Weeksville Heritage Center connects people of African descent with new exhibit

Kyana Harris | 7/19/2018, 11:09 a.m.
The Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn opened a new exhibit to visitors titled “From Africa to Weeksville: The Eric Edwards ...
Weeksvile Heritage Center Kysha Harris photo

The Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn opened a new exhibit to visitors titled “From Africa to Weeksville: The Eric Edwards Collection” which runs from July 12 to September 28.

For more than 40 years, Brooklyn native Eric Edwards has been collecting African artifacts. He has amassed 2,500 artifacts from more than 50 African countries. The retired AT&T engineer’s Brooklyn home is now a museum that houses more than $10 million worth of ancient African pieces.

“I went to auctions, galleries, private acquisition sales, as well as traveling extensively around the world,” said Edwards. “I started purchasing pieces when they were truly affordable and started building my collection.”

Edwards’ passion for preserving history was passed down by his father, a Barbados immigrant in the 1930s. The importance of knowing one’s history was instilled in him during his childhood.

Supported by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and its Cultural Immigrant Initiative, the Weeksville exhibit includes artifacts from 17 countries on the continent of Africa. The artifacts include ancient craftsmen tools, rare hand-woven cloths and African royalty headdresses.

“I am thrilled to bring a portion of my collection to such an important place of Black history and meaning as Weeksville,” said Edwards. “In many ways the collection encapsulates our experience and exhibits the qualities and untold skills that we brought to this country, all of which helped build the United States into the great country it is.”

Among more modern Bedford-Stuyvesant housing, one will find a gated plot of land that appears to be a time capsule of the 19th century.

The center honors the second largest free African-American community that pre-dates the Civil War. The Weeksville settlement, founded in the 1830s, has a rich history. Susan McKinney Steward, the state’s first Black female physician, was born there.

The community of freed Blacks in New York used to have its own cemetery, which was destroyed to build the Eastern Parkway. In 1968, historian James Hurley and local resident Joseph Haynes found references to the forgotten community while participating in a research project. They found four row houses, which were all that was left of Weeksville on Hunterfly Road.

The first president of the organization formerly known as the Society for the Preservation of Weeksville and Bedford-Stuyvesant History, Joan Maynard, secured city, state and national landmarking for the area. After renovations and a new visitor center was built in 2014, community leaders decide to expand their vision. In 2016, the center began programming that allowed the community to connect to the history of newly freed and former slaves. They hold live performances, guided tours, film screenings and exhibitions.

It is fitting to bridge the gap between Africa and its enslaved people in America through this exhibit. There might be opportunities to find similarities in design and customs between the two.

Rob Fields, the executive director and president of the center, said, “We are constantly thinking about how to connect past to present in ways that are relevant and resonant for our community. Given the current tenor of the times, it’s hard to imagine few things more powerful and reaffirming than a Black cultural institution hosting and highlighting African art that’s been collected and curated by someone in our community.”

The opening reception will be held from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at 158 Buffalo Ave. (between Bergen Street and St. Marks Avenue) in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. For more information about Weeksville Heritage Center, please visit www.weeksvillesociety.org.