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A Heritage Center for Black History in Brooklyn Struggles to Remain Open

The museum, which preserves the history of one of the first free Black communities in New York, says that if a new crowdfunding campaign does not yield $200,000 before July, it will be forced to shut its doors for lack of resources.

The historic Hunterfly Road houses in Weeksville, Brooklyn. Photo by Rylee Eterginoso (courtesy the Weeksville Heritage Center)

The Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn, a museum dedicated to one of the first communities of free African Americans in the US, is in imminent danger of closure. If a new crowdfunding campaign does not yield $200,000 before July, the center says it will be forced to shut its doors due to lack of resources.

Rising operation and maintenance costs of the center’s structures are the main reasons for the financial crises, the Weeksville’s director Rob Fields told Hyperallergic in a phone conversation. “This crowdfunding campaign is focused on giving us some additional time through the first quarter of our fiscal year, starting July 1st, to really do the serious planning needed to figure out the path towards sustainability,” he said.

The crowdfunding campaign has reached more than half of its goal (almost $130,000) since it was launched about a week ago. The center is hoping to raise the full amount to be able to meet basic obligations like staff wages and operational expenses, and use this gasp of air to strategize a new fiscal plan come September.

According to Fields, the museum’s fiscal woes began with the Global Financial Meltdown of 2008, a period from which the center has never recovered. The museum’s reliance on grants is another major cause for the crises, he says: “We are heavily indexed into grants. When grants don’t come through, that puts the center in a precarious position.”

“I’ve known for a while that the grant-funding model is not sustainable. I just thought I had more time to figure out a new path, a new direction,” Fields admits.

The Weeksville Heritage Center is a museum and an educational institution dedicated to preserving the history of the 19th century African American community of Weeksville in Brooklyn (in modern-day Crown Heights.) It was one of the largest free Black communities in the period before the Civil War and Emancipation.

An activity outside Weeksville’s new visitor center. Photo by Sindayiganza Photography (courtesy the Weeksville Heritage center)

Historic Weeksville was established by African American activists in 1838, 11 years after New York State abolished slavery. The society established a school, a charity association, an orphanage, a nursing home, and three churches. The community also had an independent newspaper, the Freedman’s Torchlight.

The modern Weeksville Heritage Center was established in 1968 by activists and educators to save the community’s houses from being lost to new development in the neighborhood. The center’s complex includes the 19th-century Hunterfly Road Houses — recognized as historic landmarks by New York City and the National Register of Historic Places — and a 23,000-square-foot visitor center, which opened in 2014.

This is not the first time the Weeksville finds itself in the face of looming bankruptcy. In December 2013, while preparing to inaugurate its new building, the center laid off half of its staff due to difficulties in raising funds.

The Weeksville gets 70% of its budget from various city, state, and federal grants (New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs provides for 10% of the budget) and a small portion of private donations. The remaining 30% comes from rentals, merchandise sales, and individual donors.

Fields, who has helmed the center since September 2017, has doubled its number of visitors, but with most programs being offered for free, the increase contributed very little to the institution’s revenue. “We need to enlarge the revenue pie, develop more individual donors, and look at different partnerships with universities and other institutions,” he said.

But the Weeksville is strained by another, more entrenched obstacle, according to Fields. “The funding environment for the philanthropic landscape of Black, Latino, and Asian cultural institutions is challenging,” he said. “Compared to white mainstream institutions, Black institutions tend to have smaller boards. Weeksville’s board has only eight members while the average white institution has 37 people on the board,” Fields said, citing data from a 2015 study at the University of Maryland on diversity in the arts. “We have a smaller donor base, and our donors give less. We have a smaller staff. We don’t have a full development staff. Things like that make the environment challenging,” Field added.

Actor Michael K. Williams calls to rally to save the Weeksville Heritage Center (via YouTube)

Karen Rose is an herbalist and a member of Sacred Vibes, a Ditmas Park-based apothecary composed of mostly women healers who work in the community to maintain wellness. Her organization holds its annual conferences at the Weeksville Center. “We are very fortunate to have a space like the Weeksville, because of its own unique history and how it aligns with our values around building Indigenous knowledge,” she said in a phone conversation with Hyperallergic.

“Black Brooklyn will lose so much if the Weeksville is closed,” Rose said. “Just to think of the rural houses that are located there. That was the first free community of Blacks. Having a space like that where we can convene and be in the spirit of that land, and feel so connected to our ancestors … I don’t imagine we could feel that way anywhere else.”

Rose credits the center for raising awareness about the very existence of Weeksville, a relatively overlooked historic site which both she and Fields begrudgingly described as “Brooklyn’s best-kept secret.”

In another effort to bring the Weeksville to public attention, the center has recruited actor Michael K. Williams (The Wire, Boardwalk Empire) to a video produced for its crowdfunding campaign. “I’ve lived in Brooklyn my whole life, but it wasn’t until recently that I got to go to or even heard of the Weeksville Heritage Center,” Williams says in the video.

“Weeksville Heritage Center is the only African American historic site of its kind in Brooklyn … The work they do there preserves and shares an important site of Black freedom, Black empowerment, and Black self-determination,” the actor adds.

Williams continues: “The expenses are overwhelming the center’s ability to meet basic obligations. The team at Weeksville needs time to develop a funding an operational plan that ensures that they will never be put in this dangerous position again.”

“Weeksville has to be sustainable, and I believe it will be,” Fields said, “but I think we have to do business very differently.”

Update 5/13/19 1:20pm: The Weeksville Heritage Center has surpassed its goal and has currently raised $243,186.

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