa, Oklahoma or Rosewood, Florida.

In 1898 when this city consolidates and we get its five boroughs and we get this City of New York, we then start to see a sort of urban blighting of the entire neighborhoods.

By the 1920s and 1930s, Weeksville is starting to fall off the map slightly with the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge.

But certainly by the 1950s with urban renewal and redlining, it is all but disappeared.

Now the houses standing right here in front of you, these are called the Hunterfly Road Houses.

People of this community came together and decided to save these houses.

In the year 1970, these houses received landmark status.

That's what makes Weeksville Heritage Center a historic site, because we have the original houses on the original land that they were built.

Today, the mission of the Center has been to document, preserve and interpret that history of this free black community and make it relevant for people today.

There's so many opportunities to inspire people of all ages about the legitimate contributions that African Americans made to not only New York City history but to American history, and that's pretty exciting.