A Journey Through Brooklyn History and Heritage Homes at Weeksville
More than a Tour, An Experience
By Bernice Elizabeth Green
Huddled on an expanded parcel of land in Central Brooklyn, the historic Hunterfly Road Houses are designated as
New York City landmarks and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Founded in the 1830s by James Weeks, a black stevedore, the village of Weeksville survived well into the early 20th
century. Weeksville had its own schools and churches, an orphanage, an old age home,
and one of the first AfricanAmerican newspapers- The Freedman’s Torchlight.
During the violent draft riots of 1863, the community served as a refuge for hundreds of AfricanAmericans who fled
Manhattan. It was home to ministers, teachers and other professionals, including
the first female AfricanAmerican physician in New York State, and the first AfricanAmerican police officer in New
“The village was an economic, political, cultural and social base for African Americans during that time. Any way
you define it, the Weeksville community was (an example of) community building from scratch.” According to
Greene, the community’s focus on strength, entrepreneurism, creativity and a sense of
wanting to build something is still going strong.
Settled by AfricanAmericans from all over the East Coast following the end of slavery in New York State, these
houses are also good examples of homes of free people of color in the urban North. These
homes have been continuously inhabited, primarily by AfricanAmericans, from
their construction until their acquisition by the Weeksville Society in 1968.
The buildings are now each rehabbed and “dressed” in the accoutrements of four different periods of
time, representing the 183 Os, 1860s, 1900s and 1930s. Working from a “furnishings plan,” the center’s “old house”
consultants scoured the Northeast for items that matched the style of each room. The sage green, ochre and mustard
yellow colors are based on chip analysis.
The truetoperiod artifacts and historically accurate reproductions frame moments in the
history of the houses: the Currier and Ives’ Death of Lincoln ink illustration, the December 3, 1847, issue of The North
Star newspaper, “Electric Brand” labels of canned food manufactured in Oneida, New York, refurbished hand
carved chairs with horsehairstuffed cushions, “The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin” on a curio shelf, an authentic
Jerome & Company Pendulum Clock, and a poster entitled “Distinguished Colored Men” with images of
prominent politicians and churchmen positioned around Frederick Douglass.
At Weeksville, there is a living legacy that is not proverbial; it is real. Bernice Jenkins, in her 80s, and her
centenarian sister, had a say in the kinds of furnishings installed in the house at No. 1698. The duo had every
right to have some influencetheir family first rented a home and then owned it for many years. Their father built the
French doors separating the living room from the dining room. Since they were a religious family, an old
Victrolavery similar to the one their family owned plays early recordings of Mahalia Jackson. Their father
would have read the NAACP’s Crisis Magazine (then 15 cents). The headlines of the reproductions on the table
sound familiar and more recent than in the distant past.
A banjo and a fiddle are in a closet. On the old stove one can see Dixie Peach Pomade, a curling iron and a
straightening comb. “Just the knowledge that three generations grew up in one house is enlightening,” the
While the “1930s” atmosphere of No. 1698 reflects a family of means, No. 1704, representing the 1830s, is
sparse. “So where is the kitchen?” asks a visitor on tour in the very small front room of the house. “You’re standing in
it,” replies the guide. “Back then, the front room could be a bedroom, kitchen and living room with several people
living in it.”
In a comer of a back room in No. 1704, the plaster purposely is stripped away from the wall exposing the brick and
wood structural supports for the house. You can hear the silence, or is it a whisper on a breeze: “We were here.”
During the early 19th century, hundreds of people of color carved out an existence in the small rooms of
dozens of small wood frame houses that stood sturdy on the lands bounded by Fulton Street and Ralph, East New York
and Troy Avenues. The Central Brooklyn community and the current Weeksville Board of Directors are keeping alive
the legacies of Pamela Greene and the late Joan Maynard, former executive directors, in preserving history, informing
people about their history and showing them how to use the history to deal with these contemporary times. Several
years ago Ms. Greene told us, “The site speaks to an intentional community of color and to the progress made in
America that people seldom talk about. You don’t hear much about what happened postslavery, about the people who
owned land, who became educated and who progressed pretty quickly in what was essentially the worst period in our
history. Less than 20 years after slavery ended, we have a community where people are thriving. They moved pretty
much from being enslaved to building a community.”
The homes in Weeks ville are a testament to that legacy. In No. 1704, the handhewn, wideplanked floorboards are
still in tact. Firstwalked on in the 19th century, they are solid, strong and able to support generations to come. _
For more information, call (718) 7565250
or visit www.weeksvillesociety.org.