Weeksville, the lost black city of Brooklyn
Meach of our stories of black excellence is buried under the sands of time, never to be truly discovered. But history leaves bread crumbs, and if you follow them, you’re bound to find an amazing story.
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Nestled in the heart of the history of one of New York’s most famous boroughs lies the extraordinary story of a small town called “Weeksville.”
When we think of slavery, we don’t usually think of New York, but the state didn’t end the practice until 1827. In 1801, Kings County, which today is known as neighborhood name of Brooklyn, was still mostly under Dutch rule. More than a quarter of the inhabitants were black slaves. Nearly 60% of Kings County households were slave owners.
Slavery in Brooklyn was very different from the plantation-style slavery adopted by Southern whites. It was more rooted in northern culture and economy. Families usually owned a smaller number of slaves, and slaves usually lived in the same house as their owners. Families that did not own slaves regularly rented them out to their neighbors.
Although slavery was on the wane in New York, it was a way of life for thousands of black people who made Brooklyn their home. In 1820, there were only 518 slaves in New York and a prosperous, free black population of over 10,000. But in Kings County there were 879 slaves, almost the same number as the county’s free blacks.
During the Panic of 1837, wealthy white landowners began liquidating their holdings for fear of losing money on their assets and properties. Smart and savvy free black men saw this as an opportunity and began buying plots of land from wealthy white people who would sell.
In 1837, abolitionist and black community leader Henry C. Thompson purchased 32 lots from wealthy Brooklynite John Lefferts. The Lefferts family estate included most of what is now known as the Bedford Stuyvesant and Crown Heights section of Brooklyn.
A year later, Thompson began selling the lots to free blacks in Brooklyn, selling two of the lots to James Weeks a tank top with a vision of a self-sufficient black community hidden in the slopes and valleys of Bedford Hills, isolated from the rest of Brooklyn. Isolation would not only protect the townspeople from the white and dangerous world around them, but also grant them the freedom to build a self-sufficient community with education at the forefront.
In the 1850s, Weeksville was home to over 550 free blacks. It was the second largest free black community in Antebellum America. The city had one of the highest rates of land and business ownership of any black community in the country.
Weeksville was steeped in black American history. The town school, Colored School No. 2, would eventually become PS 68, which after the Civil War would become the first integrated school in America. Weeksville was also home to the nation’s first black newspaper, the “Freedman’s Torchlight”.
Susan Smith McKinney Steward, New York State’s first black female doctor, resided in Weeksville. Her sister, Sarah Smith Tompkins Garnet, was Brooklyn’s first female principal. Sarah Smith would also found the Equal Suffrage League of Brooklyn, the first black women’s suffrage organization in the nation’s history.
Along with economic prosperity, Weeksville also brought political opportunity to black people who had been strategically kept out of the process. In 1821, there was a property requirement of $250 for black men to vote. The establishment of land in Weeksville gave black men the ability to vote in elections they had not had access to in the past.
The community flourished and continued to grow throughout the 19th century, but Brooklyn was growing and would soon swallow Weeksville whole. By the 1880s, Weeksville was no longer isolated and the Eastern Parkway was built, leaving residents no choice but to leave. In the 20th century, the city was just a memory.
But history has its breadcrumbs, and if you take the time to follow them, you can create a way to keep that story alive forever. In 1968, Pratt researchers found remnants of the Lost City while flying over Brooklyn in an airplane. They located four houses on Hunterfly Road, which were the only remaining houses in the original town of Weeksville. In 1970 the houses on Hunterfly Road were designated New York City Landmarks, and in 1971 all four houses were added to the National Register of Historic Places.
In 2005, the Weeksville Heritage Center was established, which offers tours of the homes, as well as public programs and exhibits to learn more about Weeksville’s history.
Fortunately, what was left of this pioneering little town will be preserved so that future generations can see that black excellence is scattered throughout American history.
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