Bethel AME Church: A New Chapter for Colored School No. 2


Street view of the historic three-story Colored School No. 2 brick building at Schenectady Ave, with bare trees and cars parked along the side.




As I sit down to weave a narrative from the fabric of our nation's complex history, I'm struck by the stark contrasts and the undulating journey of our collective memory, especially regarding the African American experience. In my years as a writer, I've come to understand that history, in its purest form, is a story of us all—its chapters filled with moments of pain and pride, darkness and light. It's a story that demands to be told in its entirety, without omission or censorship, for in its fullness lies the path to understanding and healing.


In places like New York, there's a burgeoning movement towards embracing this wholeness, acknowledging the blemishes of our past with the same fervor we celebrate its triumphs. The city, with its mosaic of cultures and histories, is leading the charge in confronting the uncomfortable truths of our collective past. Through the lens of my own experiences, this feels like a step towards true reconciliation—a necessary acknowledgment that before we can move forward, we must first reckon with where we've been.


Yet, this journey towards understanding has its adversaries. In stark contrast to New York's openness, there are places where the tide is turning away from such transparency. The state of Florida, for instance, has become a battleground over the narrative of our history, particularly the teaching of slavery and race in classrooms. The rejection of dozens of social studies textbooks by Florida's education department—under the guise of removing contested topics surrounding race and social justice—raises a critical question: What are we afraid of?



 



In my reflection, I ponder the implications of such actions. The erasure of Black history, or any history that sheds light on the inequities and injustices of our past, does not merely deny us the discomfort of confrontation; it denies us the opportunity for growth, understanding, and empathy. It's a deliberate act of forgetting that threatens to sever our connection to the very roots that ground us as a nation.


The struggle over how history is taught and remembered isn't just about textbooks or curriculum; it's about who we are as a society and what we value. The demolition of historical sites and the urban renewal projects that often follow are symptomatic of a broader tendency to prioritize progress over preservation, erasing the stories of those who walked before us. Yet, in New York City, there's a counter-movement fighting to preserve the legacy of colored schools and landmark buildings that serve as tangible connections to our past. These efforts represent more than just a fight for preservation; they're a testament to the resilience of memory and the enduring power of history to inspire change.


As I muse on these developments, it becomes clear that the path forward requires a nuanced understanding of our past, one that embraces all its complexities. It's a path that demands courage—the courage to confront uncomfortable truths, the courage to question narratives that simplify or sanitize history, and, ultimately, the courage to acknowledge that the fabric of our nation is woven with threads of both darkness and light. Only by facing our history in its entirety can we hope to forge a future that is truly inclusive, equitable, and just.


As I delve into the narrative of Henry C. Thompson, James Weeks, and the birth of Weeksville, I'm reminded of the profound connection between land and identity, especially in the context of African American history. Thompson's vision of land ownership as a cornerstone of freedom and dignity for Black people in Brooklyn, set against the backdrop of a society that systematically disenfranchised them, speaks volumes about the resilience and foresight of those early pioneers. 


In purchasing 32 lots from the estate of one of Brooklyn's wealthiest landowners, Thompson didn't just acquire land; he laid the foundation for a community that would become a bastion of Black autonomy and prosperity. The strategic location near a new railroad underscored the potential for growth and accessibility, making it a beacon for others seeking to carve out a space for themselves in a world that offered few such opportunities.




 



The establishment of Weeksville by James Weeks, a Black stevedore, in 1838, marks a pivotal moment in this narrative. Weeksville wasn't merely a collection of homes; it was a declaration of independence, a community that stood as a testament to what could be achieved through unity, determination, and a profound understanding of the importance of land. As more African American investors followed suit, building their homes in this verdant enclave, they weren't just constructing buildings; they were building a legacy.


The role of Black newspapers in advertising land in Weeksville highlights the community's strategic approach to growth. It was an invitation to others to join in the creation of a place where Black people could not only live but thrive, away from the oppressive mechanisms of a society that sought to limit their potential.


Junius C. Morel's arrival in Weeksville around 1847 and his contributions as an educator and abolitionist add another layer to this rich tapestry. His work in promoting education and integration through his writings for Frederick Douglass’ newspaper, The North Star, and The Christian Recorder, underscores the interconnectedness of education, property ownership, and civil rights in the fight for equality.


The growth of Weeksville into a thriving community by the 1850s, with a population of 521 residents, is a testament to the vision and tenacity of its founders. However, the integration of Weeksville into Brooklyn's urban fabric, culminating in its absorption by the city in 1898, serves as a poignant reminder of the impermanence of physical spaces in the face of urban development.


Today, the Historic Hunterfly Road Houses stand as a physical reminder of Weeksville, a pre–Civil War enclave that was once among the country’s largest independent 19th-century Black communities. They symbolize not just the resilience and ingenuity of their founders but also the ongoing struggle for the recognition and preservation of Black historical sites. This story, rich in its layers and complexities, offers a window into the indomitable spirit of a community that, despite the erasure of its physical footprint, continues to inspire and inform the quest for justice and equality.



Historical black and white photograph of Public School 83 on Dean Street with pedestrians and vintage cars.
1940s Street View of Colored School No 2 (PS 83) Courtesy of 1940s.nyc



Reflecting on the history of Colored School No. 2, nestled within the heart of what was once the vibrant community of Weeksville, I'm transported to a time when education for African Americans was a beacon of hope in the shadow of segregation. The school, which opened its doors in 1840, stands as a testament to the resilience and determination of a community to ensure that their children received the education denied to them in so many other parts of the country.


The journey of Colored School No. 2, from its inception in the nearby black settlement of Carrville to its relocation in 1853 to the burgeoning neighborhood where Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant now converge, mirrors the broader narrative of African American struggles and triumphs in the pursuit of education. The school's move to what would become known as Weeksville's most significant public block wasn't just a location change; it was a statement, a declaration that this community would carve out a space for learning and growth against the backdrop of a society that sought to marginalize them.


The significance of this school extends far beyond its physical structure. It represents a crucial chapter in the story of Weeksville, a self-sufficient African American community that thrived on the outskirts of Brooklyn. The establishment of Colored School No. 2 in this community underscores the importance placed on education as a cornerstone of empowerment and self-determination. It is a reflection of a community's resolve to provide its children with the tools they need to navigate and challenge the systemic barriers erected by a segregated society.


Today, while the original building of Colored School No. 2 may no longer stand, its legacy is preserved in the spirit of the Weeksville Heritage Center, a mere stone's throw away. This proximity is not just geographical but symbolic, bridging past and present, reminding us of the enduring importance of education in the fight for equality and justice. The story of Colored School No. 2, set against the backdrop of Weeksville, is a poignant reminder of the power of community, the value of education, and the resilience of the human spirit to overcome adversity.







As I ponder the historical landscape of Brooklyn, transformed over the centuries, the narrative of Colored School No. 2 and the community of Weeksville serves as a beacon. It illuminates the path traveled by those who came before us, forging a legacy of resilience, education, and empowerment that continues to inspire. This is a story of hope, perseverance, and the indomitable will of a community to rise above the constraints of their time, paving the way for future generations to walk in the light of knowledge and freedom.


The evolution of Colored School No. 2, amidst the changing demographics and societal attitudes of Brooklyn, is a narrative that reflects the broader tumults and triumphs of integration in the American educational system. The school's story, transitioning from a segregated institution to becoming Brooklyn's first integrated school, illustrates not just the complexity of race relations but also the potential for progress when communities confront and challenge entrenched prejudices.


The school's designation as a "Colored" institution, despite its diverse student body, underscores the pervasive nature of segregation that defined much of American society during this period. However, the presence of white students alongside their Black peers, under the guidance of predominantly Black teachers and principals, hints at the nuances of race and education. It suggests that, even within the confines of a segregated system, there were spaces where the barriers of race were, if not dismantled, at least permeable.


The development of the neighborhood into a destination for the white middle class and new immigrant families, and the subsequent resistance to the existence of a school designated for Black children, is a stark reminder of how progress often walks hand in hand with backlash. The petition by white residents in 1890 to repurpose the new school building promised to Colored School No. 2/PS 68 for white students instead reflects a broader societal struggle over space, race, and value.


The appointment of Philip A. White as the first Black member of the Board of Education in 1882, and his advocacy for the integration of the school system, marks a pivotal moment in this history. White's disdain for the "colored schools" designation and his efforts to integrate the educational system underscore the role of individual agency and advocacy in effecting systemic change. The transformation of the school into PS 68, and its eventual merger with PS 83 to become Brooklyn's first integrated school, serves as a testament to the possibility of integration, even in the face of significant societal resistance.


The success of this integrated model, characterized by a diverse body of students, teachers, and staff, and led by a white principal and a Black head of department, illustrates the potential for educational institutions to serve as microcosms of a more inclusive society. Yet, the fact that this experiment was not replicated in other schools speaks to the entrenched nature of segregation and the challenges of scaling progressive initiatives.


The passage of anti-segregation laws in 1900, following Brooklyn's incorporation into greater New York City, marks a legal milestone in the fight against segregation. However, the persistence of segregated educational environments, even to this day, highlights the gap between legislative action and lived reality. It serves as a reminder that the journey toward integration and equality in education is ongoing, requiring not just legal mandates but sustained societal engagement and advocacy.




Facade of former Bethel AME church building with boarded-up windows, ornate stone detailing, and graffiti at the entrance.




Reflecting on the story of Colored School No. 2, it becomes clear that the path toward integration and equality in education is fraught with challenges but also rich with opportunities for progress. It is a narrative that underscores the importance of persistence, advocacy, and the belief in the transformative power of education to bridge divides and foster a more inclusive and equitable society.


As I weave through the tapestry of history, culture, and community surrounding the evolution of Colored School No. 2, its metamorphosis from a beacon of education in the heart of Weeksville to its current incarnation speaks volumes about the relentless march of time and the changing landscapes of cities and communities. This building, a silent witness to the tides of change, resilience, and struggle, embodies a narrative that is as compelling as it is complex.


The saga of the school, which transcended its initial role to become the Isaac Newton School before facing the abrupt violence of a nearby explosion in 1930, mirrors the unpredictable and often tumultuous journey of progress itself. That no children were seriously hurt in the explosion is a testament not only to sheer fortune but perhaps to a kind of steadfast resilience that seems to permeate the very walls of this establishment.


In the ensuing years, the transformation of the school building into a property of the City Housing Authority, and later into the hands of the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, underscores a rich legacy of community and faith that has long been a cornerstone of Weeksville's heritage. The fact that the building, once a vibrant center of learning and later a place of worship, has stood unused for a quarter of a century, with broken windows and a partially sealed fate, evokes a poignant reflection on the impermanence of physical structures and the enduring nature of the communities that once thrived within them.



March 2024 Before Tenant Occupancy



The narrative takes yet another turn with the recent purchase by developers, marking a new chapter in the building's storied existence. The renovation efforts—new windows, cleansed graffiti, repaired exterior walls, and a sealed corner entrance—signal a transformation aimed at breathing new life into the space, albeit with a significant shift from its educational and religious origins to residential use. This transition, quietly unfolding with minimal public attention, raises contemplations on the evolution of urban spaces and the memories embedded within their walls.


Meanwhile, "The Weeksville School," now P.S. 243, continues the educational legacy in a different location, maintaining a connection with the Weeksville Heritage Center. This ongoing partnership symbolizes a bridge between past and present, ensuring that the spirit of the original Colored School No. 2 and the community it served remains vibrant and recognized.


The absence of public fanfare or news attention as the former school building transitions to housing tenancy speaks to a broader narrative of urban renewal and change. It's a reminder of the countless stories that unfold within the city's landscape, often without acknowledgment or celebration. As I reflect on this journey, from the school's origins in the heart of a pioneering Black community to its impending future as a residence, I'm reminded of the importance of remembering and honoring the layers of history and humanity that shape our urban environments. This story, like many others, is a testament to the resilience, transformation, and enduring legacy of communities that continue to influence the fabric of our cities.










Sources:



1. Gobia, K. (2019, March 25). (EXCLUSIVE: Brooklyn’s First Racially Integrated School to Become Affordable Apartments). Bkylner.

2. Spellen, S. (n.d.). (Building of the Day: 1634 Dean Street). Brownstoner.

3. (n.a.) (2022, October 25). (Elmo Realty signs $14.4M rehab construction loan with Webster Bank for specialty in Crown Heights). PincusCo.

4. Worley, T. (2014). Lesson 11, Worksheet 1 - What's Happening in Weeksville? In Pursuit of Freedom

5. (n.a.)(Colored School No. 2 ?). Black Brooklyn.

6. (n.a.). (Colored School No. 2). WritLargeNYC.

7. Fadulu, L. (2023, May 23). (It Was an All-Black School in 1860. Today It’s a Manhattan Landmark.). NYTimes.

8. Wellman, J. (2014). Brooklyn’s Promised Land: The Free Black Community of Weeksville (p. 148).

9. “Board of Education: An Interesting Meeting Yesterday.” (1869, March 3). Brooklyn Daily Eagle, p. 2.

10. “The Color Question in the Schools.” (1869, October 19). Brooklyn Daily Eagle, p. 3.

11. “A Tempest in Weeksville: Colored Folks Object to a White Teacher.” (1869, February 24). Brooklyn Daily Eagle, p. 2.

12. Kafka, J., & Matheny, C. (2022). Racial Integration, White Appropriation, and School Choice: The Demise of the Colored Schools of Late Nineteenth Century Brooklyn. Journal of Urban History, 48(1), 35-62.

13. Clark, A. (Fall 2022). (How the Free Black Community of Weeksville Rose in 19th-Century Brooklyn). Preservation Magazine.


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