Sweet Home Weeksville

13 March 2015

Ethnic Studies | History

I think the majority of us will agree that our most treasured possession is the home in which we live. It is filled with objects that define us and, in some cases, legacies that outlive us. It is within these walls that we create a sense of belonging, an identity.

With this in mind, it is easy to understand the significance placed on houses and personal belongings in the study of the past. An exploration of buildings and the objects within can offer not merely a glimpse, but rather a detailed and intimate insight into the everyday lives of the people who lived and breathed in the moments that we now call history. 

Weeksville, a neighbourhood founded by an African-American freedman in 1838, is a wonderful example of a place defined by its creation. The building of each and every house signified the promotion of racial respectability and the beginning of a thriving free black community, where African Americans could live and work as craftsmen, entrepreneurs and professionals. As the popularity of Weeksville grew, it became sought after as a place of refuge for people either fleeing slavery, or escaping racial violence. Weeksville again became a safe haven for African Americans fleeing Manhattan during the violent New York City Draft Riots of 1863. Today, following extensive restoration work, Weeksville exists as a representation of the houses that were once inhabited: The Hunterfly Road Houses, as shown below.

Photograph of 1698, 1700, 1702 and 1704 Bergen Street Â© Weeksville Heritage Center.
Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

It has been a privilege to explore a collection that until not long ago was part of a lost community. The uniqueness of the collection has to be in its raw representation of daily life, from the tough leather shoes worn by a labourer, to some ‘Penn’ candles which presumably adorned a birthday cake. While the beauty of the collection lies in its simplicity, much can be gleaned from the vast variety of original objects found within. As shown below, one particular mantelpiece displays personal family photographs, accompanied by a hand-coloured lithograph of ‘Distinguished Colored Men’ where Frederick Douglass, an African-American social reformer and former slave, takes centre stage. Further exploration reveals the ‘Freedman’s Torchlight’, one of the first African-American newspapers to be published, lying on a chest of drawers.

Photograph of clock, personal photographs and hand-coloured lithograph from the first floor of a 1700 Bergen Street © Weeksville Heritage Center.
Further reproduction prohibited without permission. 

Photograph of the 'Freedman's Torchlight' on a chest of drawers in 1704 Bergen Street Â© Weeksville Heritage Center.
Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

As a case study, Weeksville sits perfectly within a resource that explores race relations across social, political, cultural and religious contexts. It is incredible that a mere eleven years after the abolition of slavery an entirely African-American neighbourhood was created, and it is perhaps the conception of Weeksville that serves to reinforce its identity as a place that should never be forgotten.

Find out more about Weeksville in our African American Communities primary source collection available now.

About the Author

Sarah Madsen

Sarah Madsen

Since joining the editorial team at Adam Matthew in September 2014, I have been given the opportunity to work on a variety of fascinating projects, including part two of ‘American History, 1493-1945’ and ‘African American Communities’. I particularly enjoy using my degree, as well as broadening my knowledge on a daily basis.