← Back

Village Preservation Resources for African American History Month

Welcome to February, and African American History Month! Village Preservation has long documented the stories behind the streets, buildings and people of Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo. Those investigations have enabled us to offer several great resources to learn more about our neighborhoods, including our African American history, including our Civil Rights and Social Justice Map, our East Village Building Blocks site, and our South of Union Square Maps and Tours.

Civil Rights and Social Justice Map

Launched in 2017, our Civil Rights and Social Justice Map offers more than 50 entries on African American history among an array of 200-plus posts that also include social justice, women’s, LGBTQ+, Hispanic, and Asian American histories. The map, recently updated with new photos and information, starts off with a look at one of the city’s first Black churches, the  Abyssinian Baptist Church, once located at 166 Waverly Place; it then takes you on an exploration of more key points and people to be found throughout our neighborhoods’ past, including the most chronologically recent item, artist Jean-Michel Basquiat’s home and studio at 57 Great Jones Street.

The map also covers a key and tragic point in New York City civil rights history that took place in our neighborhoods and beyond: the Civil War Draft Riots. Two days before the start of the riots, on July 11, 1863, the Conscription Act went into effect; it required all male citizens between the ages of 20 and 35 and all unmarried men between 20 and 45 to submit to a lottery for military duty. However, anyone who paid $300 or hired a substitute could avoid service, and because African-Americans were not considered citizens, they were not allowed to serve. This exacerbated tensions over the Civil War and enflamed white New York City workers. Tensions were particularly high between African Americans and Irish immigrants, who were often in competition for jobs. 

Tragic scenes from the Civil War Draft Riots, on First Avenue (left) and Clarkson Street

Then, on July 13, the Draft Riots began. The streets became entirely unsafe for African Americans, with some of the worst violence and most ferocious anger during those deadly days manifesting in our neighborhoods. The area known as Mackerelville bounded by 10th Street, 14th Street, Second Avenue, and the East River was especially dangerous for African Americans, as was the West Village, where a Black cartman who had gone out to buy a loaf of bread was chased, beaten, hung, and set on fire by a mob on Clarkson Street. In four days of rioting, mobs lynched at least a dozen African American men and killed scores more, destroyed draft offices, and burned and looted Black neighborhoods. 

The riots only ended when regiments fresh from the Battle of Gettysburg were brought to New York to bring order to the city. They constitute the “largest single incident of civil disorder” in the history of the United States. After the riots, approximately one-fifth of New York’s African American population left the city.

Explore this and other key moments of African American history on our Civil Rights and Social Justice Map.

East Village Building Blocks

Our East Village Building Blocks website, online since 2018, provides a deep look into the many building sites that help make up a diverse and historic community as well as an exciting array of tours. One of those tours presents a narrative of the history of African Americans in this neighborhood, a history that started with the first settlements here in the mid-17th century. Since then, there have been numerous locations building upon that history, from the Cooper Union, where Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass gave historic speeches, and the site of the the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church, where Elizabeth Jennings Graham was headed before being asked to give up her seat on a streetcar in 1854. 

Charlie “Bird” Parker

In the 20th century, the East Village grew into a go-to neighborhood to find the latest in jazz and blues. Topping our charts (the first stop on our tour) is the home of alto saxophonist and jazz composer Charlie “Bird” Parker, located at 151 Avenue B, where Parker lived from 1950 to 1954, a year before his death. Few musicians have left as lasting a mark on American music as Bird, who with Dizzy Gillespie launched the then-new jazz style of be-bop in the 1940s. He achieved international fame in his time on Avenue B, recording prolifically with groups both large and small, as well as Latin big bands to string sections. 

The East Village was also home to other noteworthy musical legends, including Lead Belly and Randy Weston, both of whom are also featured on the tour.

South of Union Square Tour

Our set of South of Union Square Maps and Tours, which emphasizes our campaign to make this neighborhood a historic district, likewise features an African American history tour. The journey starts at almost the northern end of the proposed district at 80 Fifth Avenue, one-time home of the International Workers Order, an organization that fought relentlessly for racial equality, interracial solidarity, and other progressive principles from 1930 to 1954; the IWO also organized the Harlem Suitcase Theater, whose debut production, Don’t You Want to be Free?, was written by Langston Hughes. Further downtown is the Hotel Albert at 69 University Place, where the University Book Shop — renowned for its extensive selection of books by Black authors and on the subjects of Black Studies, Caribbean Studies, and African Studies — was established in 1932.

One of the most prominent sites on the tour is 70 Fifth Avenue, home to essential civil rights–focused institutions like the NAACP, the oldest and largest national African-American civil rights organization. From 1914 until the mid-1920s, the NAACP was headquartered at 70 Fifth Avenue, where it led notable campaigns for civil rights, including: opposing President Wilson’s order of segregation on the federal workforce; protesting the film The Birth of a Nation for its disgraceful portrayal of African Americans and glorification of the Ku Klux Klan; demanding equal treatment for Black soldiers in World War and for Black attorneys in wanting to join the American Bar Association; and securing rulings in the Supreme Court against laws that disenfranchised African American voters, among many others.

The NAACP flag stating “A man was lynched yesterday” at 69 Fifth Avenue, circa 1936

The NAACP also called for federal anti-lynching legislation to stem the rising tide of race-based violence in the country. As part of this effort, the organization in 1920 started flying a flag outside their office windows reading “A man was lynched yesterday” following a lynching, highlighting the atrocity taking place in our nation. The flag became a key symbol of the group, also flying at its next headquarters location (69 Fifth Avenue) in 1936.

During the same period, 70 Fifth Avenue housed The Crisis Magazine, the oldest Black-oriented magazine in the world. Founded by W.E.B Du Bois, it grew into a vital voice in the civil rights movement, showcasing noteworthy writing and art for over a century, eventually becoming the NAACP’s official publication. W.E.B. DuBois and Augustus Granville Dill’s publishing house, which printed The Brownies’ Book, the first magazine published for African American children, operated out of 70 Fifth Avenue as well, and featured work by now noteworthy authors including Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Countee Cullen. No. 70 Fifth was named a landmark in 2021 following a campaign led by Village Preservation, and further honored with a historic plaque from us in 2022.

Take our full tour — and support our efforts to create a historic district South of Union Square — here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *