Moses P. Cobb was a tough man. He was born a slave in Kinston, North Carolina in 1856. After emancipation, he sought a new start to his life, literally step-by-step, by walking to New York City from North Carolina. After his sojourn, Cobb bought a house in Weeksville, a community in Brooklyn’s Ninth Ward formed by freed slaves. In 1892, he became his neighborhood’s first black policeman.
Stories like Cobb’s survive from Brooklyn’s once-vibrant early African-American community. Four cottages in the southern section of the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood also remain. And one organization believes tourists would venture to central Brooklyn to see them. The Society for the Preservation of Weeksville & Bedford-Stuyvesant History is restoring the houses and turning them into a museum of late nineteenth century African-American history.
The Hunterfly Road houses, named after a Native American path that ran alongside the houses, were built between 1840 and 1883. Currently in restoration, the houses are simple structures made mostly of wood, with wood shutters and gutters. Originally they were equipped with brick insulation and cast-iron boilers. One of the houses was modeled after a southern plantation slave dwelling.
But the real draw for tourists will be the chance to see how the Weeksville Society revisits a community’s history, transforming a forlorn block in Bed-Stuy into a cultural campus. If successful, Weeksville may become a model for other historic Brooklyn neighborhoods to follow.
The grand humility of it all
In 1838, James Weeks, a former slave from Virginia, bought a modest plot of land from Henry C. Thompson, another freed slave. The property, which later would be called Weeksville, was nestled in the Ninth Ward of the City of Brooklyn, not yet a borough of New York City. Slavery had been outlawed in New York nine years before Weeks’s purchase, but life was still immeasurably difficult for free blacks. Historians believe that some of Weeksville’s churches, a few of which are still around, functioned as stops along the Underground Railroad. All told, one in two households in Kings County had participated in the slavery economy, and discrimination, racism, and prejudice persisted. But so did the residents of the burgeoning Weeksville community.
Weeksville provided solace for African-Americans, freed from the regiment of slavery, seeking a new life for themselves. Weeksville had its own churches, newspaper, elderly home, orphanage and even its own baseball team, the Unknowns. Some residents of Weeksville went on to achieve notoriety. Famous names included Henry Highland Garnett, a renowned Presbyterian preacher and abolitionist, and Susan Smith-McKinney Stewart, the first black female to practice medicine in New York State.
However, the majority of Weeksville’s residents were people just trying to live ordinary lives: going to church, reading a newspaper, or tending to their gardens. As Pam Green, Executive Director of the Weeksville Society, notes, “When most people think of African-American history, the first thing they think about is slavery. They don’t think about people having lives after that."
Part of what makes Weeksville a significant historical landmark is its reflection of early African-Americans as they transitioned from slavery to freedom. This aspect of Weeksville in particular is what Craig Wilder, a history professor at Dartmouth College, calls the "grand humility of it all."
To fix up the old houses
In 1968, historian Jim Hurley surveyed central Brooklyn from an airplane. He was teaching an urban studies course at the Pratt Neighborhood College and wanted an aerial view of four dilapidated cottages he had seen near Fulton Street. From the air, Hurley spotted the houses along an alleyway, cutting diagonally across the corner of Bergen Street and Buffalo Avenue. After further research, Hurley discovered the houses were over 120 years old, and the alley was the remnant of Hunterfly Road, a path that was at least 320 years old. Two years later, after an archaeological dig turned up numerous artifacts, including the now famous tintype image of the "Weeksville Lady," the City of New York’s Landmarks Preservation Commission declared the four houses an official city landmark.
The Weeksville Society, which had been informally meeting since 1968, became an officially chartered group in 1971. The group’s straightforward mission at the time actually came from local schoolchildren who had participated in the dig. The mandate was to "fix up the old houses and make a black history museum."
Today, the Weeksville Society is still fixing up those old houses. Each structure is being restored using authentic materials to reflect the period in which it was built. The verandas of the houses will lead out to a courtyard, designated Hunterfly Court. The backyards of the houses will become kitchen-gardens, with herbs and vegetables that people who lived in the houses would have grown.
The difficulties of getting Weeksville open to the public abound, however. In the post-9/11 environment, many foundations and corporations in the city cut back on their donations. Also, obtaining money for historic preservation is a hard sell for foundations whose portfolios may already include funding for social services, literacy, or even teen pregnancy programs, notes executive director Green. Besides financial obstacles, restoring houses that are over 150 years old is physically challenging. Researching and acquiring the right materials can be a painstakingly slow process, especially for the Weeksville Society’s small staff of consultants and volunteers. "Because this is a historic preservation project, you can’t just slapdash it," says Green.
Meanwhile, the Weeksville Society’s mission has expanded to include an educational mandate to "promote the significance of the historical Weeksville community and early African-American history in New York." To this end, the Weeksville Society provides pamphlets and study aids to local schools. One of the aids entitled "Let’s Make A Landmark" even includes a paper cutout of a Hunterfly Road house. Ultimately, the group wants to host cultural performances and neighborhood events on the grounds near the houses.
A borough of neighborhoods
The Weeksville Society has joined an array of organizations that are making a serious push to promote tourism in Brooklyn. This fall Borough Hall will unveil a 1,300-square-foot Tourism and Visitor Center that will provide brochures, maps, and interactive learning and information on various cultural sites in Brooklyn, including Weeksville.
The Center is Borough Hall’s latest effort to promote "cultural tourism," a term Borough Hall’s Economic Development Specialist Stuart Leffler defines succinctly as "whatever brings people into Brooklyn to explore the local cultures." Leffler says the Center will promote all cultural institutions in Brooklyn and not just the widely known ones such as the BAM or the Brooklyn Museum of Art.
Leffler maintains that Brooklyn’s less-visited neighborhoods such as Bed-Stuy could handle an influx of tourists without gentrifying. Even though more visitors to such areas would mean more commercial growth and accessibility to transportation, Leffler believes Brooklyn’s ethnic enclaves and communities would remain intact as long as organizations focused on neighborhood preservation, like the Weeksville Society, form the basis of the tourism. "It’s always going to be a borough of neighborhoods," he says.
Joan Bartolomeo, president of the Brooklyn Economic Development Corporation, has been working for the past two years to promote tourism and commercial business in Brooklyn. She believes that even if tourism attracts more large corporations into Brooklyn’s neighborhoods, the borough’s local cultures would still thrive. "The infrastructure of Brooklyn can sustain tourism," Bartolomeo maintains.
Radiah Harper, the Weeksville Society’s director of education, believes that as tourists flock to the site, the historical significance of the four houses will keep the local community woven together. The houses are "a source of pride for residents that are nearby," she says. Harper gives the example of a Weeksville mural project recently completed by a group of local school children, which now hangs outside of the site. After finishing the mural, the students introduced their parents to Weeksville.
A peach tree in central Brooklyn
This past August, Executive Director Pam Green showed me around the Hunterfly Road houses. Green joined the Weeksville Society in September of 2001 after working for 10 years at the Children’s Television Workshop, helping to co-produce Sesame Street in South Africa. This change of direction in her career brought a host of challenges. "I assumed, perhaps naïvely, that it wouldn’t be so hard. It turned out to be more challenging than I expected," says Green.
As we look out at the mounds of gravel and dirt surrounding the future site of Hunterfly Court, Green explains that a landscape artist would plant grass and foliage reflecting the setting of nineteenth-century Brooklyn. "Some of the trees will stay, though. Like that one," she says, proudly pointing. "That’s a peach tree. You’re not going to find that elsewhere in central Brooklyn."
Green acknowledged that being in the Bed-Stuy section of Brooklyn could dissuade tourists from visiting. "For some people, coming to Brooklyn is like going to Mars," she quips. But Green also believes that visiting central Brooklyn can be a novelty for some. "This [site] will attract the tourist who is interested in something offbeat."
Green has ambitious plans for Weeksville and firmly believes people will visit in February of 2004, when she plans a grand opening. She expects to charge visitors $3 to $5 for admission. After the opening, Green will focus on opening a new 19,000-square-foot educational and cultural facility adjacent to the houses. The cultural center will house performance and auditorium rooms, as well as retail and restaurant space.
Green’s staff is currently finishing a proposal for the Hunterfly Road houses to become a national landmark. Weeksville is currently listed on the National Register of Landmarks. Green sees the Weeksville Society growing in five or six years from a small group with a $700,000 operating budget to a multi-million dollar operation with at least 20 staff members. She also wants to develop workshops to teach students the importance of historic preservation, help promote commercial business, and even host rap concerts in the performance space.
"People will come here to look at the old furniture," says Green. "But I want the people who don’t just want to look at the old furniture, too."