Saturday, April 17, 2021

How Weevil, Center of Black History, Fight to Survive

Two years ago, the Vicksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn, dedicated to preserving the remains of a thriving village established by Black New Yorkers in 1827 in the years following the abolition of state slavery, was in danger of disappearing.

Facing severe budget constraintsThe center was able to raise more than $ 350,000 through a crowdfunding campaign, but local politicians knew that a temporary flow of cash would not save it in the long term. So they turned to the city. Through his efforts, Vicksville recently became the first organization of a generation to join the group of cultural institutions in the city – a collection of nearly three dozen cultural organizations, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall , Whose inclusion in the group makes them eligible for more city funding.

Now Vicksville, A historical and cultural center, Is entering a new phase of its long and winding history. Vicksville on Tuesday named a new chief executive, Raymond Coddington, a cultural anthropologist with curatorial and nonprofit leadership experience. The organization is no longer fighting for its existence, its mission will be to use its new institutional support to expand its presence in Brooklyn.

“What’s of interest to the average person walking by Wexville every day, but not necessarily seeing themselves there?” Dr. Coddington said. “How do we reinterpret our work and break down the barriers that often prevent people from seeing themselves in institutions?”

Becoming a member of a group of cultural institutions was not an easy task. No organization had joined the fold since 1997, and the formal process for petition to join remains unclear. But in March 2020, Vicksville officially joined its exclusive ranks, adding some diversity to the group that political and cultural leaders say was needed.

Where Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant meet, across the street from the Kingsborough public housing project, funded by the City of Wexville and completed in 2013. It organizes art exhibitions, theatrical performances, cultural discussions and financial literacy and homeopathy workshops – a hive of activity that has gone online during the epidemic.

To reach 19th-century Vicksville, visitors must walk under a wooden bridge that cuts through tall grass and ends at the houses on Hunterfly Road, three wooden-frame houses dating back to the 1840s and 1880s. Beaches were built (as well as a fourth house) destroyed and rebuilt by a fire in the 1990s).

Established decades before the Emancipation Proclamation, Weeksville was named after James Weeks, a black long-time black man who led Henry C., a black leader in the abolitionist movement. The land was purchased from Thompson, who bought the property from the wealthy Lefferts family.

At its peak, Vicksville was home to about 700 families. It had a school, a church, and a newspaper, called Freedman’s Torchlight, which served as a kind of textbook to newly freed slaves by publishing text on the alphabet, English, and arithmetic. During the 1863 draft riots, Vicksville was a shelter for Black people fleeing racist violence in Manhattan.

By the mid-20th century, the village sank into obscurity, but in 1968 four houses were rediscovered by a historian and a pilot during an aerial search of the neighborhood. The 1969 archaeological excavations of the nearby area revealed items that are still on display in homes, and after a successful expedition led by the conservationist Joan MaynardThe houses attained the city’s historic status and were added to the National Register of Historic Sites in the 1970s.

Before the epidemic, schoolchildren used to visit homes every weekday, wooden outhouses, old-fashioned washing machines, one of the families living there, walking with a herringbone brush with a black baby doll with their skin on it. .

Dr. standing in the dining room of one of the 19th century houses. “You feel like you’re walking where people have walked before – in the center of this free community,” Codrington said. “It seems history is alive and breathing around you.”

By the time Vicksville opened its new building in 2014, the group’s leadership had already been trying for years – unsuccessfully – to be part of a group of cultural institutions.

The group dates back to 1869, when the Vicksville community was still active in Brooklyn. it started With the New York legislature Authorizing the city to construct a new building for the American Museum of Natural History and cover a portion of its financial responsibilities, while allowing the institution to be managed by a private non-profit organization. By 1900, the city entered into a similar agreement with five other groups: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York Botanical Gardens, Wildlife Conservation Society, Brooklyn Museum, and Brooklyn Children’s Museum.

The city agreed to pick up the tab for expenses including heat, light and electricity and provide some additional operational support, and the institutions made commitments to make their offerings accessible to the New Yorker.

In the 1960s and 1970s, The city says It felt the group needed racially, ethnically and geographically more diverse memberships, and the number of members in the group increased dramatically as institutions such as the Studio Museum at Harlem and the Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning were added.

But as New York City’s government changed – and the powerful board of Estimate once helped determine which organizations could join the group, dissolved – the process of adding new members was “atrophied” Gai, said John Calvelli, a former chairman of cultural organizations and an executive with the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Before Vicksville, the last time a new member was added was in 1997, when Mayor Rudolph W. Announced Museum of Jewish Heritage will include.

A recent push to connect Vicksville began in earnest in 2019.

Robert E. Cornegie, Jr., said it is a member of the city council, whose district includes Wexville and a group of politicians, including Laurie A. Attempts to associate groups with combos are included. Majority Leader of the Council.

He, along with City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, asked Mayor Bill de Blasio to add Vicksville to the group. Mr. de Blasio seemed immune to the idea at first, Mr. Johnson said in an interview, as he and his administration worried that the organization’s financial difficulties would become the city’s responsibility.

“You’re making a kind of per-capita commitment,” Mr. Johnson said. “So this eliminates the city’s cost and cultural affairs department more, but that’s the right thing.”

Mr. Cornegie said that as he made the case for Vicksville, he spoke of its historical significance and ability to serve as a “guidepost” for understanding the black experience in New York. And many times, during the tense discussion around the proposal, he uncovered a lack of racial diversity in a group of cultural entities.

“When the whole world sees that these resources are available to specialized institutions,” he said, “it’s a bit embarrassing.”

Mr. de Blasio has long promised Hold cultural institutions accountable To increase their internal diversity. Members of the cultural institution group were required to submit plans to promote diversity and inclusion among their staff and visitors, but no plans were needed to diversify the makeup of the group.

The Commissioner of the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, Gonzalo Cassells, defended the current group, stating that it included a range of culturally and geographically diverse organizations and that some institutions that are not culturally specific serve communities of color. Who come to see them. , Such as the Brooklyn Children’s Museum. And Mr Cassells said joining the group is not a “solution for all”, and his department has other ways to support institutions, including funding to help pay for capital costs and energy bills.

“We are proud to support organizations doing important work to commemorate and preserve black history in New York City,” Mr. de Blasio said in a statement. “Adding Vicksville to our CIG program will deepen their collaboration with the city and help them thrive for years to come – and allow generations of New Yorkers to learn the story of our city in its full color and complexity. “

In the summer of 2019, city council members said, they were able to convince the mayor’s office of their Vicksville plan during the budget-making process.

But then Vicksville faced another negotiating challenge. Members of the cultural association group are located on property owned by each city, Notes the city. If Vicksville had followed the tradition, the Hunterfly Road houses would have been relocated to the city, Vicksville board president Timothy Simmons said. But since Vicksville is a monument to black home-ownership, some saw those leases as transfers to the city for their missions.

“This is the story of a black-owned community,” Ms. Kambo said. “For homes and areas that were no longer protected outright, we would deny the story of Wexville.”

So while the main building at Vicksville is owned by the city, the four historic homes are still unprofitable.

The combination of grass-roots donations, philanthropic assistance and city support has helped shore up Vicksville’s finances. The organization said that in 2018, Vicksville’s fiscal year closed with a shortfall of about $ 400,000 and the bank had only one month of operating cash. This year, it has a $ 275,000 cash reserve and six months of operating expenses at the bank.

“The community was very clear,” Mr. Simmons said, “Vicksville is an institution that should be here and be here for the long term.”

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