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How Weeksville, a black history center, fought to survive

Two years ago, the Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn, which is dedicated 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 in danger of disappearing.

Faced with a severe budget deficit, the center was able to raise more than $ 350,000 through a crowdfunding campaign, but local politicians knew that a temporary influx of cash wouldn’t save it in the long run. So they turned to the city. Through their efforts, Weeksville recently became the first organization in a generation to be added to 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, whose inclusion in the group makes them eligible for greater city funding.

Today Weeksville, a historic and cultural center, is entering a new phase in its long and winding history. On Tuesday, Weeksville appointed a new CEO, Raymond Codrington, a cultural anthropologist with experience in conservation and nonprofit leadership. With the organization no longer fighting for its survival, its mission will be to use its new institutional support to expand its presence in Brooklyn.

“What’s going to interest the average person who walks by Weeksville every day, but doesn’t necessarily see themselves in there?” Dr Codrington said. “How do we reinterpret our work and break down the barriers that often prevent people from seeing each other in institutions?”

Becoming a member of the Group of Cultural Institutions was not an easy task. No organization has joined the fold since 1997, and the formal process for requesting inclusion 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.

Located where Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant meet, opposite the Kingsborough Public Housing Project, Weeksville was funded by the city and completed in 2013. It hosts art exhibitions, theater performances, cultural discussions and financial literacy and home ownership workshops hive of activity that has moved online during the pandemic.

To reach 19th-century Weeksville, visitors must descend a wooden bridge that crosses long grass and ends at the Hunterfly Road Houses, three wood-frame houses built between the 1840s and 1880s (plus a fourth house that was destroyed by fire in the 1990s and rebuilt).

Founded decades before the Emancipation Proclamation, Weeksville is named after James Weeks, a black tank top who bought the land from Henry C. Thompson, a black leader of the abolitionist movement who bought the property from the wealthy Lefferts family.

At its peak, Weeksville was home to around 700 families. There was a school, church, and newspaper, called Freedman’s Torchlight, which served as a kind of manual for newly freed slaves by publishing lessons in the alphabet, English, and arithmetic. During the proposed riots of 1863, Weeksville was a haven for blacks fleeing racist violence in Manhattan.

In the middle of the 20th century, the village fell into obscurity, but in 1968 the four houses were rediscovered by a historian and a pilot during an aerial search of the neighborhood. A 1969 archaeological dig in a nearby area uncovered artifacts that are still on display in the homes today, and after a successful campaign by curator Joan Maynard, the homes were awarded city monument status and were added to the National Register of Historic Places in the 1970s.

Before the pandemic, schoolchildren visited homes every day of the week, passing the wooden outbuilding, the old-fashioned washing machine, the herringbone brushes of one of the families who had lived there, the dolls at the skin painted black.

“You feel like you are walking where people have walked before – in the center of this free community,” said Dr Codrington, standing in the dining room of one of the 19th century houses. “You have the impression that history lives and breathes around you.”

By the time Weeksville opened its new building in 2014, the group’s leaders had already been trying – unsuccessfully – to become part of the group of cultural institutions for years.

The group dates back to 1869, when the Weeksville community was still active in Brooklyn. It started with the New York legislature authorizing the city to construct a new building for the American Museum of Natural History and cover some of its financial responsibilities, while allowing the institution to be managed by a private organization. non-profit. By 1900, the city had struck a similar deal 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 has agreed to cover expenses such as heating, lighting and electricity, and to provide additional operational support, and the institutions are committed to making their offerings accessible to New Yorkers.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the city says it realized the group needed a more diverse makeup, racially, ethnically and geographically, and the group’s membership grew dramatically as more and more people grew. institutions such as the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Jamaica Center for the Arts and Learning were added.

But as the New York City government changed – and the powerful Appraisal Council that once helped determine which organizations could join the group was disbanded – the process of adding new members began to grow. “Atrophied,” said John Calvelli, former president of cultural institutions. Group and an executive from the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Before Weeksville, the last time a new member was added was in 1997, when Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani announced that the Museum of Jewish Heritage would become a member.

The recent push to add Weeksville, led by the organization’s former president and chief executive officer Rob Fields, began in earnest in 2019.

“It took a tremendous amount of political will,” said Robert E. Cornegy, Jr., the city council member whose district includes Weeksville and one of the politicians leading the effort to add him to the group, with Laurie A. Cumbo, the majority leader of the council.

They joined with City Council Chairman Corey Johnson in asking Mayor Bill de Blasio to add Weeksville to the group. Mr de Blasio seemed reluctant at first, Mr Johnson said in an interview, as he and his administration feared the organization’s financial woes could become the responsibility of the city.

“You are making a sort of lifelong commitment,” Mr Johnson said. “It ends up costing the city and the Ministry of Cultural Affairs more, but it’s the right thing to do.”

Mr Cornegy said that when they argued Weeksville, they explained its historical significance and its ability to serve as a “guide” to understanding the black experience in New York City. And sometimes, during the tense discussions around the proposal, they brought up the lack of racial diversity within the group of cultural institutions.

“When the whole world sees that these resources are available for particular institutions,” he said, “it gets a little embarrassing.”

Mr. de Blasio has long promised to hold cultural institutions accountable for the growth of their internal diversity. Members of the Cultural Institutions Group were required to submit plans to enhance diversity and inclusion among their staff and visitors, but no plan was required to diversify the membership of the group itself.

Gonzalo Casals, the commissioner of the city’s cultural affairs department, defended the current group, saying it includes a range of culturally and geographically diverse organizations and that some institutions that are not culturally specific work hard to serve communities. of color who visit them. , such as 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 help pay capital costs and bills. of energy.

“We are proud to support organizations that do essential work to celebrate and preserve black history in New York City,” de Blasio said in a statement. “Adding Weeksville to our CIG program will deepen their collaboration with the city and help them thrive for years to come – and give generations of New Yorkers the chance to learn about our city’s history in all its glory.” color and its complexity. “

In the summer of 2019, city council members said, they were successful in convincing the mayor’s office of their Weeksville plan during the budgeting process.

But Weeksville faced another negotiating challenge. Members of the cultural institutions group are all located on city-owned property, the city notes. If Weeksville had followed the tradition, the Hunterfly Road Houses would then have moved to the city, said Timothy Simons, chairman of the board of Weeksville. But since Weeksville is a monument to black home ownership, some have viewed the transfer of these leases to the city as contrary to its mission.

“This is the story of a black-owned community,” Ms. Cumbo said. “For the homes and areas that have been preserved no longer to be fully owned would negate the story of Weeksville.”

So while the main building in Weeksville is owned by the city, the four historic houses still belong to the non-profit organization.

The combination of grassroots giving, philanthropic support, and city support has helped solidify Weeksville’s finances. In 2018, Weeksville’s fiscal year ended with a deficit of nearly $ 400,000 and just one month of operational cash at the bank, the organization said. This year he has a cash reserve of $ 275,000 and six months of operating expenses at the bank.

“The community was very clear,” Mr. Simons said. “Weeksville is an institution that must be here and must be there for the long haul.”

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