The Hunterfly Road Houses
In the heart of Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy sits a row of 19th century wood-frame houses-- a recently-discovered glimpse into the area’s past, when it was a neighborhood called Weeksville and a bustling community of free African Americans in the the 1800s.
Weeksville was founded by a former docks worker (and possibly a former slave, though it’s unclear) named James Weeks, who bought the land, previously owned by Dutch farmers, at auction in 1838. Only 11 years before, slavery was abolished in New York State. More African American families moved to the area, and it came to be called Weeksville. It inhabitants moved from the Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Africa, the Caribbean, and elsewhere, and they were all people of color.
Weeksville’s goals as a community were to define themselves as free people; exercise their political rights; create economic opportunities for African Americans; create a safe haven for people of color; challenge white-American-sponsored emigration. The community was involved in political activism and the abolitionist movement, and served as a beacon for free and enslaved black Americans. During the 1863 Draft Riots, which began as protests against Civil War conscription and quickly morphed into a race riot targeting black New Yorkers, hundreds of African Americans fled Manhattan for Weeksville.
Despite its importance in African American history, Weeksville was lost to history for year. After the Civil War, development in Brooklyn boomed; buildings were torn down and new ones built in their place. In the 1940s housing projects were built in the area, and in the late-1960s urban renewal leveled the land. To make matters more difficult, there were virtually no written sources documenting the existence of Weeksville. Despite the value placed by the community on education, first generation Weeksvillers were largely unable to read or write. There was a local paper (one of the first published by African Americans in the US), the Freedman’s Torchlight, but only one copy has ever been found. Other, larger papers, rarely mentioned Weeksville because it was so self-sufficient and independent.
By the late-1960s, Weeksville was rarely mentioned even in texts about Black history in Brooklyn; what was once a thriving African American community was reduced to legend.
In 1968, Historian and head of the Long Island Historical Society James Hurley, led a weekend class at the Pratt Institute (my alma mater!) on local Black history. He’d read about Weeksville in a book from 1942, and was determined to find evidence of the community’s existence. When walks in the neighborhood proved fruitless, Hurley hired a pilot to fly low over Brooklyn so he could take pictures. Overgrown and hidden down an alleyway were four wooden houses. Three of them were crumbling, but one was still inhabited by a woman whose family had owned the property since the turn of the century.
The alley was formerly a Native American trail which had become a road in the 17th century called Ander Vly, or “to the low or swampy place”. Over time, the name was Anglicized to Hunterfly Road. Hunterfly remained in use after the grid system was laid out in 1838, with the expectation that it would close once Fulton Avenue was functional. The exact date that Hunterfly Road went out of use isn’t known for sure, but it was sometime in the second half of the 19th century. Hunterfly Road is now an alley in the middle of a city block: Bergen Street between Rochester and Buffalo.
Inspired by Hurley’s ‘discovery’, artists, activists, and the local PS 243 formed the Society for the Preservation of Weeksville and Bedford-Stuyvesant History the same year. PS 243 raised the first $900 for the restoration. In 1970, the houses were named New York City Landmarks and added to the National Register of Historic Places; three years later, the Society bought the houses. In 2005, after years of work and a $3 million renovation, the buildings opened to the public as the Weeksville Heritage Center, dedicated to telling the story of Weeksville and its inhabitants.
The Heritage Center has recently expanded to a 19,000 square foot exhibition and performance space, with a library and cafe.
The Hunterfly Road Houses
1698 Bergen St, Brooklyn, NY 11213
Weeksville Heritage Center
158 Buffalo Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11213
Tuesday to Saturday: 10 am - 5 pm
Weeksville, Brooklyn; Wikipedia
Recovering Weeksville, The New Yorker
Tours, Weeksville Heritage Center
James Hurley, November 12, 2011; CGP Community Stories
Hunterfly Road House, Neighborhood Preservation Commission
New York City Draft Riots, Wikipedia
NYC’s Smallest Landmark is an 1800’s Crown Heights Home, Curbed New York
Introduction: Brooklyn’s Promised Land, Weeksville, 1835–1910 “A Model for Places of Much Greater Pretensions”; NYU Press
Brooklyn’s Promised Land, Weeksville, 1835-1910, Project Muse