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The site of Bedford was acquired by the Dutch West India Company in the 1630s and 1640s from the Canarsee Indians, but as early as 1790, more than a quarter of its residents were of African descent.

The area was primarily used for farming throughout the 18th century and was occupied by British troops after the Battle of Brooklyn in the Revolutionary War.

When slavery was abolished in New York State in 1827, blacks still found it difficult to buy land, but their persistence made them successful in eventually buying.

William Thomas and James Weeks, both African-Americans, bought land in the 1830s that would eventually become the settlements of Carrville and Weeksville, encompassing an area almost as large as modern-day Bedford-Stuyvesant.

Transportation innovations of the Brooklyn and Jamaica Railroad in 1836 brought in Irish, German, Jewish, Scottish and Dutch Americans. New immigrants from Europe, the south United States and the Caribbean then moved in after the subway reached the area in 1936.

The increased population made housing scarce and unemployment prevalent with landlords lacking the funds for upkeep on their buildings. 

With grassroots advocacy in its roots though, Bedford-Stuyvesant picked itself back up with the help of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation and other advocates who created a legacy of landmarked historical sites.

  • Busy Fulton Street is filled with passing cars but this dancer doesn’t seem to mind.
  • Men converse outside a mosque on Fulton Street.
  • The Bed-Stuy streets are covered with street art.
  • A mural of the late rapper Notorious B.I.G. on the side of a building off Bedford Avenue pays homage to the rapper that put the neighborhood on the map for many and gave the youth of Brooklyn the gift of rap as a political tool.
  • The busy intersection of Nostrand Avenue and Fulton Street.
  • A child douses herself in a fountain at Herbert von King Park.
  • Hattie Carthan, a grassroots organizer who helped revitalize Bed-Stuy, inspired the creation of a landmarked environmental and cultural center with the Magnolia Grandiflora tree at its heart.
  • The landmarked Bridge Street African Wesleyan Methodist Episcopal Church, the oldest African-American church in Brooklyn. The church is generally known to have been a stop on the Underground Railroad.
  • The Stuyvesant Heights section of the neighborhood holds some of the longest sections of historic brick and limestone houses in Brooklyn. The area was designated a historic district in 1971.
  • The sun shines through the trees of Bed-Stuy.
  • The former St. John's College.
  • Pedestrians walk in front of a mural near the eastern border of the neighborhood.
Photos by Paul Frangipane

How Bedford-Stuyvesant Got Its Name

As the hyphenated name implies, the neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, more commonly referred to as Bed-Stuy, has a dual history.

In the 1630s and 1640s, the Dutch West India Company acquired woodlands from the Canarsie Indians and named it Bedford. Also known as Bedford Corners, it was the first major settlement east of what was then known as the Village of Brooklyn. Neighboring Stuyvesant Heights, farmland that became a community after the Revolutionary War, was named for Peter Stuyvesant, the last governor-general of New Amsterdam before it was ceded to the English.

The neighborhood was an agricultural area through most of the 18th century, aided by black African slaves who helped the Dutch farm the lands. 

In 1827, when slavery was officially abolished in New York State, Brooklyn became a popular settlement area for free blacks from the South. William Thomas and James Weeks, both free blacks, purchased adjoining property in the neighborhood from Henry C. Thompson, another free black property owner. Thomas’ land eventually became Carrville, which no longer exists. Weeks cut up his property into plots to sell to other blacks. This area became known as Weeksville and was home to more than 800 residents. Weeksville had its own school, churches, and its own abolitionist newspaper, The Freedman’s Torchlight.

The completion of the Brooklyn Bridge and the elevated subway in the 1880s made the area more accessible and new immigrants poured into the neighborhood. 

Weeksville, a key part of what became Bedford-Stuyvesant, was largely forgotten in the 1930s. The last of its dilapidated houses were set to be demolished before they were rediscovered and restored in 1968 and the area opened for public tours as the Weeksville Heritage Center.

Today, Bedford-Stuyvesant, in north-central Brooklyn, is the largest black neighborhood in New York.

Norm Goldstein

Brooklyn-born Norm Goldstein is retired, after working 44 years for the Associated Press, the global news agency, where he served as a reporter, feature writer, editor, author and administrator. He also worked for AP as director of Educational Services and editor of the AP Stylebook. He graduated from Brooklyn College and the Penn State Graduate School of Journalism. He currently lives in Brooklyn Heights.