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A Vibrant Tapestry: African American History in Our Neighborhoods

Our neighborhoods are renowned for their rich cultural history and storied past. While often associated with artistic bohemia and progressive movements, our streets hold a lesser-known narrative that significantly shaped the African American experience in America. From the Harlem Renaissance to the Civil Rights Movement, Greenwich Village, the East Village, NoHo, and the area South of Union Square served as a beacon of hope, resilience, and cultural exchange for African Americans throughout history.

Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit” for the first time at Cafe Society; photo via Library of Congress

The Harlem Renaissance, a pivotal cultural movement of the early 20th century, saw the flourishing of African American art, literature, and music. However, our neighborhoods also played a vitally important role as a haven for African American intellectuals, artists, and activists seeking refuge from the racial segregation rampant in other parts of the city. Writers like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston found inspiration and camaraderie in the diverse community of our neighborhoods, contributing to the vibrant cultural landscape that defined the era. Their writings often appeared in The Crisis Magazine, a publication of the NAACP, whose home was located in the area South of Union Square.

70 Fifth Avenue, home to the NAACP from 1914 until the mid-1920s. The Crisis Magazine was published here.
Photo by Dylan Chandler

As the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum in the mid-20th century, our neighborhoods emerged as a crucible for activism and social change and became a hub for civil rights organizations, grassroots movements, and spirited debates on racial equality. Legendary figures such as James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, and Nina Simone frequented Village coffeehouses and gathering spots, using their voices and platforms to challenge systemic injustice and advocate for civil rights.

James Baldwin

One of the most iconic landmarks of African American history in Greenwich Village is the historic Stonewall Inn. In 1969, this nondescript bar became the epicenter of the LGBTQ+ rights movement following a series of protests sparked by police raids. Among the courageous activists who fought back against oppression were Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, two transgender women of color whose contributions are celebrated worldwide today. The Stonewall uprising not only catalyzed the gay liberation movement but also fostered solidarity among marginalized communities, including African Americans.

Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera photo courtesy of the New York Public Library

Despite facing systemic racism and discrimination, African Americans persevered, leaving an indelible mark on the cultural fabric of our neighborhoods. From jazz clubs to art galleries, their influence can be felt in every corner of our neighborhoods. Today, as we reflect on African American history, we honor the resilience, creativity, and unwavering spirit of those who paved the way for progress and social justice.

Our neighborhoods stand as a testament to the enduring legacy of African Americans in shaping the cultural landscape of New York City and beyond. By acknowledging and preserving their contributions, we not only celebrate diversity but also ensure that their stories continue to inspire future generations.

Village Preservation has a wealth of resources connected to African American history. Our expanded Civil Rights and Social Justice Map highlights more than 200 sites in Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo connected to significant people, events, and movements in civil rights history. This includes more than four dozen connected to African American civil rights, from the first free Black settlement in North America to the sites of the deadly 1863 Draft Riots.

Our Greenwich Village Historic District Map + Tours offers an African American tour with 25 sites in the Greenwich Village Historic District connected to significant African American figures, from some of the first black churches in New York to the home of author Richard Wright.

First Black church in New York City, Mother A.M.E.Zion, at West 10th Street and Bleecker (demolished)

Village Preservation is fighting to landmark and protect several endangered sites connected to African American history in our neighborhood. This includes:

50 West 13th Street, built in 1846, is the former home of the 13th Street Repertory Theatre. In the 19th century, it was also home to leading suffragist, educator, and civil rights leader, Sarah Smith Garnet, as well as prominent African American businessman Jacob Day, who helped lead fights against slavery and for equal voting and civil rights for African Americans. The building has been emptied and is dilapidated, and the new owner’s plans are unclear.

285-287 East 3rd Street, a pair of Greek Revival houses that served as home for decades to poet and writer Steve Cannon (1935-2019), called “the keeper of the multicultural flame and flavor of downtown Bohemia” and his “Gathering of the tribes” cultural center.

Our proposed South of Union Square Historic District contains dozens of unprotected sites connected to African American history, from the studio where some of the first integrated musical recordings were ever made, to the site where The Autobiography of Malcolm X was published, to the home of the National Negro Congress. New York State has recognized the historic significance of these site, but so far the City has not, leaving them vulnerable to demolition.

You can help our efforts by clicking here to tell City and local elected officials to support landmark designation of these critical black history sites.

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