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The Supposed Streets of Little Africa

Beginning in the late 18th century, the area more or less defined by today’s Bleecker, Mercer, Thompson, Sullivan, MacDougal, and Carmine Streets started to grow as a free Black community in New York City. Institutions were formed — the Abyssinian Baptist Church moved to 166 Waverly Place in 1864 and stayed there for four decades; the African Grove Theater opened as the first known Black theater troupe at the corner of Bleecker and Mercer — and the neighborhood grew significantly following the Civil War and migration from the South. Earning the name of Little Africa, the neighborhood that was centered around Minetta Lane was a key part of African American life in Manhattan up to the first decade of the 20th century.

Today, little remains in our neighborhoods to mark this vital community; Abyssinian, for example, moved from Waverly Place in 1903, eventually moving to Harlem with many of its congregants, and few buildings of significance in Little Africa remain standing today. Interestingly, there are several streets in Greenwich Village that seem tied to that community, but in reality that’s in name only rather than in actual commemoration.

Varick Street

James Varick was born into slavery in upstate New York on January 10, 1750. As a young boy, he and his mother were freed and moved to Manhattan, where he soon joined the John Street Methodist Church, the oldest Methodist congregation in North America. Over time, Varick became a deacon in the church, one that discriminated against its growing Black congregation, eventually leading to separate services.

In 1799 the African American leadership decided to form a separate church, the African Methodist Episcoal Church. Varick led the effort to obtain their independent charter and legal documents that required its trustees to be of African descent. The church thrived in Lower Manhattan, but had to rely on white ministers until 1822, when Varick was ordained along with two other members; he officially became church supervisor on July 30, 1822.

In addition to his role as minister, Varick ran a school, was the first chaplain of the New York African Society for Mutual Relief and a vice president of the African Bible Society, and supported the establishment of Freedom’s Journal, the first American black newspaper. Under Varick’s leadership, this new church was the first of what would become over 3,000 African Methodist Episcopal Zion churches.

The year before he became minister, Varick helped petition the state constitutional convention for the right to vote. On July 4, 1827, the congregation celebrated when New York State enacted the final emancipation of Negro slaves. Several church windows were smashed by those unhappy about Blacks obtaining their freedom; Varick died two weeks later at his home. (His remains now lie in the crypt of the Mother African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Harlem.)

The church moved to Greenwich Village in the waning years of the Civil War, holding services for the Little Africa community at its home on Bleecker and West 10th Streets from 1864 to 1904.

Despite these accomplishments, James Varick is not the namesake for Varick Street: According to Henry Moscow’s The Street Book, it’s actually Richard Varick, a Revolutionary War patriot, aide to Benedict Arnold at West Point (and was cleared of any charges), a landowner through whose property the street was cut, and the 45th mayor of New York City.

Richard Varick (1753–1831), painting from the New-York Historical Society
Richard Varick (1753–1831), painting from the New-York Historical Society

Gay Street

The name of Gay Street dates back to at least 1827, when it appears for the first time in the Common Council’s minutes, but its true origins remain unknown. 

During the turn of the 19th century, many African-Americans who were domestic workers for the wealthy families living on and around Washington Square made their homes on Gay Street. People who lived on the block once believed the street honored Sydney Howard Gay, the editor of The National Anti-Slavery Standard and a key operative in the Underground Railroad, which may have included stops on the block. However, he would have been only 13 when the street was officially referenced in 1827.

Since most streets then were named for local families, it’s possible Gay Street highlights one R. Gay, who The Street Book notes lived in the Bowery and advertised a gelding for sale in a 1775 local newspaper.

Downing Street

Downing Street was first laid out in 1799. Some people credit the name to Thomas Downing, a free Black who moved to the city from Virginia in 1819 and who made a career around oysters. He opened Downing’s Oyster House downtown at 5 Broad Street, and by the 1830s the place became a popular gathering spot for politicians, businessmen, and celebrities including Charles Dickens. He also campaigned for black suffrage in New York, sponsored rallies against the Fugitive Slave Law, and protested the custom of segregation in public transit

Downing Street Playground entrance on Carmine_Street, from the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation
Downing Street Playground entrance on Carmine Street, from the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation

That Downing’s name on the street is likely just a coincidence, notes the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation in its history of the Downing Street Playground at 6th Avenue: The street first appeared fully named on a map in 1803, 16 years before Downing arrived in the city. A more likely honoree, the website notes, is Sir George Downing, the 17th-century British diplomat who is also the namesake for London’s own Downing Street. This Downing may have played a key diplomatic role in negotiations between Britain and the Netherlands that traded our Dutch colony for Surinam in 1674.

Despite the lack of honorifics for Little Africa on the streets of Greenwich Village, Village Preservation has remembered this important community with our research for our Civil Rights and Social Justice Map, where you can explore many important sites related to Little Africa, African Americans, and civil rights history throughout the communities we serve.

One response to “The Supposed Streets of Little Africa

  1. Really informative post, David, and terrific research.

    One correction – I believe that in the Downing Street section, “Fugitive State Law” should be “Fugitive Slave
    Law”. [https://www.nps.gov/articles/000/the-bill-of-rights-and-the-fugitive-slave-laws.htm]

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