Crown Heights

Saving Weeksville: Thousands of donations pour in to keep museum open

Center is on track to avoid threat of July closing

May 10, 2019 Lore Croghan
Historic houses at Weeksville Heritage Center. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan

Thousands of supporters of the Weeksville Heritage Center, a Crown Heights museum dedicated to the history of one of pre-Civil War America’s free black communities, have pooled together to raise more than $130,000 in nine days to keep the museum from closing.

Rob Fields, the director of the center, announced last week that Weeksville will close in July unless it raises $200,000 by June 30 to cover a budget shortfall.

Just over a week and 2,200 donations later, the center appears to be on track to meet its goal.

“It has been absolutely encouraging and very humbling,” said Anita Warren, the center’s director of operations.

“We know people love and cherish this place,” she said. “We knew if we said we need help that people would not disappoint.”

Anita Warren of Weeksville Heritage Center is encouraged by the pace of donations in the first days of fundraising. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan
Anita Warren of Weeksville Heritage Center is encouraged by the pace of donations in the first days of fundraising. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan

In 1838, when slavery was legal in many states, James Weeks founded an independent community of free, landowning African-Americans in Brooklyn. He called it Weeksville.

Today, landmarked 19th-century houses from that independent black community are the crown jewels of Weeksville Heritage Center.

“These are our pride and joy,” Warren said of the wood-frame homes as we walked around the museum’s grounds on Thursday. “There’s such a reverence for this site.”

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This is 1698 Bergen St. at Weeksville Heritage Center. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan
This is 1698 Bergen St. at Weeksville Heritage Center. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan

Bank officers with Community Reinvestment Act funds at their disposal have called Weeksville Heritage Center and discussed the possibility of giving the museum small grants, Warren said.

People who work for other nonprofits have donated money to Weeksville Heritage Center and offered to plan fundraising events. A Brooklyn resident plans to throw a fundraiser in her home. Craft beer and wine bar Bed-Vyne Brew already threw a fundraiser.

Long-term strategy for financial stability

The historic houses on the museum site belong to the nonprofit Society for the Preservation of Weeksville and Bedford-Stuyvesant History. The organization bought 1698 Bergen St. for $16,000 from the estate of David C. Williams in 1978, city Finance Department records show.

The nonprofit bought the other historic houses, whose addresses are 1700 through 1708 Bergen St., from Sheffield Rehabilitation Corporation in 1977, Finance Department records indicate.

The museum property also hosts an education and cultural arts building that the city of New York constructed and owns.

The Weeksville Heritage Center’s education and cultural arts building has a dramatic ceiling. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan
The Weeksville Heritage Center’s education and cultural arts building has a dramatic ceiling. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan

The nonprofit is responsible for paying for the museum’s operational costs. That list of expenses includes property maintenance, landscape maintenance, salaries and insurance.

To belt-tighten, the museum has laid off a couple of employees and reduced others’ hours and salaries, Warren said.

In addition to remedying the shortage of cash for its operational budget, the nonprofit will figure out how to achieve long-term financial security, she added.

Hunterfly Road was a Native American trail

The Weeksville Heritage Center education and cultural arts building’s glass facade mirrors the scenery. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan
The Weeksville Heritage Center education and cultural arts building’s glass facade mirrors the scenery. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan

Though the houses at Weeksville have Bergen Street addresses, they stand on a gravel pathway called Hunterfly Road. It was a Native American trail before it became a Weeksville street.

The oldest house is a single-story duplex constructed in the 1840s. Art exhibitions are staged inside; there’s currently a sound installation by Mendi and Keith Obadike.

 Furnishings from the 1860s can be found at Weeksville Heritage Center’s 1702 Bergen St. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan
Furnishings from the 1860s can be found at Weeksville Heritage Center’s 1702 Bergen St. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan

The other half of the house is filled with furnishings from the 1860s.

A two-story house nearby, built in the 1880s, is furnished with antiques from around 1900.

A second two-story house, which was constructed in the late 1880s, has 1930s Depression-era furniture and appliances — including a washing machine with a wringer on it for squeezing water out of the laundry.

There’s a piano in the “best room” — that’s a synonym for parlor — at 1700 Bergen St. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan
There’s a piano in the “best room” — that’s a synonym for parlor — at 1700 Bergen St. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan

A fourth building is a replica of an 1860s house that burned down in the 1990s.

A Pratt professor in a prop plane

 A washing machine with a wringer can be found at 1698 Bergen St. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan
A washing machine with a wringer can be found at 1698 Bergen St. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan

Weeksville flourished for many decades after its founding. But by the mid-20th century, it had been mostly obliterated by development.

In 1968, Pratt Institute Professor James Hurley and pilot Joseph Haynes went up in a prop plane to look for any still-standing Weeksville houses. Hurley had seen references to the African-American community in historic source materials.

From their aerial vantage point, the two men could see the outline of Hunterfly Road and bits of the homes alongside it. Overgrown brush hid the long-vacant houses from the view of people down on ground level.

Big Ben De Luxe clock is among the furnishings at 1698 Bergen St. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan
A Big Ben De Luxe clock is among the furnishings at 1698 Bergen St. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan

Artist and activist Joan Maynard set up the Society for the Preservation of Weeksville and Bedford-Stuyvesant History, which rallied neighborhood residents to protect the houses.

Students joined adults in successfully pressing for city landmark designation for the homes in 1970, a posting by the New York Preservation Archive Project says. The children also put on a fundraising campaign called Pennies for Weeksville to raise money for the houses’ restoration.

China bowl and pitcher for washing up, seen at 1700 Bergen St. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan
China bowl and pitcher for washing up, seen at 1700 Bergen St. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan

Follow Brooklyn Eagle reporter Lore Croghan on Twitter.

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