This fall the Weeksville Heritage Center (WHC) and Unified Field, creators of the official Graceland iPad Tour, have launched a pilot program to crowdfund an iPad tour of the Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn, New York. Weeksville Heritage Center, Brooklyn’s largest African-American cultural institution, is a multidisciplinary museum dedicated to preserving the history of the 19th century African American community of Weeksville, Brooklyn – one of America’s largest antebellum free black communities. Today, Weeksville Heritage Center’s campus includes a LEED Gold certified education complex, as well as four historic homes known as the Hunterfly Road Houses.
“The new Weeksville Center, which opened in December, 2013, is Brooklyn’s largest African-American cultural institution…”—The New Yorker, Recovering Weeksville
Saving Weeksville: Grass Roots Archeology
The Weeksville community began in the 1830s, when a free African American named James Weeks purchased a plot of land in Brooklyn. At the time, investment in property was also a political act as free African Americans were selectively required own $250 dollars worth of property in order to vote. Weeksville eventually grew and blossomed into a thriving hub that supported and was supported by its own institutions.
“The story of how the free black community was treated foreshadowed the ways all blacks were treated after slavery . . . Compared to civil rights museums and Civil War battlefields, there are few places to get that living history.” – Lonnie Bunch, director of National Museum of African American History and Culture”—The New York Times
The community included churches, a school, a cemetery, an orphan asylum, and a home for the elderly. Weeksville was also home to the African Civilization Society, which published The Freedman’s Torchlight, one of the first African American newspapers in the United States. During the Civil War, Weeksville became a haven for freedom seekers, African American intellectuals and middle class families. The neighborhood prospered until the 1930s, when it was absorbed by Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights.
In the late 1960s, historian James Hurley, pilot Joseph Haynes, and students from Pratt University began investigating the history of four houses that were aligned with Hunterfly Road, a road which predated the city grid system and followed the route of a Native American path. When the city began demolition of nearby homes to build a public housing project, educators, activists, and community members rallied to recover the history of Weeksville and preserve some of its last remaining houses.
From this community effort, the four Hunterfly Road houses were granted New York City landmark status and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Hunterfly Road Houses were purchased and restored by the Society for the Preservation of Weeksville and Bedford-Stuyvesant History, now Weeksville Heritage Center.
Today, Weeksville Heritage Center offers guided tours of these houses, which have been interpreted to represent life in three periods: the 1860s, the 1900s, and the 1930s.
“Everyplace has a Weeksville, where ordinary people came first and labored to create a more hospitable living setting for their loved ones. The rediscovery and preservation of this local history provides a means of reestablishing a continuity with the past so that children, armed with the knowledge of the contributions of their forebears can gain strength to meet the challenge of the future.” — Joan Maynard, Former Executive Director of Weeksville Heritage Center
Tour Weeksville: The Pilot Program
To tell this incredible story using limited funds, Weeksville and Unified Field partnered to create a simple app that draws on the Weeksville Center’s vast and mostly unknown archive of African American life in Brooklyn. The collection includes hundreds of hours of oral history interviews, archival images, and antique maps. Used to augment the guided Weeksville house tour, the pilot program serves multimedia content to reveal the stories of the houses, their residents, and the rediscovery and preservation of the smallest landmarked buildings in New York City.
An interactive map plots the history of the community from the African American hospitals and the second “colored” school in Brooklyn to the churches and institutions of this distinguished neighborhood.
“Weeksville, a multidimensional museum and historic site, is bringing the past together with today’s Brooklyn in a way that is further improving an already-rich community.”—Fast Company, Brooklyn’s Weeksville is Where Hipsters and History Coexist
Unified Field has been so impressed and moved by the Weeksville Historical Center and the history it represents, that we’ve volunteered to film the houses, document programs, and interview staff and Weeksville community members. We are currently brainstorming strategies to create the upcoming crowdfunding campaign.
Crowdfunding Weeksville: An App Grows in Brooklyn
In Fall of 2017, Weeksville Heritage Center and Unified Field hope to launch a Kickstarter campaign to fund a full iPad app. It is our intention that the campaign will fund the app, and more importantly, increase awareness and visitor traffic for the Center.
Unified Field’s designers have created merchandise for the campaign using the iconic “Weekville Lady”, a tin type photograph found behind a mantelpiece in the early explorations of houses that were slated for demolition.
Much like Unified Field’s Graceland Tour App, Bluetooth Beacons placed throughout the Weeksville campus will trigger interactive content including videos, audio, archival photos and augmented reality that will guide visitors through a journey of Weeksville’s gripping history. The Weeksville Heritage center is in contact with several celebrities, seeking the right voice to narrate the interactive tour and increase the visibility of this unknown piece of essential American history.
“Unified Field knows the power of the arts to transform and empower. These extraordinary designers, thinkers and technologists have a sense of community that is inclusive and celebratory. They have guided Weeksville Heritage Center toward finding an authentic voice that touches lives through our offerings. From creating a mobile application that draws the visitor into the historic and contemporary Weeksville Experience to consulting us as we redefine and reframe the Weeksville narrative, Unified Field has enhanced our efforts in ways that will ultimately benefit generations of visitors to our site.”—Tia Powell Harris, President / Director, Weeksville Heritage Center.