Forecasting Art and Social Justice*by Rehan Ansari
Rehan Ansari sat down with Rob Fields, Executive Director, and Eboni Banks, Development Director (TBC) of Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn to discuss Weeksville’s legacy as an intentional community, the community surrounding this neighborhood nonprofit, social justice, and their forthcoming program of exhibitions.
Rehan Ansari (Rail): I came a little earlier and took a tour of the Hunterfly houses and then I realized—with all this talk these days about sanctuary spaces--this was the original sanctuary space!
Rob Fields: Yes, during the draft riots… And even before that, because Weeksville was far. Prior to 1888, before the Brooklyn Bridge got built, you really had to make an effort to come to Brooklyn and chase black folk, because you had to get a boat, cross the river and once you got here—particularly during those early days of Weeksville's founding—it was still mostly farmland. If you look at the old maps you see that this place was just completely undeveloped. The grid system had not yet come into this part of New York City. The downtown area by the docks was kind of built up but out here was just nature and farms. And so it really made sense as a place for once formerly enslaved African Americans to come and be part of this burgeoning free intentional community. Weeksville was kind of on its own for many years. People from here would venture downtown to go to other shops and conduct business and stuff like that. But once you got to Weeksville, because it was fairly self-contained, it was just sanctuary. People knew who you were, and you did business, and traded, and whatnot amongst the neighbors in the community.
And the community even at that time was not 100 percent black. There were still some European immigrants who were also out here farming. But it was apparently a nice little community and yes it was in fact a refuge.
Rail: The other fact that I picked up on was that you could vote as a freed black man if you purchase some land.
Fields: You had the right to vote if you owned $250 worth of land. Of course, the requirement for white men was a lot lower, it was like $150 of land.
Rail: And no votes for women no matter what.
Eboni Banks: No. They weren't that progressive. With that, many residents of Weeksville had the right to vote decades before emancipation, and certainly a hundred years before the voting rights act. So that was kind of cool.
Rail: I just wanted to bring this up at the beginning of the interview.
Banks: It is good you brought this up because it demonstrates how progressive the African American community here was. When you think about progressive communities today, and people that want to create utopias, well this is essentially what Weeksville was. This was a refuge but not unengaged with the larger goings on. Weeksville residents were involved in all the major efforts towards equality, equity, and social justice such as the black suffrage movement and women's rights, the black convention movement. So even though this was a haven they weren't disconnected from the world.
Rail: There were two sisters who were the daughters of a farmer here who were leaders in the community. Can you tell us about them?
Banks: It was the Smiths: Sarah Garnett Smith and Susan Smith (Dr. Susan McKinney-Steward). And Dr. McKinney-Steward was the first African American doctor in New York State and the third in the country.
Rail: Simone Leigh’s project was installed in what used to be Dr. McKinney-Steward’s office near here?
Fields: That was during the Funk God Jazz Medicine exhibition in 2014. Simone has always had this interest in health and wellness.
Rail: So besides cultural preservation and conservation what is your current thinking about arts programming at Weeksville?
Fields: The conservation is an ongoing project. It is about retaining the story of historic Weeksville: when, who, where—things like that—and what were the boundaries of what this community was. And the details around its rediscovery in 1968: the dig, the saving of the houses from potential demolishment and the involvement of the community in these efforts.
But it's also about retaining the story so that we can always be finding new ways to make that relevant to today. At the end of the day, you want to preserve that history and give people an opportunity to step back into time and say, well here's what black people were doing at particular points in time—1860, 1900, 1930—that is the history around the houses, but at the same time you want to figure out what are the stories and examples that you can take inspiration from to help people cope with the challenges of today. A lot of our programming, literary offerings to film, is related to our history.
Banks: The history of the houses gives us innovative ways to connect people to U.S. history, like with the reinterpretation of the 1960s house by local artists.
Fields: Doing these events on this historical site gives them a kind of credibility and imprimatur of, oh wow, this is not just an event, but this is an event connected somehow to a story of African American history that is worth telling and retelling in new and fresh ways. So that's how we seek to preserve the history and also make it come alive.
Rail: So just to lay out that there's an architectural conservation or preservation project that's been underway—
Fields: Correct. And is ongoing. And is largely about the three historic houses. We are an arts and cultural center built on a historic site. We're happy to say that the houses are where they originally were. They were not moved. They are the original structures.
Rail: And whose houses were they?
Fields: The 1968 house was the house of the Williams family. The 1900s house was the house of the Johnson family. And then I'm not sure who lived in the 1860s, 1870s house. But we do have some records for those.
Rail: The land was originally acquired in 1838?
Fields: We have a later deed between James Weeks and Mary Lefferts. So the Lefferts family, a land owning Dutch family in New York City, ran into a financial panic and needed to be liquid. So they were like, oh you wanna buy land?
Rail: So that was an opportunity for the freedmen?
Fields: Preparation met opportunity.
Rail: How did the name Hunterfly Road Houses come about?
Fields: Hunterfly Road was a long stretch of road that I like to tell people was never quite as broad as Broadway but it did run to the east to Jamaica Bay, and to the west to the East River that is in front of the houses, here is the last remaining stretch of that.
The four houses were the last Hunterfly Road Houses. The fourth house burnt down in a fire. It was rebuilt in the '80s. But where the last three houses sit, that is the last remaining patch of Hunterfly Road.
Rail: So the houses are going be used as an artist residency?
Fields: One of the houses. This gets back to how do you make this history relevant for new audiences and keep it fresh. What is going to get somebody to come back after they have done the tour and said, wow, this is amazing
Based on the work that happened with Xenobia Bailey during the Funk God Jazz Medicine exhibit I got the idea for an artist residency program in one of the historic houses. Ultimately, we want to have two artist residencies a year. There will be an opening, and guided tours. At the heart of all this will be artists interpreting the history of these houses. The first will be Mendi and Keith Obadike.
Rail: And how do you go about identifying artists?
Fields: This is such an exciting moment in black visual art. There are a lot of people to choose from. And not just visual artists! Last night we had Dominique Morriseau, the playwright, in conversation with Keith Atkins from The New Black Fest. And later this month her newest play is opening at Signature Theater in Manhattan. This is a new play that's part of her Detroit cycle. It's a three play cycle. She has been at Lincoln Center with some of her plays, and was a Sundance awardee. She talked for two hours about her process, and what it was like in the writing room as executive story editor of Shameless on Showtime.
Rail: What kind of response did you get from the audience?
Fields: The responses were, oh my God, I didn't know about Weeksville, I never knew about this place. Or I live four blocks away, I didn't know what happened in this building, but I'm coming back. Another is I didn't know Weeksville did this kind of programming, which is exciting to hear. Central Brooklyn does not have a black cultural center or a cultural space that necessarily centers on black creativity, black history. We realize we have an opportunity as we move towards our next fifty years to really set this up as a center for conversation, convening, creativity, and inspiration. To focus on a broader audience, a national audience. This history is not just history that black people should know or black people in Brooklyn should know. So with the artist in residence program we also want to look towards artists, like the Mickalene Thomases and the Mark Bradfords.
Studio Museum in Harlem is going dark for three years. So, well we are here!
Rail: Could you say something about your goals around education programming?
Fields: Education programming is critical because that provides the context for what we are presenting. In Pursuit of Freedom Now is a traveling exhibit that's designed to go around to schools to talk about the history of Weeksville and the examples of those African Americans who lived in that community. This programming also corrects some misperceptions out there about Weeksville’s history. For example, the founders were not former slaves.
Rail: Well, we're living in a time of fake news. You can make anything up. So I want to just ask, was the Brooklyn Historical Society involved with In Pursuit of Freedom Now?
Fields: Yes. So that's part of In Pursuit of Freedom Now. There will be a permanent exhibition in one of the houses starting this summer. It will be a self-guided tour. There are two display cases that are going to focus on the dig, the rediscovery in 1968. And we have to a narrative around that.
Rail: The 1968 excavation was done by a Pratt professor?
Fields: Yes. James Hurley. He had heard about Weeksville and had done some research. But it was on a walking tour of Brooklyn that he was leading for Pratt, that he was like, wow, what are these houses? And so he did some more research and found out that these are the historic Hunterfly Road Houses and the last remnants of Hunterfly Road. And so it was him and Joseph Haines, a friend of his who was a pilot, a black pilot, who went up in a plane and surveyed the area from the air using old maps. And they determined this is actually Hunterfly Road. Thus began the excavation and the attempt to save the houses. Except for the Williams house the houses were not being used. And the city wanted to build a parking lot! The community came together to save these houses. The excavation found civil war cannon balls and the photo of the Weeksville Lady, which is just this photo of this woman who's dressed to the nines. We have no idea who she is. But she's just amazing. So we just call her the Weeksville Lady.
Fields: If I may I just wanna go back to the education topic a little bit. I think for an organization like ours, education is as important as the art because so many of our young black children don't know their history, and don't feel proud. So we feel it's our responsibility to teach. That's our largest audience, K through 12. We get more people that come here on school tours than anybody else. We do at least five a week. The houses only hold a certain number of people, we would be able to do more, but the houses can't have twenty people in there at a time.
Rail: And how do you target the schools?
Fields: They find us. We have a relationship with local schools.
Rail: Do the artists in residence have access to archives here?
Fields: Yes. For example, Mendi and Keith Obadike want to learn as much as they can about the history and see the archives. So we're setting them up with access to the site, to the physical site, access to our collections team, and the archives.
Rail: There has been a recent renovation here?
Banks: The capital project finished in 2015. This building we are in. Running programs is new for Weeksville. Most cultural organizations have been doing it for 20 years but Weeksville has only had this building since 2014 and started programming in 2015. Prior to this building there were just the houses and you came for just the tour. But now we have this space to activate all these activities that Fields is referencing so that we can get people in here into the houses.
Rail: And what has been added? What are the amenities that didn't exist before?
Banks: We didn't have a 700 square foot art gallery. We did not have a multipurpose space that'll seat 200 people and can be used as a theatre with a dressing room at the back. We didn't have two dedicated classrooms with multimedia capability and a resource center and a café.
Fields: But it's about having budgets and resources in terms of people to manage all this. And also for me knowing that I shouldn't get too far ahead of the staff in terms of all the things I would like to do. And we're progressing. This year we have 25 more programs than we did last year.
Fields: The houses are our greatest expense. It is expensive to have staff that is able to understand how to maintain and manage those houses and all the artifacts.
Rail: Please talk about how you commissioned the Chakaia Booker sculpture in the garden.
Banks: It was a Percent for Art project, as part of the expansion. Most people don't know it's a vagina. So that's always fun to share. [laughs]
Rail: And those photographs by Claiborne Barron in the transparent walkway are just from a project from a few years ago? I understand they were supposed to be inlaid under glass in the floor?
Banks: We still want to do that, but we ran out of money. But we could do it outside. And it would be beautiful to see as you're walking to the houses to see that. Barron is into it.
Rail: Who are they portraits of?
Banks: It is this black goddess series. People he knows. His ex-wife and his best friends. [laughs]
Rail: Can you tell us about your current exhibitions and special forthcoming ones?
Fields: We will have our artists in residence. In June we got funding for a gallery exhibit of African art by Eric Edwards who has this amazing art collection. He lives in Bed-Stuy. Basically he's got a duplex apartment in Fort Green and it's just filled to the brim with African art from all over the continent. And it's insured. One of his pieces is in the Met. It's great. But the cool thing about that is he also has a curriculum that goes with it. So he wants to be able to offer that as well.
Rail: How did you run into him?
Fields: A board member introduced us.
Banks: And one thing we're going to be doing as part of our expansion of the arts is having curators at Weeksville. You asked earlier about how we select artists. Right now it's the artists that we know. But moving forward Fields will be working with a team of curators that will work quarterly at Weeksville.
Fields: It also will help us think through how we fund these initiatives and strategize about how the artist in residence program, the houses, and the gallery, can all be part of an offering. We don't ever want the gallery to be empty. There are Weeksville weekends and Weeksville Wednesdays.
Rail: There is also this amazing green space outside!
Banks: This is THE green space of Central Brooklyn.
Rail: What are your hours now?
Banks: We're Tuesday through Friday, 9 to 6. On Wednesday we stay open till 9 or 10pm. We do all of our evening programs that will run late on Wednesdays. The Dominique Morriseau thing that we did last night, that was grant funded, so we stayed open late. And then we are open on the second Saturday of every month for Weeksville Weekends. All day, 10 to 6.
Rail: What is your audience like?
Fields: Our audience is diverse. We have public housing residents across the street, we have black people that want know their culture, and people that are interested in black culture. We are still the best kept secret in Brooklyn. So it's interesting that we keep getting these various audiences and people are always like, oh my God, I didn't know about this. Oh my God, I live four blocks from here and didn't know about this place.
Rail: Two years ago we came to do an in depth interview with Tia, the previous director. And she was talking about how to get into the neighborhoods. So I just wanted to know what happened?
Fields: We're doing more with that, in terms of using signage outside. We have a display case on Bergen. We've got the banners and advertising. We're developing a relationship with the tenants' association over at Kingsborough. And we have flyers and stuff in Bed-Stuy, and Clinton Hill.
Rail: What do you think the barriers are? Or what's the biggest challenge?
Fields: There are a couple things. I do think that psychologically as beautiful as a building it is, it's a little forbidding if you don't know what it is. And also historically if African Americans don't already have a relationship with cultural institutions they wonder if the place is really for them. Secondly, and I understand from talking to Pam Green, who was the executive director before Tia, this has been a problem that's gone back even to Joan Maynard days, that the residents of Kingsborough have always felt like, well we don't really know what's going on over there. It's not for us. Even though historically it was residents of Kingsborough who helped save this place.
Rail: And Kingsborough refers to the public housing nearby?
Fields: Yeah. That’s right . A few months ago I went to a tenants' association meeting, all excited to talk about Weeksville, and just make it clear that everyone in Kingsborough is welcome here, in fact if you can show that your zip code is 11213 or 11233, which is all this area, you can come take a tour during the day for free. You can come to the 3:00 tour and not have to pay anything. What was so stunning to me was just the level of kind of problems they're dealing with as residents of New York City public housing. Heat not working, heat working too well, trash pickup, non-responsive management to fix things, leaks, not feeling safe because the cops don't come up and patrol their buildings. By the time it was my turn to talk I felt really stupid talking about arts and culture.
Banks: And when he says heat not working, he means like the heat is on 105 in the summer all the time. And they can't turn it down. And a lot these people work multiple jobs.
Fields: When we did go over there in the fall, we took Barron Claiborne over to do family individual portraits, 175 people showed up. And they got their pictures taken. We had food out there. We had activities for the kids. Folks were just so happy to have their family photos taken. And we were like just come back to Weeksville you can pick up your photo. And many of them did. We have to think of more things we can do over there to build that relationship. We have to take the mountain to Mohammed.
Rail (Rehan): I was just thinking because of how you are talking of the needs of the community: It just so happened that a couple of weekends ago I got arrested biking in Prospect Hours after hours. They just picked me up, I was wearing a hoodie and they were visibly taken aback when they saw me in the light at the station so draw your own conclusions. Because it was a weekend I spent a night and a day in Central Booking. There were an extraordinary number of men being brought in arrested from Kingsborough. And I just thought about Weeksville as a space that's right here, and clearly in terms of things like what would these young men need from a space like this? A legal aid clinic? A place to talk? In the holding cell the young men were talking a lot about fear, whether to run, or to talk to an officer when an officer stops them. Clearly they're young men who need to be talked with. But where would that be? And I did think about Weeksville.
Fields: Yeah, where would that be and who would lead that. When I got here I was just like, wow, there's a lot to be done. There's the fact that there's only bodegas down Buffalo Avenue. And how do we get more stores so that people aren't just doing their grocery shopping in a bodega.
Rail: But you have a garden also, don't you?
Fields: We haven't really done a lot with that garden. In May we will do Ballast Flora. It's with Vera List. And it's between us, Pioneer Works, and Highline, an environmental program about the migration of seeds, and migration of people. Going back to Kingsborough the tenants' association president asked us to help him figure out how to get young men OSHA cards, the cards that basically allow them to work in construction. And once they get those OSHA cards they are positioned to get into unions. So I reached out to Red Star Restoration. But if I think about what the mandate here is in terms of institution building, there has be some focus. And we have a small staff.
Rail: The answer could be a community organizer. Community organizing. When Tom Finkelpearl was at The Queens Museum, he was looking for an art therapist at one point. A community organizer responded. And he thought, oh, community organizer might be what we need to understand the community better.
Fields: That's exactly what Weeksville needs, a community outreach person!
Rail: And it was a way for them to look at community development through beautification of public spaces, health awareness, and art. The art piece was public art offsite. And that's happened—I mean when Weeksville reopened with the bigger space it meant people understanding the neighborhood better, or moving through it, experiencing it.
Fields: Exactly, I'm excited about what we're doing. I'm excited about the potential we have to do some really good work all around. I'm excited about that Weeksville will no longer be Brooklyn's best kept secret. There is a wellspring of support that we just have to get smarter in tapping because people want to see Weeksville succeed and thrive. And it goes back fifty years to Joan Maynard. Folks that are in their sixties and seventies and eighties around here knew Joan. I met a guy here last night who used to be on the board and he said he is just so thrilled a what he is seeing happening here. eople remember, people know from whence Weeksville came and we want to be able to tap that love and support to help us as we're going forward.
Banks: And because Weeksville's had so many leaders in a short period of time, everybody has different visions. So we really have to support Fields through what his vision is and it has to be consistent. So we can get to the point where there's a community outreach person that can go over to Kingsborough because that's something that Fields’s thinking about. That might not be something that the other two EDs were thinking about. So we have to really be supportive of the new leadership. What's funny about Kingsborough is that when I go over there they know the houses. They can tell me some of the history. It makes sense too because they've been living there for generations many of them. So they know. They just don't come in the door. It's the weirdest thing. [Laughs]
Fields: They don't feel like it's for them. We've got to engage them more. And just because we're black and they're black doesn’t work. They don't see us in the way they see themselves, even though we are black people and just coming and going from here every day all day. They still don't feel comfortable enough with us.
Banks: But we did have them come back for the picture pickup. There were some events going on, there was food. A lot of folks that I remember from the photo shoot, they hung out and everything. They brought their kids, and they listened to the jazz playing.
* Forecasting Art and Social Justice is an interview series sponsored by The Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation to feature institutions and individuals whose work centers on art and social justice. Sara Reisman and George Bolster, from The Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation, collaborated with Rehan Ansari on this interview.
REHAN ANSARI is a Brooklyn-based writer, playwright, and artist who also works as a political pollster and measures impact in the field of art and social justice. He recently performed political standup for Martha Wilson’s Activist History Teach-in at The 8th Floor in New York and for Little Injustice at Galéria HIT in Bratslava, Slovakia. In 2016 his play Unburdened had a staged reading at Meet Factory, Prague in 2016 and inspired an installation as part of Enacting Stillness at The 8th Floor in New York. He is the lead in Ayesha, a fiction short about a hate crime, showing in the fall at Anthology Film Archives in the East Village.