On Display

S1 E4 | FULL EPISODE

Black Spaces

Stephanie Johnson-Cunningham illuminates how museum professionals are pushing boundaries to respond to the big issues of our time. In this episode, we explore how Black spaces and history are on display at Weeksville Heritage Center and Black Gotham Experience.

AIRED: May 13, 2020 | 0:12:59
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TRANSCRIPT

Johnson-Cunningham: Talking very specifically

about Black Spaces

allows us to get a better understanding

of the historical narrative

and why gentrification has been problematic

for black and brown communities.

Fields: The historic site is a site of memory.

Then memory helps build identity.

Identity builds community.

Community and institution building

is really a form of resistance.

Revolution is not necessarily a white male American concept.

♪♪

♪♪

Hi, my name is Stephanie Johnson-Cunningham

and we are discussing Black Spaces today "On Display."

Even though we don't define spaces as white,

black, or brown, the spaces that we live in America

unfortunately are not race neutral.

Weeksville Heritage Center is a historic site

here in Brooklyn, New York.

It used to be a bustling neighborhood created by,

and for, black people who needed a space of their own.

It's one of the first known free black communities

here in Brooklyn, here in New York City,

and also throughout the country.

♪♪

Fields: Weeksville is important

because it was a site of black self-determination

and a place of refuge for black people.

And when it was formed in 1838,

James Weeks and a group of other black investors

purchased land from the Lefferts family,

the idea was to have a space

where black people could just live their lives to the fullest

and in search of the American dream,

just like other Americans.

They were creating a community,

a place where they could live, grow, and achieve.

Black people weren't invited to own homes everywhere.

That still happens today.

So Weeksville provided a space for black people to own homes

and to own businesses, and, during that time,

it was especially important because land ownership for men

meant that you could also vote.

A historic site is a site of memory.

That memory helps build identity,

identify builds community.

Community and institution building

is really a form of resistance.

So much of what we tend to learn about black history is

sort of a catalog of overcoming wrongs

that have been done to black people in this country,

and that's all valid history and it should be known.

Weeksville is the flip side of that --

it is a story of self-sufficiency

and self-determination and entrepreneurship.

The fact that we have these houses,

and we're sitting in one of the houses right now,

just shows you that, in fact, black people were here,

they had an idea and a vision of the future.

You know, that these institutions and this community

would carry forward their memories.

And all the while they're here, you have some great firsts.

You have the first black woman to be principal

in a New York City public school, Sarah Garnet.

You have the first black female doctor

in New York State, Susan Smith McKinney Steward,

and Weeks was not unique in that regard.

You know, there were these black towns

all over the country, well, you know, again,

where black people were trying to live

and prosper and just thrive.

Black Spaces provide people

not an opportunity for isolation,

but again, insulation,

where they are able to grow and develop

and to be confident and to have spaces that they feel welcome,

that they feel is their own,

that they feel safe and that they feel

is a reflection of who they are as well.

And we know that every group wants that.

Every group craves that, and so we see there are needs

for spaces for LGBTQ communities.

Absolutely.

There needs to be spaces for women, black people.

We need spaces for brown people, because we are not a part

of the white cisgender men narrative and culture.

By 1930, Weeksville ceases to exist,

and it wasn't until 1968 where these houses were rediscovered

and that started this community-wide

archaeological dig

and effort to save these houses

and prove that they had historic value.

Johnson-Cunningham: So now there's another side of Weeksville,

and so how does the visitor center

and the new educational building

kind of speak to the vision and history of Weeksville?

What the visitor and education center does

is it gives us space to convene.

Where you not only get to learn the history

and convene to discuss issues,

you know, everything from how to deal with your student debt,

to black maternal, you know, mortality rates

and what could be done about that,

to food justice, to reparations.

But you can also just come and celebrate and just be black.

In an evolving Brooklyn, things can get lost,

and so it's important that we have this site that is,

again, a site of memory here that people can come to

and know that there's real black history here.

♪♪

Weeksville was actually one of

the first places that I interned,

and that space is really important to me

and this summer that just passed, 2019,

they almost closed their doors for good.

I remember how that almost crushed me,

to see this institution that meant so much to me

and had so much of my history there,

that was going to be closed.

These are challenges that are not,

you know, unique to Weeksville, you know?

There's been many reports about

sort of the disparities and investment

by the philanthropic community to institutions of color.

What we see now, the shrinking of Black Spaces

throughout the country, speaks to that issue.

And I think so important for us to,

you know, send the call out to everyone that we know

so that people can contribute in a real way,

so that we're not waiting for some sort of savior,

but we can save ourselves.

Right, and I think that the important, you know,

sort of message for people is there are many incredible

black and brown institutions out there.

Find the institution you care about

and give them money because they need it.

Growing up, honestly, seeing the neighborhood change

right in front of my eyes has been traumatizing,

and having no control is really troubling.

We know that our communities have been targeted,

have been impoverished,

have been left behind and ignored for many, many years.

Are black people owed reparations?

Absolutely, 100%.

The history is here to show you that America became a superpower

because it had free labor.

So, the justice claim that black people have,

is with the United States government.

That's fair, and when we see that there is money

that can be appropriated for all kinds of things,

and it could be done if there were the will

and I believe there is a growing sense of,

like, how do we make right what is, you know,

in a lot of ways been baked into this country, you know?

So, like, when you think about the inequities,

the school and prison pipeline,

you know, the incarceration rates,

you know, you think about housing.

The conversation's moving in the right direction.

Major presidential candidates are talking about...

How it can be done. ...the need for reparations

and how do we address centuries long inequities,

you know, in what is supposed to be the greatest country

in the world. Right.

♪♪

Talking very specifically about Black Spaces

allows us to get a better understanding

of the historical narrative

and why gentrification has been problematic

for black and brown communities.

The Black Gotham Experience re-imagines

the spaces directly impacted by the African diaspora,

as human stories explore through interactive walks,

talks, events, and art.

Ware: The Black Gotham Experience is situated now

as a media company.

We started by doing walking tours

and highlighting the black diaspora

in New York City,

that you can't tell which streets,

street names or monuments or memorials.

New York City has a lot of deep history

embedded in the transatlantic slave trade

that has been redacted for over 100 years.

And so to have a psychic sense of where you are,

and how those patterns set in the past affect you now,

like before we discuss justification

and the 99% verse the 1%,

those systems come from an operating system

that go back to the 1600s.

There's a reason why New York City

has one of the most segregated school systems in the country.

It has one of the biggest wealth gaps.

That's right. Mm-hmm.

So, I think it's important to know where you are,

because it affects real people.

You can walk around New York now

and find statues and street names

after people who were either founding fathers

or fought in the American Revolution,

but there is people of African descent

that were early uprisers to the British,

but they weren't all white men fighting over money.

They're often a pregnant black woman

fighting over her child, fighting over her soul.

But that person is unknown to most New Yorkers

and the built environment doesn't show that story.

So, part of what we do, by coming to Maiden Lane

and discussing that rebellion and celebrate the fact

that the first people to grab a rifle

and fight the un-winnable war was not white men

that owned enslaved people who were mad about their taxes.

It was Africans upset about being enslaved.

Some people just kind of think that the Harlem Renaissance

is ground zero for black culture

and black culture investment into the city.

And part of what I'm looking at teasing out

is that's just not supported by the facts.

If you look at the creation of New York in 1664,

before there was a New York,

there already was an African neighborhood.

So, landownership is a bedrock of power,

which is why black people have continually

had efforts to take away the ground on which we stand,

even right now. Right.

Even if we think about Central Park right now,

before Central Park, it was Seneca Village,

where it was a thriving black community.

And so that community was removed

because they wanted to create Central Park.

Even in the Bronx, large highways

are built through those communities,

through eminent domain.

You can't take black people out of the American story

and have anything left.

There are certain stories that need to be

highlighted more than others.

Now's the moment to just be in tune

with celebrating those redacted narratives,

and so I think that the work that we're doing,

we have found ways to make sure we're investing into the culture

and into the community.

Everybody's welcome, but the content are topics

that black folks should be talking about,

like discussions about black masculinity,

about entrepreneurship, about travel.

These are conversations that give people opportunity

to be amongst a room that might not be all black,

but you're talking about these topics

and the panel are often people of African descent.

Ta-Nehisi Coates said it recently,

he said that we aren't going to see full equality

until people start seeing us as full human.

And so it's really important that we have the opportunity

to create our own narratives and to create our own industries,

to create our own growth in business and economics,

so that we are seen as just as powerful

as any other group as well.

Fields: Because you need the inspiration of the past

if you're going to build a bright future.

Let's take that inspiration and go out

and do some good in the world.

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