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Black American History Revealed at Endangered House on West 13th Street

Village Preservation has been actively campaigning to designate 50 West 13th Street as an individual landmark since 2020, when it was still home to the 13th Street Repertory Company. Unfortunately, the theater had to let go of their lease in 2022, and as a result, the fate of the building is now uncertain, making the need for landmark protections all the more urgent.

1940s tax photograph for 50 West 13th Street

The c. 1846-47 Greek Revival style row house, a rare surviving specimen of early 19th-century architecture in this area of Greenwich Village, is culturally significant as part of the Off-Off Broadway and experimental theater movements of the 1950s onward. It is also hugely significant to New York City’s African American history — about a century prior, it was the home of abolitionist and prominent African American businessman Jacob Day (c. 1817-1884) for nearly 30 years.

No. 50 West 13th Street in 2020

In researching Day’s household, we began to piece together clues indicating that he regularly rented out rooms to Black community members, likely to people in need who were connected to the causes he believed in, including congregants of Abyssinian Baptist Church, with which he was deeply involved as its treasurer. The church also had strong ties to the Underground Railroad, and according to local lore, this house and its back house (which dates to at least 1853) may have been used as part of the Underground Railroad during Day’s years there.

One of the most significant discoveries we’ve made during the course of this research so far is that Sarah Smith Tompkins Garnet, a prominent leader in the movements for abolitionism, women’s suffrage, and advances in education, lived in the building for close to a decade. We have uncovered bountiful evidence confirming that she was in residence there as part of Day’s household for at least nine years, from 1866 to 1874, during a particularly important period of her life and career. Sarah Tompkins is cross-listed during those years in two different historical records: the New York volumes of the U.S. City Directory and the Manuals of the Board of Education of the City and County of New York.

On April 29, 1863, Sarah Tompkins (as she was then known, using the surname of her first husband, who had recently passed) became one of the first Black women to become a principal in the New York City Public School system. She was a teacher and then principal at (Former) Colored School No. 4 at 128 West 17th Street, which was recently designated an individual landmark by the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), in part, due to the importance of Tompkins’ involvement with the school.

The Board of Education Manuals and City Directories list Sarah Tompkins’ place of residence as 64 West 13th Street, which was the original street number for No. 50, from 1866 to 1868. By 1870, the building number was updated, and beginning that year, she is listed as a resident of 50 West 13th Street. She continues to be listed as such in the Board of Education Manuals through 1874, and we know that Sarah Tompkins married her second husband, the abolitionist, minister, educator, and orator Henry Highland Garnet in 1875. They subsequently moved to MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village. Thus we can establish with certainty that Sarah Tompkins lived at 50 West 13th Street, as part of Jacob Day’s household, for at least nine years, from 1866 to 1874, during a pivotal time in her career when she was a young principal at Colored School No. 4, and raising her children as a single mother following the death of her first husband.

Excerpt of Board of Education Manual from 1874, listing Sarah J.S. Tompkins’ address as 50 West 13th Street.

That Sarah Tompkins was a part of Jacob Day’s household for so many years, during which time she began to also be involved in suffragist and abolitionist activities, aligns with other records indicating the extent to which Day was invested in helping his community. As we continue to research the history of this building, we are sure to find record of even more prominent figures who lived here or were associated with Day and his contemporaries. It is high time that 50 West 13th Street be considered for landmark status for both its architectural and cultural significance.

Click here to call upon the Mayor, LPC, and Council Member Carlina Rivera to support landmark designation of this endangered site.

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