Brooklyn, New York: Seeking freedom, Robert M. Phinney of Weeksville

Map showing the location of Weeksville and Crow Hill, early 19th-century African American communities in Brooklyn, New York. Source: Sidney’s map of twelve miles around New-York : with the names of property holders, &c., from entirely new & original surveys (1849). New York Public Library

Robert M. Phinney (alias Finney), was born enslaved, about 1818, in Wilmington, New Hanover County, North Carolina. In the 1840s, he escaped slavery via the maritime Underground Railroad, and eventually settled in Weeksville, Brooklyn, New York. Weeksville was established shortly after New York abolished slavery in 1827. The community was named after James Weeks, a longshoreman and one of the earliest African American landowners in the area. Weeksville has been featured in recent publications, as longterm efforts to preserve the history of the site are threatened by a lack of funding and other resources.1

Fugitive slave ad of Edward B. Dudley, Wilmington, North Carolina. Peoples Press and Wilmington Advertiser, June 1, 1838.

In the 1830s, African American land investors organized the community of Weeksville to promote economic, social, and political rights for African Americans. Located four miles east of downtown Brooklyn, Weeksville grew rapidly. In 1855, with a black population of 521, Weeksville had become the second largest independent African American community in the United States, and the only one with urban rather than rural roots.

Judith Wellman, “Weeksville.” Ira Berlin and Leslie Harris, eds., Slavery in New York (New York: The New Press, 2005)

At some point between 1848 and 1853, Robert M. Phinney married Louisa (surname unknown), born about 1829 in Swansboro, Onslow County, North Carolina. Louisa had also escaped chattel slavery. The couple would eventually have five children: Benjamin W. (born ca. 1854), Lucy A. (born ca. 1855), Lydia A. (born ca. 1860), Maria W. (born ca. 1862), and Robert M. Jr. (born ca. 1865).

Robert was a brick mason by trade, and one of the original founders and trustees of historic Bethel A. M. E. Church, established in 1847.2

In 1845 William Grey, a Christian man who was interested in the people of Weeksville (the name of the vicinity at that time, in which the church is located) and a leading member of the High Street A. M. E. Church, opened his house for the organization and meeting place of a Sunday-school, with Jordan Harris as superintendent. After consulting Bishop Paul Quinn, Mr. Grey induced the people to organize a church, which was done in 1847, and put under the care of the old High Street Church, and was known as the Weeksville Bethel A. M. E. Church. The first trustees of the church were W. H. Grey, James Moody, J. T. Brown, Michael Ward, Henry Wright, Caesar Weeks, John Thompson, Samuel Bowman and Robert Finney. The last named is the oldest living member of the church. He assisted Bishop Quinn in the laying of the first corner-stone, June 15, 1847…In 1868 a larger building was erected, and Robert Finney also laid its corner-stone.

The Standard Union, October 15, 1903

Robert M. Phinney is first documented in Kings County, New York records, in the July, 1863 Civil War Draft Registration in New York City. The draft was the result of the federal Conscription Act of March 1863, enacted to increase the number troops for the Union Army.

Robert M. Phinney Civil War draft registration, July, 1863, Brooklyn, New York. Source: Ancestry.com

All able-bodied men, citizens and immigrants who’d filed for citizenship, between the ages of twenty and forty-five were required to enroll, including Robert, who was forty-four years old at the time. White resentment over the Act resulted in the Draft Riots of July 13-16, 1863.

The establishment of the draft undertaken July 13 in New York City met everywhere with resistance. Workingmen engaged in tearing down buildings were requested to give their names for the draft; they refused, and drove away the officers. The movement spread over the whole city. Mobs visited workshops and compelled the men to stop work. Firemen were prevented from putting out fires, telegraph wires were cut, and then at last the whole force of the riot turned against the Negroes. They were the cause of the war, and hence the cause of the draft. They were bidding for the same jobs as white men. They were underbidding white workers in order to keep themselves from starving. They were disliked especially by the Irish because of direct economic competition and difference in religion.

 

The Democratic press had advised the people that they were to be called upon to fight the battles of “niggers and Abolitionists”…

W. E. B. DuBois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880 (1935)

Documented by eyewitness testimony, hundreds of African Americans were beaten, stabbed, and lynched, and thrown into the river by white mobs. Infant African American children were thrown out of windows and dashed upon the pavement below, and the Colored Orphan Aslyum, home to over two hundred African American children, was burned to the ground. It was reported that many African Americans targeted during the riots sought refuge in Weeksville.3

The Glasgow Herald (Glasgow, Scotland), December 2, 1863.

Following the riots, Robert and family were documented in the 1864 Brooklyn, New York city directory, at their residence on Dean Street, near Schenectady Avenue. Weeksville.

In 1870, the family was documented in Brooklyn’s ninth ward. The household included Robert M. Sr. (52, brickmason), wife Lydia (45, keeping house), daughters Lucy (15), Lydia A. (10), and Maria W. (8), and sons Benjamin W. (16), and Robert M. Jr. (5).

Between 1871 and 1900, Robert and his family continued their lives as permanent and productive residents of Weeksville. Robert kept up his trade as a brickmason, and remained a loyal member of Bethel A. M. E. Church. Interestingly, he may have been the same Robert Finney who served as president of the Giles D. Cuffee Brass Band, noted in 1894 by the Standard Union as the “first colored band that Brooklyn has ever had.”7

Sadly, Robert suffered intense tragedy over the years: he had to bury all of his children and his wife, Lydia, prior to his own death. None of Robert’s children married or had children of their own. Daughter Lydia A. passed away on March 7, 1878. Son Benjamin died on September 18, 1881. Daughter Maria W. passed away on May 31, 1882, and son Robert Jr. died only twenty-six months later, on July 27, 1885. Benjamin, Lydia, Maria, and Robert Jr., were interred in Evergreens Cemetery, established in 1849. Weeksville had its own community cemetery, Citizens Union, established in 1851 by fifteen trustees, all residents of Weeksville. However, Citizens Union Cemetery was destroyed during the construction of Eastern Parkway in the early 1870s.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, September 10, 1851
Map of Ward 24, Brooklyn, New York (1880), G. W. Bromley & Co. Although largely defunct by 1880, the area encompassing Citizens Union Cemetery is noted on the map. Eastern Parkway is also featured, cutting through the southern portion of the former cemetery. New York Public Library.8

Robert’s wife, Lydia, died on July 31, 1896, and Robert’s last surviving immediate family member, daughter Lucy A., passed away on October 31, 1899. While Lydia’s interment is documented in Evergreens Cemetery, Robert’s daughter Lucy is documented buried in Green-Wood Cemetery. In my attempt to verify Lucy’s interment, an online search of Green-Wood’s burial database was unsuccessful, and I suspect that Lucy rests with her mother, sisters, and brothers in Evergreens.

In the 1900 census, Robert is documented in Brooklyn’s ninth ward at his residence, 1624 Dean Street. He was eighty-two years old, a widower, with no listed occupation. I considered how heartbreaking it was for Robert to lose his entire family prior to his own death, and was somewhat comforted that his work and legacy in association with Bethel A. M. E. was featured in the Standard Union’s article on the historic church’s anniversary.9

Robert M. Phinney had the honor of laying Bethel A. M. E. ‘s cornerstone in 1868. The Christian Recorder, September 26, 1868.

Robert M. Phinney, freedom-seeker, husband, father, and longtime Weeksville resident, passed away on January 31, 1906. I acquired a (paid) copy of Robert’s death certificate in late May, 2019, from the Department of Records and Information Services (DORIS) in New York City. Unfortunately, it doesn’t contain any information on his parents, but does confirm his North Carolina origins, and place of interment, Evergreens Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York. According to his death record, Robert had succumbed to the effects of pyemia. As Robert, his wife, Lydia, and children did not have memorials listed on FindaGrave, I added them to the Evergreens Cemetery database.

With further research, I located an obituary for Robert in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Brooklyn, New York).

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, February 4, 1906.

A more detailed account of Robert’s life was featured in the New York Age. Entitled the “Death of ‘Father’ Tinney,” the article contains not only an accurate and sympathetic portrait of Robert’s life and legacy in Weeksville, but commentary on the historical loss but overall importance of African American landowners of the area, adding to a more authentic narrative of the early and diverse history of Brooklyn, New York. The article also mentions Weeksville’s cemetery, Citizens Union (ca. 1850-1872), lost to the development of Eastern Parkway.

The death of Father Finney at his home on Dean street between Troy and Schenectady avenues, Brooklyn, two weeks ago, takes away possibly the last of the early property owners in Weeksville. Mr. Finney ran away from slavery in North Carolina 62 years ago, and came to Brooklyn and purchased the place at which he died. In early years he worked at his trade as plasterer and mason, but of later years he worked at gardening on his place, which had frontage of 116 feet and was 100 feet deep. Unfortunately the place passed into the hands of a building and loan association from which he was compelled to borrow some money, and as Mr. Finney’s property went so went most of the holdings of the old settlers of Weeksville. Weeksville and Carsville were adjoining sections in Brooklyn owned wholly by Afro-Americans and covered the present part of the city from Troy avenue to Ralph avenue, and from Fulton street to East New York avenue. Weeksville was named after an Afro-American named Weeks, who was a stevedore for the Black Ball line of ships. Mr. Weeks owned a handsome dwelling at Schenectady and Atlantic avenues, and a large plot of ground; his property never went into the possession of his heirs, and it is said the present occupants of the site have not a clear title. Rev. John Peterson had his country residence but a few steps from Week’s dwelling. Ransom F. Wake, who was principal of old Laurens street school, owned a fine home on Bergen street. The whole block on St. Mark’s avenue now occupied by St. John’s Orphan asylum, belonged to an Afro-American horse dealer named Major Davis, his ownership never benefited his heirs. Rev. Nathan Thomas owned the property on which public school 83 is built. There was an Afro-American cemetery of 30 acres covering Schenectady avenue to Ralph avenue and Park Place to East New York avenue. It has passed into other hands. Robert Williams owned a grove and picnic ground at Buffalo avenue and Prospect Place, but none of his relatives ever benefited by it. While almost all of the property of the old settlers of this section has passed into the hands of the white man. It is a pleasure to state that many Afro-Americans now own property in old Weeksville. John T. Birch has built twenty houses, most of them he has sold, and he now owns seven. Elijah Bundick, contractor, owns seven houses, Charles Morton, four houses, Geo. Birch, two houses, Menson P. Saunders, two houses, Thomas Wright, two houses, William Simpson, two houses, William Rennix, two houses, William Dutton, two houses; others owning one house are Allen Morton, Mr. Trotman, Paul Jones, John Donerson, General Taylor, Moses Cobb, James Everson, Zachariah Kemp, Eli Howard, William Jenkins, Harry Gray, Mrs. M. Dorsey, Mrs. Margaret Johnson, Dr. Owen Waller, Ulysses Harris, Robert Goode, Charles Brooks, John Smith, Mrs. Faulkner, Mr. Watkins, Charles Bryant, Mrs. Anna Lee, Dr. Poilipsco, Mrs. Anna Campbell, Mrs. Elizabeth Smith, Rev. Franklin, Albert Francis, C. Laurence, Mrs. Frances Bulkley, William Edwards, John Stocket, Rev. Joseph Brown, Henry Carey, Charles Hicks, Rev. Norton, Josephine Scott, Andrew Robinson, William Truly, William Johnson, Caesar Robinson, Henry White, Samuel Roots, and David A. Greene.

The New York Age, February 22, 1906

For more information on Weeksville, see: Weeksville Heritage Center, Brooklyn, New York.

  1. For more information on historic Weeksville, see the Weeksville Heritage Center.
  2. Bethel Tabernacle A. M. E. Church’s website states there exists evidence that the church was established as early as 1818.
  3. Report of the Committee of Merchants for the Relief of Colored People, Suffering from the Late Riots in the City of New York, Library of Congress. See also W. E. B. DuBois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1935.
  4. Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “New York — Hanging And Burning A Negro In Clarkson Street.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 188?. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e1-281d-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.
  5. Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “The Riots In New York : The Mob Lynching A Negro In Clarkson-Street.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1863. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e1-2815-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99 .
  6. Illus. in: Harper’s weekly, v. 7, no. 344 (1863 August 1), p. 493.; Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA; cph 3c26179 //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c26179.
  7. The Standard Union (Brooklyn, New York), October 6, 1894.
  8. Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, The New York Public Library. “Plate 33: Bounded by Atlantic Avenue, Rockaway Avenue, St. Marks Avenue, Hopkinson Avenue, Prospect Place, Saratoga Avenue, Butler Street, Howard Avenue, Douglass Street, Ralph Avenue, Eastern Parkway, Buffalo Avenue, President Street, Utica Avenue, Carroll Street, Schenectady Avenue, Crown Street, Troy Avenue, Montgomery Street and Albany Avenue.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1880. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e2-0b60-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.
  9. See: “Anniversary of the Bethel A. M. E. Church.” The Standard Union (Brooklyn, New York), October 15, 1903.

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