Channel 13 has a new episode of The City Concealed, dealing with the nineteenth-century African American village Weeksville, now swallowed up in Central Brooklyn. By way of prose intro, here’s some background from the Weeksville Heritage Center:
In 1838, only eleven years after slavery ended in New
York State, free African American James Weeks purchased a modest plot
of land from Henry C. Thompson, another free African American. That
land in what is now Central Brooklyn became Weeksville, a thriving,
self sufficient African American community. Weeksville quickly became a
safe haven for southern Blacks fleeing slavery and free northern Blacks
fleeing racial hatred and violence, including the deadly Civil War
draft riots in lower Manhattan.
Established as a suburban enclave on the outskirts of Brooklyn, by 1850
Weeksville became the second largest known independent African American
community in pre-Civil War America. Weeksville was also the only
African American community whose residents were distinctive for their
urban rather than rural occupations, and the only one that merged into
a neighborhood of a major American city after the Civil War. Moreover,
Weeksville had a higher rate of African American property ownership
than 15 other U.S. cities and more job opportunities than ten other
By the 1860s, Weeksville had its own schools, churches, an orphanage,
an old age home, a variety of Black-owned businesses and one of the
country’s first African American newspapers, Freedman’s Torchlight.
Almost 500 families headed by ministers, doctors, teachers, tradesmen
and other self-reliant citizens lived in Weeksville by the 1900s. Its
citizens included Alfred Cornish, a member of the 54th Regiment whose
story was told in the film Glory; Dr. Susan Smith McKinney-Steward, the
first female African American physician in New York State and the third
in the nation, Moses P. Cobb, the first African American policeman in
Brooklyn’s Ninth Ward, and Junius C. Morel, a well-known educator,
journalist and activist.
Weeksville covered seven blocks and was a model of African American
entrepreneurial success, political freedom and intellectual creativity.
Its residents participated in every major national effort against
slavery and for equal rights for free people of color, including the
black convention movement, voting rights campaigns, the Underground
Railroad, the Civil War, resistance to the Draft Riots in New York
City; Freedman’s schools and African nationalism. According to one
historian, Public School 83 in Weeksville became the first public
school in the nation to integrate fully its teaching staff.
The community still existed through the 1930s, but by
the mid-1950s, Weeksville was all but forgotten, with many of its
structures and institutions replaced by new roads and buildings. In the
1960s, Weeksville was only an historical footnote that historian James
Hurley and pilot Joseph Haynes set out to research–from the air.
The rest of the historical piece can be found here. And here’s the episode from The City Concealed: