Group hopes to restore homes of freed slaves

$10 million in grants collected to renew block in Brooklyn

November 08, 2001|By Nichole M. Christian | Nichole M. Christian,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - For 33 years, Joan Maynard has dreamed the same dream, the one where crowds come to see the four little clapboard cottages tucked behind a chain-link fence on a blighted block in Brooklyn.

The houses are all that remain of Weeksville, one of the nation's earliest communities of freed slaves. And Maynard, 73, has spent years tending to the Hunterfly Road Historic Houses, as they are officially known. She imagines them as a flourishing museum, a link to a bygone era and a bridge of opportunity for a neighborhood dominated by the Kingsborough Houses, a public housing complex. "The Weeksville houses were a source of hope to the people who once lived here, and they can be hope for the people who live in this community now."

It is a dream not far from reality these days. Through nearly $10 million in grants, most of them from the Brooklyn borough president's office and from companies like Goldman, Sachs, the houses will soon be restored and turned into a museum and education center.

Only one building is open to the public - a so-called interpretive center, a place to view some early 19th-century artifacts. The few on display and not in boxes - an old butter churn, a stone ax sharpener and a pair of slave shackles - are in need of restoration.

`Everyone should know'

"Everyone should know what happened here," said Maynard, executive director emeritus of the Society for the Preservation of Weeksville, the group that owns the buildings. "These houses can't speak for themselves," she said recently while strolling the grounds, where sweeping trees and scampering squirrels are subtle reminders of the property's pastoral heritage. "Their story deserves to be told in a major educational setting."

So along with the restoration, scheduled to begin in the spring, the group is building an education center to introduce neighborhood children to the story of Weeksville using media, art, dance and computer technology.

"Urban renewal basically destroyed places like Weeksville," said Jim Hadley, of Wank Adams Slavin Associates, an architectural preservation firm. The firm is handling the restoration, including furnishing the homes with gas lamps, wood-burning stoves, outhouses and a two-story laundry pole in the backyard. "But just by a stroke of luck, we have a chance to now give these houses back to the community as they once existed."

The story of Weeksville began with James Weeks, a longshoreman from Virginia, believed to be a former slave, who bought land from the Lefferts family in 1838. His patch of farmland became a bustling place for blacks, partly because slavery in New York was outlawed in 1827, well before the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. Scores of blacks, many fleeing Manhattan during the Civil War draft riots, quickly made their way to Brooklyn.

In Weeksville, people found virtually everything they needed: schools, thriving churches, social organizations, even an orphanage and a home for the elderly.

By the 1950s, that legacy was all but buried. Then in 1968, a historian and a pilot surveying Brooklyn, and benefiting from an aerial perspective, saw an odd clump of run-down wooden cottages tucked away on what appeared to be a trace of a road.

Path used by Indians

Through some detective work, they realized they had discovered the remains of a lost community. The road itself, called Old Hunterfly Road, had a story: It had been a trade path used by Indians. In 1970, the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the Hunterfly Road Houses a landmark. Two years later, they were added to the National Register of Historic Places.

But prestige has not eased the struggle to preserve the houses. Over the years, Maynard's group has pieced together the money for renovations, including, in the early 1980s, new roofs for all four houses. Still, the sparsely financed project has endured its share of setbacks. One house, destroyed by a fire, had to be completely rebuilt, and a security system was installed.

Good news on bad day

Even now that Weeksville appears headed for its biggest boost yet, there is concern. Recently, the group received the kind of news that would make any preservation project envious. It received a $400,000 grant from Save America's Treasures, a federal group that has helped preserve the homes of Harriet Tubman in upstate New York and Edith Wharton in Massachusetts. On any other day, it would have been a moment to celebrate. But it came on Sept. 11, and like the rest of New York and the nation, the Weeksville Society was grieving for the victims of the terrorist attacks.

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