By Ellen McGirt
May 13, 2019

Over the weekend, a nonprofit of monumental importance to American history was saved by the goodwill of people on Twitter.

Weeksville is a unique cultural center and historic site in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn that was once home to a thriving community of free and formerly enslaved black people. It was established in 1838, just eleven years after New York abolished slavery. Today, as an art, education, and convening space, it’s become an essential node in our collective understanding of race and history. And yet, in a city filled with people who will drop thirty-five-large for a ticket to the Met Gala, Weeksville found itself facing, once again, imminent closure if it didn’t reach an interim funding goal of $200,000.

On Friday, The New York Times covered the struggling organization.

“Free and formerly enslaved black people made their way to the thriving hamlet that offered a school, a church and a newspaper that published the alphabet, reading lessons and prayers. The community produced doctors, journalists and educators,” reported Corina Knoll and Morgan Jerkins. The settlement, including original buildings, was first preserved in the 1960s and has managed to stay open, even expand, over the years. But it’s never truly thrived. “We would lose this repository of history, of black Brooklyn, of this inspiring example of what black people built in an age before emancipation,” Rob Fields, the executive director of the center, told The Times.

Over the weekend, New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones amplified the story and whipped up support for a crowdfunding campaign that helped push the organization past its $200,000 goal. High profile journalists Soledad O’Brien and Yashar Ali joined the effort. Now, Weeksville can stay open through September.

Ain’t no party like a history preservation party, particularly in a country known for revisionism.

Although we continue to expend endless energy on the legacy of Robert E. Lee, there has been some notable progress.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in 2016, provided an important corrective to the centering of white history. “Many viewers—even those of us who are black—know less about the truth of black history than they do natural history or even how airplanes work,” observed Vann R. Newkirk II in his review for The Atlantic. It made the experience overwhelming. “So much black history has been systematically destroyed and denied chronicle by that conspiracy [of white supremacy], that the curators emphasize its richness where they can.”

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which documents and memorializes the history of racial terror lynchings, offers a similar remedy. It opened April 2016 and is unflinching in its aim. “The people who carried out this violence could have just shot people and buried them in the ground, but they didn’t want it to be a secret, they didn’t want it hidden, they didn’t want it obscured by dirt and dust,” founder Bryan Stevenson told The Washington Post. “They actually lifted up the bodies because they wanted to terrorize. They wanted the entire community to see it.”

There is so much more work to do. As the nation prepares to say something or other about the 400th anniversary of the slave trade, sites like the Whitehead house, which was a scene in a deadly chapter of the Nat Turner rebellion story, continue to crumble.

So, it’s no small feat that some dedicated local journalism and a serendipitous online fundraising campaign bought Weeksville a little more time. But what about the fire next time?

We let these sites disappear at our own collective peril.

“What we choose to preserve is really a reflection of what we care about,” says Justin Reid. He’s the director of African American Programs for Virginia Humanities and part of a dedicated group of advocates working to coordinate an effort to recognize slavery’s legacy in his state and beyond. “When our cultural landscape is devoid of these sites, we’re sending the message that this history is less important, and the people connected to these sites are less important,” he tells The Washington Post.

And that includes the millions of souls who employers now hope will feel welcome at work. Which leads to a bigger question: Is it possible to feel cared about in your office when you don’t exist in your country?


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