Free African American Weeksville Community in Brooklyn Photo Tour-Abolition Civil War Reconstruction

Pat Young

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Weeksville was a free black community established in Brooklyn before the Civil War. In the 1850s the community had 500 people living in it, about 40% of who had been born in the South.

I went by Weeksville today and took a few photos of the four restored homes there. Weeksville is in what is now called Crown Heights.
 

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Taylin

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Very interesting. There's an old settlement, now taken back by the forest, about 5 miles or less from me that was established in the early 1800's called Lick Creek or "Little Africa". There's still some foundation here and there as well as two cemeteries. The population was mostly Black and Quakers who moved here from North Carolina.
 

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Very interesting. There's an old settlement, now taken back by the forest, about 5 miles or less from me that was established in the early 1800's called Lick Creek or "Little Africa". There's still some foundation here and there as well as two cemeteries. The population was mostly Black and Quakers who moved here from North Carolina.
Where was this.?
 

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Weeksville was also the home of the Reconstruction Era Howard Colored Orphan Asylum, set up to serve freedman orphans and named after Gen. O.O. Howard who headed the Freedmen's Bureau. Suzanne Spellen writes:

The Orphan Asylum was founded in 1866 by members of the African American community. It began as the Home for Freed Children and Others, and was run out of a home until donations were made to form the Brooklyn Howard Orphan Asylum in 1868. The institution was named for General Oliver O. Howard, the Union Army general who was put in charge of the Freedman’s Bureau after the war, and led Reconstruction efforts to help the former slaves adjust to freedom. Howard was also a minister, was known for his piety, and was called the “Christian general.” Howard University, located in Washington DC, was named after him, as well.

General Howard and his wife came to Brooklyn to aid in the organization and fund raising for a permanent home, and with the help of a wealthy Brooklyn banker named Trask, they were on hand with Weeksville residents as the cornerstone of this building was laid. William Mundell, a prominent Brooklyn architect, the designer of the Williamsburg and Park Slope Armories, among other things, was the architect of this three story structure.

The first director of the organization was the Rev. William F. Johnson. The administration of the Orphan Asylum, as well as the staff, was all black, a rarity in Brooklyn and New York charities for Negroes. Brooklyn’s white philanthropic elite were still very much involved in fundraising. The Asylum was a popular charity, and it took a lot of fund raising to keep it operating. The institution was soon packed with babies and children, some of them without parents, some placed there because their parent or parents were unable to care for them, due to poverty, alcoholism or jail. All of Brooklyn’s orphanages were run the same way.

The older children went to school, and were also taught domestic skills for jobs after they aged out of the home. The orphanage was a staple of the charitable scene in the newspapers. A women’s auxiliary was established to aid in fund raising, and there were many mentions of dinners, events and fairs organized to raise money. Often, groups of children entertained the audiences with hymns and the singing of spirituals. This too, was a regular occurrence at all orphanages. Nothing opens the wallet more than cute little kids singing.

howard colored orphan asylum.JPG


Photo of the Asylum is from Brooklyn Public Library Collection.

 

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Weeksville was also the national headquarters for the African Civilization Society. This black-led group was begun in 1858 to help African Americans move to Liberia to create a rival cotton industry that would eventually make slavery unprofitable. After the Civil War, the organization shifted its focus towards sending black teachers South to teach black children.

http://www.blackpast.org/gah/african-civilization-society-1858-1869
 

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The African Civilization Society made sure people knew that it was not the African Colonization Society:

NY Times: Published: May 16, 1860
The African Civilization Society met in Convention in Shiloh Church last evening. There was a very fair attendance of colored people, and the proceedings were listened to with interest. After prayer by Rev. Mr. M. WALKER, Rev. Mr. GARNET remarked that, although it was a meeting of the friends of the Civilization movement, still, after the regular proceedings should have been concluded, the floor would be free to those opposed to it. He then read a letter from Rev., Mr. WHIPPLE, favoring the objects of the Society.

He then introduced Rev. J.B. SMITH, who commenced by reading a series of resolutions speaking unfavorably of the Bethesda Church meeting, and asserting that the Colonization Society had no objects other than declared in its published declaration. The Society, he said, stood upon its own basis, and had nothing to do with the Colonization Society. The strongest arguments brought against it were mere assumptions that something was intended that was not declared, and that something might he done that had not been openly stated before. He responded to the assertion that the Society was building itself up at the expense of the slave, that it was aiding every other movement to ameliorate the condition of the slave, and to set him free. He also stated emphatically that Mr. GARRISON was favorably inclined towards the Society, and that he had said that to raise cotton in Africa would be to attack the Southern slaveholder in a most vulnerable part. One of the speakers at the Bethesda Church meeting had stated that the constitutions of the Colonization and Civilization Societies were alike, while he knew well while he was speaking that they were not alike. The facts were that while the Colonization Society did not propose to interfere with Slavery in this country at all, while the Civilization Society believed in interference with Slavery, and encouraged all societies organized for that purpose. He also referred, at some length, to what was said by several speakers at the meeting referred to, and denied that anything therein stated was correct, so far as it imputed unworthy motives to those engaged in the African civilization movements.

Rev. Mr. GARNET said he had been in public life for twenty-five years, and during that time he had heard many lies told in all possible ways, but in all his hearing he never heard anything equal to what was said at the opposition meeting. In referring to the inconsistences of the speakers at that meeting, he said that while they spoke well of the men engaged in the Colonization movement were honest, they asserted the Society was founded in deception. In conclusion, he denied forcibly that either secretly or openly the Society had any connection with the Colonization Society. When Mr. GARNET had spoken until 11 1/4 o'clock, the elder and younger Messrs. DOWNING desired to know at what time those in the opposition would have the privilege of replying.

Mr .GARNET said as soon as the friends were through, and then introduced Mr. MYERS, who had been in Africa, and intended to return as soon as he could dispose of his property in the United States.

Mr. GARNET was often interrupted while speaking, and his replies to questions caused considerable amusement.
 

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Rev. R.H. Cain became one of the leaders of the African Colonization Society. He lived at 20 Lawrence Ave. in Brooklyn, but he had been born in Virginia as a free black. In 1865 he moved to Charleston where he reestablished Mother Emanuel AME Church which had been closed since 1822 after the Denmark Vesey terror. The church was the scene of a massacre in 2015.

Cain would go on to represent Charleston in the South Carolina State Senate and in Congress, as one of the most successful black elected officials before the 1960s. He would go on to found Paul Quinn College in Waco Tx, the first Black college west of the Mississippi.

Source: Brooklyn's Promised Land: The Free Black Community of Weeksville, New York
By Judith Wellman pp. 112-113.
 

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Junius Morel was a prominent figure in the Weeksville African American community during the Civil War Era. According to the Brooklyn Historical Society:

Junius C. Morel. Born in North Carolina, Morel lived and worked in Philadelphia before moving to the Weeksville section of Brooklyn. He served as principal of Colored School Number 2 in Weeksville while maintaining an active career as a writer and journalist.

https://www.brooklynhistory.org/blo...ipation-proclamation-junius-c-morel-responds/
 

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Morel served as the Weeksville correspondent for the African American newspaper The Christian Reporter. The paper published his reflections on the January 1, 1863 issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation (1/10/1863):

The curtain has again risen, and a new piece is on the stage. I trust it is neither comedy nor yet tragedy, but an unfolding of great plans, and the bringing forth of great good to mankind. God works not as man- he knows the beginning and the end of all things. Prophetic vision- unlike historic relation- stretches from the days of the seer to the weeks of the drama, unfolding events by the revolutions of the wheels within the wheels. I am waiting by the river of promise, looking wistfully to the day of deliverance, when we might behold the "likeness of the living creatures,"- hoping to see the likeness of a man in the proclamation of Abraham Lincoln.

The new year burst upon us with emotions untold by mortal tongues. Happy day- pregnant with the destiny of coming generations; hence the anxiety felt by all classes to hear and read the proclamation of freedom to the groaning millions. all seemed to hold their breath in awful suspense till near noon, when the lightning flashed forth a light, which shall shine on the pathway of mankind to the latest generations. Having a desire to know what is yet to come, I started towards the city of churches, where it is reported you can hear sermons of every grade, from the lofty and enchanting eloquence of the renowned orator, Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, the champion of human liberty, the friend of the poor, and upholder of the rights of man, to the less great, but equally notorious Doctor and expositor of "Death in the pot."

In anticipation of a good time in the watch-meetings, I carelessly sauntered toward that somewhat famous church in Bridge St. [Note: Rev Cain's church was on Bridge St. -Pat] Arriving about nine o'clock, I found that that "nice" man, the pastor, had given orders to refuse admittance to all who could not give a good account of themselves, as it was love feast. Anxious to see what of interest there was in such a meeting, I donned my most graceful appearance, gained admittance, and choosing a quiet point of observation, I watched the progress of events. A large number had already gathered. Service was opened by singing and prayer. The pastor was fervent in prayer, entreating God to bless the nation, and bring order out of confusion. I thought how great a change in the exhibition of feeling was manifested by the same man, who, at a contraband meeting in this church some weeks since, declared himself ready to raise and lead into the field, (provided they were guarantied all the rights of manhood) two hundred thousand sable warriors to put down the rebellion.

After prayer and the reading of the one hundred and fourth psalm, he closed the book and made some touching remarks, called to remembrance their struggles and sorrows in the past year- their hopes and prospects of the future, &c. Many mothers reviewed the past scenes of grief experience around the death bed of their loved children. Many faces were wet with tears as the story of parental bereavement was rehearsed. The meeting grew more impressive as the bread and water passed around, then followed the breaking of bread, shaking of hands, singing, and rejoicing by the members. There was a large number of whites in the congregation, who seemed to enjoy the services. The speaking began, and many a good testimony of God's power to save was given. They spoke with great freedom of their hopes of salvation through faith in the Son of God.

The meeting was progressing finely, and all seemed to be enjoying it well, till about 10 o'clock, when a large accession was made by the entering of a number of persons, white an colored, which seemed to dampen the ardor of the people. The presence of this class was evidently not welcome, for they were mostly a class of persons who came for observation more than for the good of the meeting. And they came till the aisles were crammed full, and there was a great mingled mass of ring-streaked and speckled, like Jacob's cattle. I thought to myself, How is it that there is so much accursed prejudice, when we see with what eagerness white people will crowd colored people's churches, when they have any of those close meetings? I was awakened from my reflections by the appearance of a strange-looking apparition, which riveted my attention, striding from one side of the vacancy to the other. It seemed looking for a place to squat, out of the sight of the great mass of eyes which were fixed upon it. It was difficult to tell to what species of animals to assign it. Therefore, noting its appearance, in contemplation of attending the zoological lectures of Agassiz this winter, and compare my notes with his investigations, I watched the appearance of this strange thing. A black beard, long frizzly hair, short, stoop-shouldered, somewhat Esopic in style, keen black eyes, a broad ape-like grin. I was about to conclude that Barnum had lost his "What is it?" when, looking more closely, I saw that it clutched in its fists a book and pencil. I then remembered that such an animal, resembling that nondescript at Barnum', was attached to that dirtiest of all dirty sheets of this country, the Brooklyn Eagle, as a reporter. [The Eagle was a Democratic Paper and hostile to black rights]

I was satisfied that we should have a caricature of the meeting, very unfavorable for the people who worship there. Sharply looking about, he eyed the pastor and congregation. He took a seat near the pulpit, and began to scribble as the speakers told their hopes of heaven. As if conscious of being out of place, and fearful lest Barnum should come in, he strove to be calm, while the story of wrongs inflicted by ruthless slaveholders on the person of an aged mother in North Carolina, by robbing her of her children and sending them to eternal bondage, was rehearsed. The power of Christ to save a poor mortal while on earth from sin and death, he didn't seem to understand. It was all incomprehensible to him; but prompted by instincts, like all brutes of his kind, he sketches the doings of the meeting according to his brutish proclivities, and the result was produced in the Eagle of the first of January, evening edition. A glaring libel on the whole congregation. I have taken up too much time in noticing this thing already. The meeting was a good one. The people enjoyed it; and the mingling of tears and congratulations were profuse. At 10 minutes before 12, all knelt in silent prayer, and the preachers cried every half minute till the hour of 12, when the old song of Happy New Year was sung, amid the shouting and rejoicing of the people. The meeting held till morning, and I was told by one of the members, that after the great mass of people were gone, they that remained had a glorious time. A new year's gift to the pastor was given by the congregation, amounting to $12. They had a good time. Your correspondent having seen the old year out, and the new dawn bright and hopeful bearing on it the hopes and fears of four millions of black men, and the destiny of twenty-six millions of white, with their posterity, I draw the curtain and watch for the next piece in the drama, when I will relate the various parts played by both wise and foolish, when the scene shall change again, anon. JUNIUS.
 



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