Two years ago, Brooklyn’s Weeksville Heritage Center, devoted to preserving the remains of a thriving village established by Black New Yorkers in the years following the state’s abolition of slavery in 1827, was on the verge of disappearing.
Faced with a serious budget gap, the center was able to raise more than $ 350,000 through a crowdfunding campaign, but local politicians knew a temporary inflow of cash would not save this in the long run. So they turned to the city. Through their efforts, Weeksville recently became the first organization in a generation to join the city’s group of cultural institutions – a collection of nearly three dozen cultural organizations including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Lincoln Center, and Carnegie Hall making their group membership they are entitled to more city funding.
Now Weeksville, a historic and cultural hub, is entering a new phase in its long and winding history. On Tuesday, Weeksville named a new chief executive officer, Raymond Codrington, a cultural anthropologist with curatorial and nonprofit leadership experience. With the organization no longer struggling to survive, its mission will be to use its new institutional support to expand its presence in Brooklyn.
“What will interest the average person who walks past Weeksville every day but doesn’t necessarily see themselves there?” Dr. Codrington said. “How do we reinterpret our work and break down the barriers that often prevent people from seeing themselves in institutions?”
Becoming a member of the group of cultural institutions was not an easy task. No organization had joined the group since 1997 and the formal procedure for applying for membership remains unclear. But in March 2020, Weeksville officially joined its exclusive ranks, adding some diversity to the group that political and cultural leaders said was badly needed.
Weeksville is where Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant meet, across from the Kingsborough public housing project. It was funded by the city and completed in 2013. It features art exhibits, theatrical performances, cultural discussions, and workshops on financial literacy and home ownership – a hive of activities that went online during the pandemic.
To reach 19th century Weeksville, visitors must walk down a wooden bridge that cuts through long grass and leads to the Hunterfly Road Houses, three timber frame houses built between the 1840s and 1880s (plus a fourth house) in the 1990s Years destroyed by fire and rebuilt).
Founded decades before the Declaration of Emancipation, Weeksville was named after James Weeks, a black dockworker who bought the land from Henry C. Thompson, a black abolitionist movement leader who bought the property from the wealthy Lefferts family.
In its heyday, Weeksville had around 700 families. There was a school, a church, and a newspaper called Freedman’s Torchlight that served as a kind of textbook for newly freed slaves by publishing lessons in the alphabet, English, and arithmetic. During the drafts of the 1863 Riots, Weeksville was a haven for blacks fleeing the racist violence in Manhattan.
In the middle of the 20th century the village sank into darkness, but in 1968 the four houses were rediscovered by a historian and a pilot while searching for a flight in the neighborhood. An archaeological excavation of a nearby area in 1969 uncovered objects that are still on display in the houses today. Following a successful campaign led by heritage conservationist Joan Maynard, the homes were given city landmark status and were listed on the national register of historic places in the 1970s.
Before the pandemic, schoolchildren toured the houses every weekday and walked past the wooden outbuilding, the old-fashioned washing machine, the herringbone brushes of one of the families living there and the black-painted baby dolls.
“You feel like you are going where people went before – at the center of this free community,” said Dr. Codrington, who stood in the dining room of a 19th century house. “It feels like history is living and breathing around you.”
When Weeksville opened its new building in 2014, the group’s leadership had tried unsuccessfully for years to become part of the group of cultural institutions.
The group dates back to 1869 when the Weeksville community was still active in Brooklyn. It started when New York lawmakers authorized the city to construct a new building for the American Museum of Natural History and take some of its financial responsibility while the facility could be managed by a private nonprofit organization. By 1900, the city had a similar agreement with five other groups: the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New York Botanical Garden, the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Brooklyn Children’s Museum.
The city agreed to pay for heating, lighting, and electricity, and provide additional operational support, and the institutions committed to making their offerings available to New Yorkers.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the city realized that the group needed a more diverse membership in terms of race, ethnicity, and geography, and the number of members of the group increased dramatically as institutions such as the Harlem Studio Museum and the Jamaica Center for Art and learning were added.
But when the New York City government changed – and the powerful Board of Estimation, which once helped determine which organizations could join the group, was disbanded – the process of adding new members “atrophied,” John said Calvelli, former chairman of the Cultural Institutions group and an executive with the Wildlife Conservation Society.
The last time a new member was added prior to Weeksville was in 1997 when Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani announced the Museum of Jewish Heritage would join.
The most recent attempt to add Weeksville started in earnest in 2019.
“It took a tremendous amount of political will,” said Robert E. Cornegy Jr., a councilor that includes Weeksville and one of the leaders who led the effort with Laurie A. Cumbo to add him to the group, the Majority Leader of the Council.
They joined city council spokesman Corey Johnson in asking Mayor Bill de Blasio to add Weeksville to the group. Mr de Blasio initially seemed resistant to the idea, Mr Johnson said in an interview, because he and his administration feared that the organization’s financial troubles would become the responsibility of the city.
“You’re making some kind of perpetual commitment,” said Mr Johnson. “That costs the city and the Ministry of Culture more, but it’s the right thing.”
Mr. Cornegy said that when they spoke out in favor of Weeksville, they were explaining its historical significance and its ability to serve as a “guide” in understanding the New York black experience. And sometimes, during the tense discussions around the proposal, they raised the lack of racial diversity in the group of cultural institutions.
“When the whole world sees that these resources are available to certain institutions,” he said, “it gets a little embarrassing.”
Mr de Blasio has long promised to hold cultural institutions accountable for the growth in their inner diversity. The members of the group of cultural institutions had to come up with plans to promote diversity and inclusion among their staff and visitors, but no plan was required to diversify the make-up of the group itself.
Gonzalo Casals, the commissioner of the city’s Ministry of Culture, defended the current group on the grounds that it includes a number of culturally and geographically diverse organizations, and that some institutions that are not culture-specific are working hard to serve the color communities that they serve visit, like the Brooklyn Children’s Museum. And Mr Casals said joining the group is not a “solution for everyone” and that his department has other ways to support institutions, including funding to cover capital costs and energy costs.
“We are proud to support organizations that do important work to celebrate and preserve the history of black people in New York City,” de Blasio said in a statement. “Adding Weeksville to our CIG program will deepen their relationships with the city and help them thrive for years – and give generations of New Yorkers an opportunity to learn our city’s history in all its color and complexity. “
In the summer of 2019, city council members said they were able to convince the mayor’s office of their Weeksville plan during the budget process.
But then Weeksville faced another negotiating challenge. The members of the group of cultural institutions are each located on a piece of land owned by the city, according to the city. If Weeksville had followed tradition, the Hunterfly Road Houses would then have been relocated to town, said Timothy Simons, Weeksville’s chairman of the board. But since Weeksville is a memorial to black home ownership, some saw transferring those leases to the city as contrary to their mission.
“It’s a story of a black-owned community,” said Ms. Cumbo. “If the homes and the lands that were preserved were no longer fully owned, it would negate the history of Weeksville.”
While the main Weeksville building is owned by the city, the four historic homes are still owned by the nonprofit organization.
The combination of grassroots donations, philanthropic support, and city support has helped sustain Weeksville’s finances. In 2018, Weeksville’s fiscal year ended with a deficit of nearly $ 400,000 and only one month of operating money in the bank, the organization said. This year the company has $ 275,000 in cash and six months of operating expenses with the bank.
“The community was very clear,” said Simons, “Weeksville is an institution that has to be here and has to be here for the long term.”