April 6, 2021

How Weeksville, a Center of Black History, Fought to Survive

By Julia Jacobs

1,593 words

A slice of Brooklyn that was home to one of the largest free Black communities in pre-Civil War America sought the promise of steady financial help from the city.

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  But as New York City government changed — and the powerful Board of Estimate that once helped to determine which organizations could join the group was dissolved — the process for adding new members became “atrophied,” said John Calvelli, a former chairman of the Cultural Institutions Group and an executive with the Wildlife Conservation Society.
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  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 join.
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- The recent push to add Weeksville began in earnest in 2019.
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+ The recent push to add Weeksville, led by the organization’s former president and executive director, Rob Fields, began in earnest in 2019.
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- “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 of the effort to add it to the group, along with Laurie A. Cumbo, the council’s majority leader.
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+ “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 it to the group, along with Laurie A. Cumbo, the council’s majority leader.
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  They joined with the City Council speaker, Corey Johnson, to ask Mayor Bill de Blasio to add Weeksville to the group. Mr. de Blasio seemed resistant to the idea at first, Mr. Johnson said in an interview, because he and his administration worried that the organization’s financial difficulties would become the city’s responsibility.
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  “You’re making a sort of in-perpetuity commitment,” Mr. Johnson said. “So it ends up costing the city more and the Department of Cultural Affairs more, but it’s the right thing to do.”
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  “We’re proud to support organizations doing vital work to celebrate and preserve Black history in New York City,” Mr. de Blasio said in a statement. “Adding Weeksville to our C.I.G. 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 the story of our city in its full color and complexity.”
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  In the summer of 2019, the City Council members said, they were able to convince the mayor’s office of their Weeksville plan during the budget-making process.
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- But then Weeksville faced another negotiating challenge. Members of the Cultural Institutions Group are each located on city-owned property, the city notes. If Weeksville had followed tradition, the Hunterfly Road Houses would have then been transferred over to the city, said Timothy Simons, the chair of Weeksville’s board. But since Weeksville is a monument to Black home-ownership, some saw the transfer those leases to the city as antithetical to its mission.
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+ But then Weeksville faced another negotiating challenge. Members of the Cultural Institutions Group are each located on city-owned property, the city notes. If Weeksville had followed tradition, the Hunterfly Road Houses would have then been transferred over to the city, said Timothy Simons, the chair of Weeksville’s board. But since Weeksville is a monument to Black home-ownership, some saw the transfer of those leases to the city as antithetical to its mission.
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  “It’s a story of a Black-owned community,” Ms. Cumbo said. “For the houses and the areas that were preserved to no longer be owned outright would be negating the story of Weeksville.”
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  So while Weeksville’s main building is owned by the city, the four historic houses are still owned by the nonprofit.
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- The combination of grass roots donations, philanthropic support and city support have helped shore up Weeksville’s finances. In 2018, Weeksville’s fiscal year closed with a nearly $400,000 deficit and only one month of operating cash in the bank, the organization said. This year, it has a $275,000 cash reserve and six months of operating expenses in the bank.
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+ The combination of grass roots donations, philanthropic support and city support has helped shore up Weeksville’s finances. In 2018, Weeksville’s fiscal year closed with a nearly $400,000 deficit and only one month of operating cash in the bank, the organization said. This year, it has a $275,000 cash reserve and six months of operating expenses in the bank.
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- “The community was very clear,” Mr. Simons said, “Weeksville is an institution that must be here and must be here for the long term.”
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+ “The community was very clear,” Mr. Simons said. “Weeksville is an institution that must be here and must be here for the long term.”

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Headlines

  • How Weeksville, a Center of Black History, Fought to Survive

Tags

  • Bedford-Stuyvesant (Brooklyn, NY)
  • Black People
  • City Council (NYC)
  • Codrington, Raymond
  • Cornegy, Robert E Jr
  • Crown Heights (Brooklyn, NY)
  • Cultural Affairs Department
  • Cultural Institutions Group
  • Cumbo, Laurie A
  • Historic Buildings and Sites
  • Johnson, Corey
  • New York City
  • Race and Ethnicity
  • Weeksville Heritage Center (Brooklyn, NY)