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Brooklyn’s cash-strapped Weeksville Heritage Center surpasses fundraising goal

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“I think Weeksville has a long, bright, and prosperous future ahead,” said the museum’s president

The Weeksville Heritage Center’s new museum building in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
Nic Lehoux/Getty Images

A Brooklyn museum dedicated to preserving a community established by free African-Americans has surpassed its fundraising goal, after announcing it was in danger of closing.

The Weeksville Heritage Center launched a crowdfunding campaign earlier this month after revealing that the Crown Heights nonprofit may have to close its doors due to soaring costs and limited funding. As of Monday morning, the museum had raised more than $259,000—well beyond its initial goal of $200,000. In just 19 days the museum has received over 4,000 donations from seven countries with an average of $64.75 cents, according to Rob Fields, the president and executive director of Weeksville, who said he was “hopeful but had not been counting on” the outpouring of support the center has received.

“I’m very encouraged, I think Weeksville has a long, bright, and prosperous future ahead,” said Fields. “The question is how do we make that happen? We have to be smarter and more effective to make sure Weeksville has the resources it needs to survive and thrive.”

Fields says the influx of funds will give the museum room to breathe as it works with a consultant to develop a plan and works to lessen its reliance on grants. The museum aims to return to donors with a strategy in the fall of what steps it will take to ensure its financial stability, Fields says.

“We want to come back with, ‘Here’s the plan, here’s how we’re going to do to make sure we’re never in this position again,’” he said. “I believe we’re going to get there, we just need to take the time to do that work.”

This isn’t the first time Weeksville teetered on the edge of survival. Founded 11 years after New York abolished slavery in 1827, Weeksville was named after James Weeks, a black longshoreman and leader in the abolitionist movement, who purchased the property and developed a thriving community. Its history was nearly lost in the mid-20th century, but a group of historians and activists banded together and established the Weeksville Heritage Center in 1968 to preserve its legacy.

Today, the museum documents the central Brooklyn community of African-Americans that existed more than two decades before the Emancipation Proclamation. Free and formerly enslaved black people flocked to Weeksville, transforming it into a vibrant haven with a school, church, and newspaper. In the 1970s, the 19th-century Hunterfly Road Houses received landmark status and were added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Elected officials and museum staff rallied over the weekend, calling for the Department of Cultural Affairs to include Weeksville in the Cultural Institutions Group (CIG), a list of 33 groups on city-owned property that receive consistent municipal funding. Eighteen elected officials penned a letter to DCA commissioner Tom Finkelpearl urging him to incorporate Weeksville into the CIG.

“Given its storied past and culture, we strongly urge you to consider the inclusion of Weeksville Heritage Center into the Cultural Institutions Group,” the letter states; its supporters include Robert Cornegy Jr., the City Council member who represents the surrounding area. “We can no longer deny one of Brooklyn’s cherished historic cultural institutions from inclusion.”

Such a designation would give Weeksville a reliable source of funding, and while Fields recognizes it is “not a silver bullet,” he said it would be a boon to the museum. “It will say the city sees the inherent and intrinsic value of Weeksville,” said Fields.

If Weeksville becomes a member of the CIG, it would likely receive more funds to help meet basic security, maintenance, administration, and energy costs. Currently, the city has kicked in $378,675 in program funds and $78,000 towards the museum’s energy bills for the fiscal year 2019, according to the city.

“The NYC Department of Cultural Affairs remains committed to providing substantial, ongoing support for Weeksville Heritage Center’s administration and maintenance needs, as it has for many years,” said Ryan Max, a spokesperson for the Department of Cultural Affairs. “It’s essential that we preserve the legacy of this historic black community and keep its story alive, and we’re working closely with the organization to put it on stable footing.”

The last institution inducted into the CIG was the Museum of Jewish Heritage in 1998.

Weeksville recently upgraded its space with a new museum building—designed by Caples Jefferson Architects—that opened in 2013 after years of construction delays. Work on the development began in 2004, but the two-story building did not open more than nine years later with a final price tag of nearly $35 million, according to a report on stalled cultural projects by the Center for an Urban Future and the Citizens Budget Commission.

The $200,000 goal will enable the center to remain open through September and give the nonprofit time to plan for the future. With $250,000, the museum says it could expedite sorely-needed repairs for the Hunterfly Road Houses, and with $300,000 it would begin building an emergency cash reserve.

“We are extremely grateful for the outpouring of support we’ve gotten from the community,” said Fields. “This is going to be a several months-long process, but I do think we will come up with a way forward in the end.”