Brooklyn's Promised Land

Brooklyn's Promised Land: The Free Black Community of Weeksville, New York

Judith Wellman
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    Brooklyn's Promised Land
    Book Description:

    In 1966 a group of students, Boy Scouts, and local citizens rediscovered all that remained of a then virtually unknown community called Weeksville: four frame houses on Hunterfly Road. The infrastructures and vibrant histories of Weeksville, an African American community that had become one of the largest free black communities in nineteenth century United States, were virtually wiped out due to Brooklyn's exploding population and expanding urban grid.

    Weeksville was founded by African American entrepreneurs after slavery ended in New York State in 1827. Located in eastern Brooklyn, Weeksville provided a space of physical safety, economic prosperity, education, and even political power. It had a high rate of property ownership, offered a wide variety of occupations, and hosted a relatively large proportion of skilled workers, business owners, and professionals. Inhabitants organized churches, a school, orphan asylum, home for the aged, newspapers, and the national African Civilization Society. Notable residents of Weeksville, such as journalist and educator Junius P. Morell, participated in every major national effort for African American rights, including the Civil War.

    InBrooklyn's Promised Land, Judith Wellman not only tells the important narrative of Weeksville's growth, disappearance, and eventual rediscovery, but also highlights the stories of the people who created this community. Drawing on maps, newspapers, census records, photographs, and the material culture of buildings and artifacts, Wellman reconstructs the social history and national significance of this extraordinary place. Through the lens of this local community,Brooklyn's Promised Landhighlights themes still relevant to African Americans across the country.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-2528-3
    Subjects: Sociology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Introduction: Brooklyn’s Promised Land, Weeksville, 1835–1910: “A Model for Places of Much Greater Pretensions”
    (pp. 1-12)

    In 1910, fifty-nine-year-old Alfred W. Cornish, born in New York State and a plasterer by trade, and forty-five-year-old Frances Cornish, his wife, born in Washington, D.C., were renting a house at 1698 Bergen Street, Brooklyn, New York.¹ Alfred Cornish had lived in this general neighborhood, off and on, since at least 1870, when he returned from Civil War service in the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Regiment.

    Little did Frances and Alfred Cornish know that in the late 1960s a coalition of students, Boy Scouts, and local citizens would rediscover and identify their home as one of four nineteenth-century houses on Hunterfly Road,...

  6. 1 “Here Will We Take Our Stand”: Weeksville’s Origins, from Slavery to Freedom, 1770–1840
    (pp. 13-48)

    In 1835, only eight years after the end of slavery in New York State, the United States was in the middle of a frenzy of land speculation.¹ African Americans were not immune. In July, Henry C. Thompson (“a Colored Man,” noted the deed), a leader of Brooklyn’s African American community, purchased thirty-two lots of land—once part of John Lefferts’s large farm—near the corner of Troy Avenue and Dean Street, on block 1335, just south of the new Long Island Railroad between Bedford and East New York. On March 26, 1838, in the middle of a terrible depression, James...

  7. 2 “Owned and Occupied by Our Own People”: Weeksville’s Growth: Family, Work, and Community, 1840–1860
    (pp. 49-96)

    On a sunny June morning in 1850, Lydia Ann Elizabeth Simmons Dixon LeGrant stepped off the front porch of her house in the village of Weeksville in eastern Brooklyn.¹ Most likely, she was intent on her morning chores—feeding the chickens and geese, perhaps a goat or two, and maybe also a cow or horse—but she took a moment to savor her surroundings. She smelled the fresh green of early summer. Around her were sandy patches of scrubby grass interspersed with clumps of bushes and large trees. Just north of her neighborhood stood a large park filled with oak,...

  8. 3 “Shall We Fly or Shall We Resist?”: From Emigration to the Civil War, 1850–1865
    (pp. 97-136)

    By 1860, the Weeks, Bundick, Morel, and LeGrant families and their neighbors had lived in Weeksville for many years.¹ They continued to work, attend school and church, and contribute to their community. At the same time, they were caught up in local, state, and national affairs that would change their lives forever. James Weeks and his immediate family had died or moved away from Weeksville by 1860, but two individuals named Weeks remained. One, Sarah Jane Weeks, was a seamstress, aged thirty. The other, Ann Weeks, was four years old and living in the same household with Sarah Jane Weeks...

  9. Maps
    (pp. None)
  10. 4 “Fair Schools, a Fine Building, Finished Writers, Strong Minded Women”: Politics, Women’s Activism, and the Roots of Progressive Reform, 1865–1910
    (pp. 137-182)

    In 1865, the military war was over, but the struggle for full citizenship continued, for Weeksville residents as for African Americans throughout the nation.¹ As historian Hugh Davis suggested, the movement for equal rights in the 1860s and 1870s “stands as the most important African American crusade for full citizenship rights prior to the modern civil rights cause of the 1950s and 1960s.” This struggle focused on two main issues: black male suffrage and equal access to public education. Both involved government, the first in defining voter characteristics and the second in paying for public schools. Both dominated public discussion...

  11. 5 “Cut Through and Gridironed by Streets”: Physical Changes, 1860–1880
    (pp. 183-210)

    In the 1860s, Weeksville, with its steep hills, woods, and deep hollows, remained a pocket of rural life, with “the most uneven land in the city, where hollows of fifty feet or more alternate,” surrounded by the city on its north and west sides.¹ From the hills of Weeksville, visitors could look east for a “magnificent view” of Jamaica Bay. They could look west to see the “roofs and spires” of Brooklyn. Gazing north, they could see “dimly outlined hills of New England” across Long Island Sound.²

    The Brooklyn City Railroad Company completed rail service along Fulton Avenue to East...

  12. 6 “Part of This Magically Growing City”: Weeksville’s Growth and Disappearance, 1880–1910
    (pp. 211-225)

    By the 1880s, Weeksville was clearly integrated into the city of Brooklyn.¹ A decade earlier, in 1874, the “whole district lying east of Bedford avenue was cultivated as farmlands and market gardens,” with separate settlements surrounded by “old farm houses, with corn fields, meadows, and gardens,” noted theBrooklyn Eagle. By 1884, all that had changed. TheEaglerejoiced that Bedford, Crow Hill, Weeksville, New Brooklyn, East Brooklyn, and Brownville were all “merged into the common city, and all distinctive lines have been obliterated.” Along Fulton, Flatbush, and Atlantic Avenues, “brown stone stores and Philadelphia bricks have been erected by...

  13. 7 “A Seemingly Viable Neighborhood That No Longer Exists”: Weeksville, Lost and Found, 1910–2010
    (pp. 226-240)

    In the early twentieth century, two significant developments, both relating to transportation, added new elements to the landscape. One was the continued growth of rail transport, creating the iconic elevated trains that ran along the historic route of the Long Island Railroad on Atlantic Avenue. The second change was the automobile. To accommodate new gas-powered cars and trucks, people in Weeksville constructed dozens of one-story garages all over their neighborhoods. Many of these still stood in the early twenty-first century.

    Otherwise, most of Weeksville’s built environment—blocks and blocks of Italianate-inspired row houses and commercial structures—reflected its nineteenth-century expansion....

  14. NOTES
    (pp. 241-278)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 279-294)
    (pp. 295-295)