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Black History Month in the Village: The South Village and Little Africa

GVSHP’s Civil Rights & Social Justice Map

February is Black History Month.  We here at GVSHP want to celebrate it by highlighting different sites of significance to the African-American community within our neighborhoods.  Over the course of the next month we will be discussing some of these areas that we have marked on our new Civil Rights & Social Justice Map, looking at their significance to African-American history and the Civil Rights Movement.

Little Africa

undated photo

Probably the area most associated with Black History in the Village is the former African-American community known as “Little Africa.”  As described on our map,

“From the 1880s to the late 1910s, the area around Minetta Lane, Minetta Street, and Minetta Place was referred to as “Little Africa”, as it was the center of a growing African-American community. As a whole, it consisted of several streets in the South Village, including Amity Street (now W 3rd Street), Bleecker Street, Laurens Street (now LaGuardia Place), MacDougal Street, Thompson Street, and Sullivan Street. Lined with residential buildings and institutions like the Minetta Lane Theater and Italian restaurant Perla, Minetta Lane and Minetta Street connect 6th Avenue and MacDougal Street. The curved shape of Minetta Street is one of the more visible hints to the areas unique history. In the mid-17th century, “partially-freed” slaves were allowed to farm a small patch of land at the southern end of Manhattan. They found homes around a brook that flowed into the Hudson River. The Algonquin Indians called it “Mannette” or “Spirit Water”. Over time, it became known as “Minetta”. Today, the area is lined with humble brick houses dating from the 1820s to the 1840s. Black-owned businesses throughout the South Village served the community from the late 1800s through the early 20th century.”

Sullivan Thompson Historic District. Image courtesy of newyorkyimby.com

The recently designated Sullivan-Thompson Historic District encompasses a large portion of what made up this distinct neighborhood.  In fact, Little Africa was not just a predominately Black community, but also saw some rare cohesion and integration between black and white residents, specifically in the “Black-and-tan” saloons that came to define the neighborhood.  As highlighted in the district’s designation report,

The blocks that comprise the Sullivan-Thompson Historic District were inhabited by a mix of black and white residents by the end of the 1850s… While Thompson Street between Canal and West Fourth Streets was considered the center of Little Africa, the two sides of Sullivan Street between Broome and Spring Streets had 21 buildings with African-American tenants in 1870… With blacks and whites living in closely packed quarters, saloons became important communal gathering places. On Thompson Street, most were “black-and-tan” saloons catering to a multi-racial, rather than segregated, clientele. By 1874-1875, the basement of 57 Sullivan Street had been altered and was housing the Knickerbocker, a black-and-tan saloon with an African-American proprietor and bartender. Denunciations of black-and-tan saloons by novelist Stephen Crane and social reformer Jacob Riis—who condemned the “moral turpitude” of Thompson Street—were based in the pervasively negative views of “race mixing” at the time.  Because of these societal attitudes, the integrated residential areas of Little Africa were a rare place where interracial families could settle (2016, Pgs. 16-17).”

The neighborhood has changed and many remnants of Little Africa’s history had been destroyed when 6th Avenue was widened, or displaced due to the influx of Italian immigrants into the area.  However, its history still survives in both our memory and a few sites preserved within the district.

Want to see more?  Check out the map here — there are nearly one hundred entries covering African-American history, and much more!

5 responses to “Black History Month in the Village: The South Village and Little Africa

  1. Wonderful work have you come across any documents of this time period? I’d love to get a picture of what life might of been like during this time in history. Also I’m an educator and would like to bring together a group of people to help structure a historical walk that teaches of the lives and cultural significance of early communities and lives of captured Africans and their offspring. Please contact me I would love to discuss this project with you.

  2. I have a question , as a descendent if John Wesley Williams who lived on Minerva Street what is the reason the placard no longer stars the historical fact the area was known as Litlke Africa. I remember observing a sign was posted on the fence if the playground a number of years ago but then was removed

    1. Hello and thanks for reading. According to the Parks’ Historical Signs Project here: https://www.nycgovparks.org/parks/minetta-playground/history there is still signage in the park, maybe it was moved. It reads, in part. “Several families of free African-Americans, released from slavery by the Dutch, established farms and settled along the Minetta Brook in the 1600s. With African-Americans continuing to settle here in the 18th and 19th centuries, the area became known as “Little Africa.” Most of the brook has been covered over, though some Village residents can claim that it flows beneath their basements and sometimes causes flooding. In the lobby of the apartment building at 2 Fifth Avenue, there is a transparent tube that is said to contain murky water spouting up from Minetta Brook.”

  3. Fascinating history!
    My Dad grew up in the Village (born 1905) on Jones Street, and he said there was a black neighborhood on the other side of 6th Avenue, around Minetta Laslne, as the article says. He & his Italian friends called it a different (less polite) name unfortunately. Generally, they didn’t need to cross the avenue most days, so there wasn’t much interaction. By WW1 the Italian immigrants had mostly pushed out the residents, and I recall reading they many moved to Harlem. The former African Church on Bleecker Street became Our Lady of Pompeii Church, which moved to Carmine Street when 6th Avenue was cut through for the IND subway.
    At the time, narrow 3rd Street had an elevated line running overhead, making that a less desirable street to live by.

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