Updated: Mar 2, 2022
Harlem. Bed Stuy. Flatbush. These are all areas often associated with Black History in New York City. However, do you ever think of Bowling Green, Greenwich Village, or Flushing, Queens? Black History truly exists everywhere if you know where to look for it!
New York City has had a significant impact on the good, bad, and ugly associated with Black History. At one point, it was the largest slave trader north of the Mason Dixon Line. It also has a legacy of being the location of several thriving free Black communities before the Civil War. This is a result of the passage of New York State’s Gradual Emancipation Law in 1799, which led to a slow abolition of slavery in New York State. As a result, in the early to mid-1800s, freed Black men and women established free Black communities – they owned property, had the right to vote, and built schools and churches. Centuries later, we now have uncovered these burial sites that preserve this culture.
New York City is also the site of some of the most significant moments of Black culture flourishing in the country: the Harlem Renaissance, which was an integral part of the NYC Civil Rights Movement. We also have been a part of the Great Migration and, over the decades, have seen the development of various immigrant communities, including from the Caribbean and the African continent. It is no wonder that Black residents make up 22% of NYC’s population: a total of 1.9 million Black residents!
Some questions that will be answered in this blog post are:
Where can I find Black history in NYC?
What are some black history sites new york?
What is the black history new york city?
How can I find Black History Sites to Explore in NYC?
Where do I explore Black History Sites in NYC?
How can I find A Look at Black History in the Village?
How did Black people get to New York?
Here are ten areas across the five boroughs to find NYC’s Hidden Black History:
1. Greenwich Village
Did you know Greenwich Village was home to North America’s earliest free Black settlement in the 17th century? Freed African Americans established an agricultural community near the Minetta stream. This community increased as a result of New York-born Blacks moving into the neighborhood and southern-born Blacks moving north after the Civil War. From the 1880s to the late 1910s, the area around Minetta Lane, Minetta Street, and Minetta Place was referred to as “Little Africa,” developing into the center of a growing African-American community. Interestingly, interracial socializing became more common at “Black and Tan” clubs. For example, the Federal census records from 1900 show that most buildings housed both black and white families. In fact, several interracial couples were noted in the census. This neighborhood was composed of African American, West Indian, Irish, and Italian communities. As a result of the growing Black community, Greenwich Village became the location for some of America’s first black churches in the 19th century and many developing African-American artists, civil rights leaders, and organizations in the 20th century.
Some Sites to Check Out:
Mother Zion A.M.E. Church, The First Black Church in New York City
Location: corner of West 10th Street and Bleecker Street
Description: The church has moved a few times with the migration of Black communities. It was home to some of the most prominent African-American civil rights leaders, including Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, and Frederick Douglass. The church moved to Harlem in the early 20th century and was replaced by the pair of tenement buildings that occupy the site today.
The African Free School, The first school for Blacks in America:
Location: African Free School No. 3 was located at 120 West 3rd Street (formerly 120 Amity Street).
Description: This was one of seven schools dedicated to educating the children of free and enslaved blacks in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The first African Free School, founded in 1787 by the New York Manumission Society, was the very first school for blacks in America.
The African Grove Theater, the First Known Black Theater Troupe
Location: corner of Mercer and Bleecker Streets
Description: William Alexander Brown, a free African American who was an actor and playwright, traveled extensively through England and the Caribbean, where he was exposed to different types of theater. Upon returning to New York City, he founded the African Grove Theater, where Shakespearean plays and original works were performed.
St. Benedict the Moor Church, the First Black Catholic Church in the North
Location: 210 Bleecker Street
Description: It was the first church for black Roman Catholics in the North. The Church of St. Benedict was named for a 16th-century African-born friar. By 1898, the church moved to a new location at West 53rd Street, following the migration of the black population uptown, and was taken over by the predominantly Italian-American Our Lady of Pompeii congregation. The beautiful church building was later demolished due to the extension of Sixth Avenue in 1926.
First Course in African-American History Taught
Location: New School on West 12th Street
Description: W.E.B. DuBois taught the first African American history class at the New School on West 12th Street. Called “The Negro in American History” the course description simply said it would “follow the development of American history with a special emphasis upon the influence which persons of Negro descent have had upon the thoughts and activities of this country.”
2. Seneca Village
Seneca Village was a free African-American community that existed before Central Park between 1825 and 1857 from West 82nd to West 89th Streets. The community was founded in 1825 when newly freed Black people and the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church bought plots of land for development. In 1855 there were approximately 225 residents, a population of roughly two-thirds African-Americans, one-third Irish immigrants, and a small number of Germans. There were over 50 homes in Seneca Village, plus three churches and a school. For African Americans who owned property, it gave them the right to vote. Coined the “Black Utopia,” this became the largest concentration of African American property owned in NYC. This new community provided a safe haven from the crowded conditions and racial discrimination prevalent in downtown New York at the time. It also served as a spot on the Underground Railroad. Unfortunately, this community was destroyed to make room for the construction of Central Park: residents were displaced and forced to relocate. Today, there is very little evidence of the village except for visual signs and guided tours by the Central Park Conservancy.
3. Weeksville, Brooklyn
At one point, Weeksville, Brooklyn in Crown Heights, had the second-largest free black community in the United States. In 1838, only 11 years after slavery ended in New York, Weeksville was formed by a free black man named James Weeks when he purchased a substantial area of land from Henry C. Thompson, another free black man. Weeks then encouraged other free black professionals to settle on the property as he sold lots to the newcomers who named the community Weeksville. This grew to become the second-largest free black community pre-civil War. By 1855, over 520 free African Americans lived in Weeksville, including some of the leading activists in the Abolitionist and Equal Suffrage movements. During the draft riots of 1863, Weeksville was a haven for Black people fleeing the racist violence in Manhattan. Weeksville was a community where black doctors, professionals, and entrepreneurs could practice skills and develop a clientele. For example, Dr. Susan McKinney Steward was the first Black doctor in New York State. Her sister, Sarah Smith Tompkins Garnet, was the founder of the Equal Suffrage League of Brooklyn, the first organization advocating for the voting rights of Black women. Residents established churches, schools, Black associations, Black-owned businesses, an elderly home, and had an orphanage by the 1860s. The neighborhood also had one of the country’s first African-American newspapers, the Freedman's Torchlight. Today, Weeksville is part of present-day Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights. There are remnants in the Hunterfly Road Houses and the Weeksville Heritage Center.
4. Lower East Side
The Lower East Side of Manhattan has an African American history as rich as Harlem. Its history dates back to the 1600s when a formerly enslaved African named Bastien Negro and 11 others petitioned for freedom from the Dutch in 1647. They were each granted a few acres north outside the New Netherlands settlement, creating Manhattan’s first free black settlement, called the “Land of the Blacks,” which spanned 130 acres, today’s equivalent of 100 city blocks. The area spans modern-day Greenwich Village, Chinatown, Little Italy, and the Lower East Side until the British took over and turned the area into a commercial district. Fast-forwarding to the 1960s, the Downtown headquarters of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) was located in the LES at 66 Delancey St. They were on the front lines of fights for tenant rights and against racial discrimination. Downtown CORE co-founder Michael Schwerner was one of the three CORE field workers killed by the KKK in the south. Today, you can take a “Reclaiming Black Spaces” tour from the Tenement Museum to learn more about the LES’s Black History.
Some Sites to Check Out:
Sebastiaen de Britto’s Farm
Location: 143 Allen Street
Description: The farm was part of the first free Black community in North America. The land here was owned by Sebastiaen de Britto, a formerly enslaved African brought to the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam from Santo Domingo in the early 17th century. De Britto and his wife, Isabel Kisana, were part of 30 enslaved people who petitioned the Dutch West India Company for their freedom and were given land. There are no remnants now.
Location: 193 Eldridge Street,
Description: Studio We was a community music performance and rehearsal space built inside an abandoned building in 1968. A group of African American musician friends built a stage on the sixth floor and set up other performance and practice spaces throughout the building. They even built a soul food restaurant on the first floor so people could grab food for the performances. Studio We quickly became central to the city’s Loft Jazz scene.
Location: 363 Broome Street
Description: This is the fire station where Wesley Williams, one of the very first Black firefighters in New York City history, started working in 1919. Williams became the first Black lieutenant in the FDNY in 1926, and was the second person in department history to earn a perfect score in the physical exam required to earn that rank. He later co-founded the Vulcan Society, a fraternal organization for Black EMTs and firefighters dedicated to fighting discrimination in the fire department.
5. Financial District
Did you know the Financial District was the site of New York City’s first official slave market? On December 14, 1711, a municipal market auctioning enslaved Africans as laborers was established in Downtown Manhattan, in what is now the Wall Street area between Pearl Street and Water Street. Operating between 1711 and 1762, the market also traded corn and grains. Companies such as New York Life insurance, Aetna, Chase, and Citibank have a deep connection to the Black history in this area? These companies provided insurance policies for precious cargo, aka slaves for slaveowners. For example, life insurance companies sold policies that ensured slave owners would be compensated if the slaves they owned were injured or killed. New York Life Insurance alone sold 500+ policies and paid over $200,000+. About ⅓ of their policies during this time were slave policies. Banks like Chase accepted enslaved people as collateral for loans. If plantation owners defaulted on loan payment, the banks took ownership of these slaves. Presently, the area is known as Mannahatta Park, an open space with benches and a view of the East River. Today, the only reminder of Wall Street’s history in the slave trade is a small plaque at the bottom of Wall Street that was dedicated in 2015. You can learn this history by taking a NYC Slavery & the Underground Railroad Walking Tour from Insider Out Tours, a Black-owned, woman-owned company.
Some Sites to Check Out:
Intersection of Wall Street and Water Streets: Two blocks from the New York Stock Exchange, this is the site of one of the USA’s largest slave markets
Fraunces Tavern: The owner is of French, West-Indian descent (half-Black) & exposed General Benedict Arnold as a traitor. In 1783 the Book of Negroes was compiled at the tavern: listed the more than 3,000 black loyalists who would be evacuated with the British Army to Nova Scotia.
Triumph of the Human Spirit sculpture: This is dedicated to all the unknown and unnamed Africans brought to this country, including the 427 Africans excavated near here.
Wall Street: The very name "Wall Street" is born of slavery, with enslaved Africans building a wall in 1653 to protect Dutch settlers from Indian raids.
South Street Seaport: where enslaved Africans first touched land in chains.
Civic Center Foley Square: Before the square was created in the early twentieth century, the area was the Five Points, a 19th-century neighborhood located at a five-way intersection. Infamous for its difficult living conditions, the neighborhood provided jobs and cheap rents for newly-freed Black communities, Irish immigrants, and the longer-established Anglo-Dutch working class. In 1741, dozens of people were convicted and brought to Foley Square after allegedly participating in the Great Negro Plot, a false conspiracy by enslaved people and poor whites to start fires across what is now Lower Manhattan. Historians have debated whether or not such a plot even existed. Regardless, 17 Black (and 4 white) people were hanged, 13 were burned at the stake, and 72 were banished from the colony.
African Burial Ground: The burial ground comprises nearly six acres and dates back to the mid-17th century. As many as 15,000+ free or enslaved Americans were buried here, making it New York’s oldest African American cemetery and the largest known excavated African cemetery in North America. While digging to construct a new federal office, 419 African body remains were excavated. The burial ground was converted into a National Park site and memorial, designed by Haitian American architect Rodney Léon.
6. Sandy Ground, Staten Island
Sandy Ground is the oldest, continuously inhabited free Black settlement in the U.S., founded in 1828 on present-day Staten Island. Captain John Jackson was the first documented Black man to purchase land here. He even operated the Lewis Columbia, a ferry that provided service between Rossville and Manhattan—the only direct mode of transportation at that time. Before that, the area was inhabited by Indigenous people and then Dutch and French immigrants who brought enslaved Black people to the area. Oyster farming was a main means of employment, attracting oystermen from Maryland who saw an opportunity for work. Over time, there was a shift towards agriculture and industrial work. It is believed that this community also served as a stop on the Underground Railroad for slaves fleeing to Canada. At its peak in the 19th century, Sandy Ground contained more than 50 homes, some of which are now New York City landmarks. Over the years, this settlement has undergone many names: Harrisville and then as Little Africa before being given its current name because of the poor quality of its soil. Today, Sandy Ground is on the National Register of Historic Places, and there are still descendants of the original settlers in the community.
Some Sites to Check Out:
Reverend Isaac Coleman and Rebecca Gray Coleman House:
Location: 1482 Woodrow Road, Staten Island, NY 10309
Description: The house was purchased by Reverend Isaac Coleman, the sixth pastor of the AME Zion Church, in 1864; yet, he would only live here for one year before relocating to Williamsburg, Brooklyn (but his wife and his descendants stuck around).
Location: 565 and 569 Bloomingdale Road, Staten Island, NY 10309
Description: built between 1887 and 1898, these homes were built to house workers in the oyster trade during Sandy Ground’s peak.
Sandy Ground Historical Museum: offers a glimpse into the area’s history through guided tours, exhibits, activities, and lectures. On display are artifacts from the area’s early history, including art, quilts, letters, photographs, and rare books. Operated by the Sandy Ground Historical Society, the museum’s most popular event is its annual festival which brings together residents, visitors, and descendants of Sandy Ground to celebrate black history and culture.
7. Newtown, Queens (aka Elmhurst, Queens)
Newtown, Queens – now Elmhurst, Queens – was a one-street town surrounded by open land. In 1828, two acres of land were transferred to develop a church and a clergy house. The United African Society of Newtown (later the St. Mark AME Church) was one of the first structures built here. One prominent Black leader from Newtown, James Pennington, was a pastor, abolitionist and the first African American to study at Yale University (though not allowed to enroll there formally). In 2011, the remains of a 26-year-old African American woman preserved in an iron coffin were uncovered. This led to the discovery of several unmarked graves and what became known as the Elmhurst African American Burial Ground. This burial site is believed to be the resting place of over 300 African Americans who resided in Newtown.
8. Flushing, Queens
Resources: or not, Flushing, Queens was a part of the Underground Railroad and also served as an African Burial Ground. For example, part of The Flushing’s Macedonia AME Church was used as a burial ground. When a chapel was added in the early 1930s, 200 bodies were removed to relocate the remains to the Flushing Cemetery. Due to the lack of proper documentation for the deceased, the transfer was not permitted, and the remains were reburied underneath the church building. It is reported that prominent members of Flushing’s historic Black community are among those buried on the grounds of the Macedonia AME Church. The Macedonia AME Church also served as a stop in the Underground Railroad. In addition, it is a designated site on the Flushing Freedom Mile that recognizes landmarks connected to the abolitionist movement. The commemoration sign notes, “(M)any of the Macedonia AME Church members were active in the fight against slavery, and the church may have been used as a station on the Underground Railroad helping fugitive slaves to freedom.” Due to its sizable African American and Irish populations, downtown Flushing was referred to as Black Dublin and appeared to be similar to Seneca Village.s
In addition, the 1936 excavation of a site for a park revealed its previous use as a burial ground for African Americans and Native Americans in the mid-1800s. Similar to the African Burial Ground in lower Manhattan, excavated remains included pennies that had been placed on the eyes of the deceased. It’s estimated that the remains of 1,000 people are located here, serving as a burial ground for those who died during smallpox and cholera epidemics during the 1840s. As a result, the Town of Flushing purchased separate land for residents concerned about contamination of burial grounds by infected corpses, mainly for the African American and Native American communities, who made up about 60% of the population. After going through several names changes like “Town Ground” and the “Colored Cemetery of Flushing,” the site was officially renamed The Olde Towne of Flushing Burial Ground in 2009 and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2011.
Some Sites to See:
The Olde Towne of Flushing Burial Ground
Location: 46th Ave. & 164th St. & 165th St, Flushing
Description: It is estimated that the remains of 1,000 people are located here, primarily those who suffered from smallpox and cholera. This was an area inhabited mainly by African Americans and Native Americans.
Location: 34-41 137th St., Flushing, Queens
Description: Born in 1848 to fugitive enslaved parents, Lewis H. Latimer served in the Union Navy during the Civil War. He worked for the United States Electric Light Company, where in 1879, he patented improvements to the incandescent lighting system that would ultimately be used around the world. The self-taught inventor, gifted in art and poetry, also worked under Alexander Graham Bell and for Thomas Edison as chief engineer. Latimer lived in this home until his passing in 1928. The Lewis H. Latimer House is a cultural institution offering educational programs in science, art, poetry and is dedicated to innovators of color who have contributed inventions to American life.
Location: 37-01 Bowne St, Flushing, NY 11354
Description: As the oldest building in Queens that was built in 1661, its rich history of three centuries documents the Bowne family’s abolitionist activities and role in anti-slavery movements, and not only is it an official New York City landmark, but it’s also on the National Register of Historic Places. It served as a stop in the Underground Railroad.
Location: 137-16 Northern Blvd, Flushing, NY 11354
Description: In 1694, John Bowne and other Quakers built this as a monument to early religious freedom in the colonial United States. This was also a stop on the Underground Railroad.
9. The Green (Jamaica, Queens)
The Green, also referred to as the Douglaston Community, was one of New York City’s oldest African American communities. It is now a forgotten community located in Jamaica, Queens. This community began around 1830 after the abolition of slavery in New York. According to wills and town records, from 1656 to 1776, Jamaica had 35 citizens who owned 59 slaves. It was the largest (or among the largest) slave community on Long Island. By 1800, there were already over 15 freed African Americans living in Jamaica. In the first federal census in the late 1780s, Jamaica had 1,398 whites, 221 slaves, and 65 freed Blacks. Even after many slaves were freed (and slavery was officially abolished in 1827), African Americans struggled to fit into Jamaica due to lingering racism and hostility toward the community. Churches became centers for the African American population to feel welcome and supported. A number of Black leaders emerged from Jamaica who aimed to create a community for African Americans to live peacefully without threats from white residents nearby. By 1850, a 60-person group had formed, even though most residents rented their homes. It was likely that the Black households not included in these larger clusters were central to Black-owned farms in a farmer-laborer agreement. The Green was determined to be its separate settlement when looking further into census data, suggesting the development of The Green separate from wealthier white areas. This development seemed to mirror other New York City African American communities like Weeksville, Seneca Village, and Sandy Ground on Staten Island. The Green, which had a population of at least 100, was located most likely around Douglass St. and what is now Liberty Ave., between 168th street and 175th street. Census data suggests that The Green transitioned from white-owned properties rented out to Black residents to Black-owned homes.
Some Sites to See:
Location: 150-03 Jamaica Ave, Queens, NY 11432
Description: King Manor, also known as the Rufus King House, is a historic house at 150th Street and Jamaica Avenue in Jamaica, Queens, New York City. It was the home of Rufus King, a signer of the United States Constitution, New York state senator, and ambassador to Great Britain immediately after the American Revolution. He and his family lived at King Manor for over three generations, dedicated to improving their 160 acres of land and developing it as a successful working farm. Today, King Manor is a historic house museum dedicated to preserving and interpreting King’s legacy and early American life in Jamaica, Queens through annual festivals, family programming, concerts, and workshops.
10. Centerville AME Church, Bronx
African Americans have been a part of the heritage of the Bronx since 1670, when slaves were brought from Barbados to live and work on the estate of the wealthy and aristocratic Morris family. During the colonial period, free and enslaved blacks were integral to the borough’s development, comprising between 10-15% of the area’s population. Before the end of slavery in New York in 1827, most blacks in the Bronx were buried in plots set aside for them on the estates of slave-holding families. In 1849, a group of black men formed the first African American church in the Bronx and the only independent African burial ground known to have existed in the borough. In the 1840 census, 187 African Americans were among the 4,154 residents of the Town of Westchester (now part of the East Bronx). Blacks worshiped, were baptized, married, and buried at the town’s St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, but they had no place to serve in leadership roles or have their burial grounds. As a result, the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Westchester was formed in 1849 by Rev. Steven Amos. The congregation built their church, known as Bethel A.M.E., and used the land behind the building as a cemetery. This became the first church in the area to accept Black clergy. Located along current-day Unionport Road between Benedict and McGraw Avenues, the church used the adjacent lot as a burial ground for members of the community. Records of those buried in this lot indicate that this was a thriving Black community of laborers, craftsmen, and other professionals. By the late 1800s, Bethel A.M.E. struggled to survive, leading the congregation to reincorporate as Centreville African Methodist Episcopal Church and sell the property.