New York City so knows how to lose — and save, and lose again — its history. Among notable rescues of the past several decades were material remains of the vanished 19th-century African-American village of Weeksville in Brooklyn, snatched from the jaws of 1960s urban renewal. Once in parts of what are now Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights, the village is currently getting fresh and needed attention in an art project organized by the Weeksville Heritage Center and Creative Time called “Funk, God, Jazz & Medicine: Black Radical Brooklyn,” which runs Friday through Sunday (October 10-12).
Spread over four sites, the project roughly maps the footprint of the original settlement. More important, it strengthens the memory of a local past that could easily be swallowed up by gentrification.
The village was named for James Weeks, an ex-slave from Virginia who came to New York in 1838. His intention was to create a community of landowning African-Americans at a time when such ownership was a requirement for voting. The plan took hold. By the time of the Civil War, the village had more than 500 residents, two churches, a school, an orphanage, an old-age home, a cemetery and its own newspaper, The Freedman’s Torchlight. Blacks fleeing the draft riots in Manhattan in 1863 sought refuge there and stayed. But after the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge, with a swelling in the general population, Weeksville was gradually absorbed into newer communities that surrounded it.
In 1968, four of the village’s 19th-century wood-frame houses were rediscovered, in derelict shape, on an oddly angled street that had once been a section of Hunterfly Road in Weeksville, and before that, an American Indian trail. The area was scheduled for demolition, but after community pressure, the houses were declared city landmarks. Restored, they are now part of the Heritage Center, which encompasses vegetable and flower gardens and, as of 2013, an education building with an auditorium and classrooms.