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But however stable homelife appeared in Weeksville, white mob violence was still a threat elsewhere in the area.

“White supremacy was very much the norm in Manhattan and Brooklyn. These weren’t isolated incidents,” says Kanakamedala. “Black Brooklynites realized that they wanted somewhere that would offer both safety and refuge.”

Protection within the community of Weeksville became essential in the years leading up to the Civil War.

When the Fugitive Slave Act passed in 1850, no state could protect the rights of any Black person accused of escaping slavery. African Americans who’d been enslaved and had found freedom in the North could still be wanted in the South for fleeing. Given that they were at risk of being kidnapped by slavecatchers patrolling the North, escapees used Weeksville as a hiding place, and it likely became a stop on the Underground Railroad.

The Dred Scott decision in 1857, in which the Supreme Court ruled that Black people could not be citizens, served as a further blow to the African American community. Just a year later, Black abolitionist Rev. Henry Highland Garnet, a Weeksville resident, and a few other leaders in the community founded the African Civilization Society to promote emigration to Liberia. The organization later established its headquarters in Weeksville.

Rev. Garnet’s push for Black emigration didn’t materialize, and racial conditions continued to deteriorate in New York. Irish Americans angry about being drafted to fight in the Civil War argued that they had not benefited from slavery and were also marginalized. They unleashed a litany of destruction known as the 1863 New York Draft Riots. Over three days, they destroyed government buildings and property in Manhattan, including the Colored Orphan Asylum, forcing children to escape out the back door as the building burned. The riot turned into a targeted attack on Black people, particularly Black men, who were exempt from the draft as non-citizens. More than 100 people were killed and thousands of African Americans were driven from their homes, some fleeing to Weeksville.

After the war, Weeksville continued as a Black community and welcomed more people. The Howard Orphan Asylum and the Zion Home for the Aged opened. But as Brooklyn expanded, demographic changes had a domino effect on the community. By 1865, more Europeans had moved in, and Weeksville was no longer majority African American. The founders were also dying: James Weeks, Junius Morel, and Rev. Simon Bundick (the pastor of Berean Missionary Baptist Church) all died in the 1860s or ’70s.

This content was originally published here.

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