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East Village Building Blocks Tour: African American History

People of African descent have lived in the area now known as the East Village since the mid-17th century, when semi-freed African slaves of the Dutch West India Company in New Amsterdam were granted farmland here in the area that lay between the established Dutch settlement south of Wall Street and the lands still populated by indigenous people to the north. Today’s East Village, Greenwich Village, SoHo, and surrounding neighborhoods were then referred to as “The Land of the Blacks.” 

While no sites from that era remain, there are important remnants of African American history in the East Village from the 19th century, when Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass made groundbreaking speeches at The Great Hall at Cooper Union, and Elizabeth Jennings Graham, the ‘Rosa Parks’ of her day, fought against segregation on New York City streetcars. 

In the early 20th century, this area, then known just as part of the Lower East Side, was a hotbed of jazz and blues, home to Charlie Parker, Lead Belly, and Randy Weston, among many others, and later of considerable activism, with the New York chapter of the Black Panthers founded here. In the late 20th century, artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Ellen Stewart, and Spike Lee launched their careers here.

The rich African American history of the East Village is extensively catalogued in our African-American History Tour on our East Village Building Blocks website. A selection of a few of those sites follows:

151 Avenue B

This landmarked building was the home of alto saxophonist and jazz innovator Charlie “Bird” Parker from 1950 to 1954. This is the only East Village rowhouse east of Second Avenue to be designated a New York City Landmark, and one of the first that was designated a landmark primarily for its cultural value, in 1998.

88 East 10th Street

“One of the most notable sculptors of the twentieth century” according to the National Women’s History Museum, was the Harlem Renaissance artist, educator, and self-described “people’s sculptor” Selma Hortense Burke, who lived and worked at 88 East 10th Street from 1944 until at least 1949 according to New York City directories.

While here, Burke completed her most renowned work: a 2 ½ by 3 ½ foot relief plaque commemorating President Franklin D. Roosevelt, which was used as a model for his image on the U.S. dime coin. Burke is celebrated for her lifelong commitment to the art of sculpture and to art education, for her highly regarded portrayals of towering African American figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., Booker T. Washington, and Mary Macleod Bethune; for her significance in the Harlem Renaissance; for her unabashed drawing upon African models for her art; and for achieving success as a Black woman sculptor at a time when few female or Black artists, and even fewer Black female artists, were able to achieve any success or recognition in the United States.

67 East 4th Street

In 1973 the non-profit Minority Photographers Inc., founded by curator, filmmaker, photographer, and multimedia artist Alex Harsley, obtained a storefront at 67 East 4th Street that became The 4th Street Photo Gallery. Countless artists and photographers of all ages have sought refuge at the gallery, an iconic salon and exhibition space that catapulted careers that cross the divides of art, science, and politics. As of 2021, the organization maintained its vision of creating collective power among young underrepresented artists in New York City.

Harsley was the first Black photographer for the New York City District Attorney. Since that time he has continued to capture the true, intimate moments and personality of New York City.

214 East 2nd Street 

Since 1974, this building has been home to the Kenkeleba Gallery, which houses the work of African-American artists as well as historic artifacts related to African-American history. Kenkeleba House is a non-profit art gallery dedicated to celebrating and presenting the visual aesthetic and cultural legacy of African American artists and other artists of color that have been historically overlooked by the art world establishment and cultural mainstream. In 2013 the Wilmer Jennings Gallery at Kenkeleba House hosted the exhibition, The Old Becomes The New: New York Contemporary Native American Art Movement and the New York School, marking the first time Native American contemporary arts in New York City was defined as a movement.

Kenkeleba was founded in 1974 by Joe Overstreet, Corrine Jennings, and Samuel C. Floyd to support African American culture. Kenkeleba began its work on The Bowery near Delancey Street with experimental projects to assist African American, Caribbean, and African artists in developing and documenting their work. Early projects included exhibitions and experiments with poetry, music, visual arts, workshops in dance, theater, children’s programs, and African markets. The name, Kenkeleba is derived from that of the Seh-Haw plant grown in West Africa known for its spiritual, nutritional, and healing values. 

There are plenty more sites to see — click here to access them all.

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