A little-known chapter in Afro-American history
Hammers and handsaws are fashioning a sense of history and place in a scarred corner of Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant section. On a small Bergen Street lot, shadowed by monolithic housing projects, carpenters are restoring four wood-frame houses. The shed-shaped, clapboard buildings are a New York City landmark, and are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. They are also the last traces of Weeksville, one of New York's first Afro-American communities and a possible way station on the underground railroad.
Local preservationists say that the restored houses will help reclaim a proud past.
``Most inner-city black communities have such an array of problems that preservation is not a priority item,'' says Joan Maynard, executive director of the Society for the Preservation of Weeksville. ``When their neighborhood is enveloped in decay, people believe that decay is the norm. We have to put things in front of them that say `we can turn this around.'''
Spurred by the wrecker's ball, the Weeksville society purchased the houses in the early '70's, after a neighboring site was cleared for low-income housing. Restoration is three years shy of completion, says Ms. Maynard.
Weeksville forged its identity in 1863, when blacks in Manhattan were beaten and, in some cases, lynched by marauding groups of poor whites angered over being drafted to fight in the Civil War. Several hundred blacks crossed the East River and escaped into the hinterlands of Bedford-Stuyvesant, where they joined a rural outpost of freedmen. They posted sentries, and armed themselves against threatening white gangs.
The settlement grew to include about 40 families of farmers, laborers, and tradesmen. This ``viable, stable community,'' says Maynard, featured a school, two churches, an orphanage, a home for the aged, and a newspaper called The Freedman's Torchlight. The community acquired its name from James Weeks, a black stevedore who, in 1830, was one of the first freed slaves to purchase land in the area.
By the turn of the century, Brooklyn's expanding street grid cut through Weeksville's meandering, country lanes.
When the last of the community's original property owners died in 1906, its cohesive identity began to slip away. Photographs from the 1920s show a handful of Weeksville houses hemmed by asphalt and concrete.
The little-known story of Weeksville began to surface in 1968 when James Hurley, a local historian, uncovered references to Weeksville while researching the Hunterfly Road, a pre-colonial highway.
Tracing the road by plane, he saw a crooked cobblestone lane bordered by four wooden houses - a surviving remnant of Weeksville.
The discovery of these treasured relics dovetailed with a resurgent interest in Afro-American neighborhood life and history. Galvanized by Weeksville's reemergence, local students and preservationists raced to save an adjacent lot of early 20th-century Weeksville buildings, after the announcement of a plan to raze them for a housing development.
In a compromise, developers allowed an archeological dig before the bulldozers moved in.
The 1968-69 dig unearthed shards of pottery, bits of clothing, and blackened cooking utensils. Also uncovered were the bylaws of a black self-help organization that offered insurance coverage at a time when it was unavailable to blacks, and a tintype of an unknown black woman in Victorian dress that the Weeksville society adopted as its symbol.
The dig provided the fledgling museum with artifacts, and triggered research to help restore the houses.
Built by laborers who had no formal training in design, the houses mix traces of West African hut framing with elements of colonial post-and-beam construction that are common today, Michael Devonshire, director of restoration, notes. Pieced together with pine, brick, fieldstone, and a lime-based plaster, they survived a near-century of neglect.
But barely. The buildings were badly deteriorated by the time the society acquired them for $45,000. Bolstered by other monies, a neighborhood restoration team set about making a broken piece of Bedford-Stuyvesant history whole again.
Two restored cream-colored houses now stand in sharp contrast to the bleak concrete buildings nearby.
``Weeksville is a place that can motivate our young people,'' says Maynard, ``by giving them a sense of who they are - and what they can become.''