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Abolitionist History in Greenwich Village

On January 1st, 1863 the Emancipation proclamation went into effect, and all enslaved people in Confederate States were declared legally free. News of this was spread through plantations across the Confederacy by Union Soldiers, many of whom were Black. These soldiers read aloud small copies of the emancipation proclamation, informing enslaved people of their freedom. However, this news did not reach the Westernmost part of Texas until June 19th, 1865, when Union troops arrived in Galveston Texas, securing the Freedom of more than 250,000 Black people who were still enslaved in the state — the last enslaved people in the United States to be freed as a result of the Emancipation Proclamation (some enslaved people in states which never seceded were not officially freed until the passage of the 13th Amendment in December of 1865). June 19th soon became known as “Juneteenth” by the recently freed people in the state. 

In honor of this historic milestone, its timely to explore some of the sites in our neighborhood that hold strong ties to the abolitionist movement. From the mid to late 19th century, parts of what is now the South Village was the center of the largest Black community in New York City at the time, known as “Little Africa.” The community was centered around Minetta Lane, Minetta Street and Minetta Place, and Black-owned businesses and churches could be seen throughout the area. 

According to city directories, Henry Highland Garnet, the Black abolitionist, minister, educator and orator lived at several different addresses within the Village: 183 Bleecker Street from 1868 to at least 1869; and 185 Bleecker Street, from 1870 and 1873, in a building which was also home to the Freedman’s Bank. The Freedman’s Bank was originally founded in 1865 by the US Congress in order to aid recently freed men in their transition from slavery to freedom. The Bank, and Garnet’s residence, was located in a pair of 19th century row houses which were later demolished and replaced by a New Law tenement in the early 20th century. Garnet later resided at 102 West 3rd Street (formerly Amity Street) from 1873 to 1879. Later he moved to 175 MacDougal Street, where he remained from 1879 until shortly before his death. 

Garnet, who was originally born into slavery in Maryland in 1815, made many notable contributions to the abolitionist movement. In New York, Garnet was the leader of the Shiloh Presbyterian Church (then located at Prince and Lafayette Streets, later at 140 Sixth Avenue, which was then around 11th Street; the church’s present-day incarnation is located in Harlem). The church boasted a long tradition of radical black leadership, and Garnet, along with other black clergymen, dispensed aid to those in need following violent attacks like the Draft Riots, and collaborated with local newspapers to convey to white and black New Yorkers a desire to move forward living in an atmosphere of fairness.  From its founding, the Shiloh Church was part of the Underground Railroad, and under Garnet’s leadership, the Shiloh congregation found new ways to fight slavery. He called for boycotts of sugar, cotton, and rice because they were products of slave labor. 

During the final weeks of the Civil War, on February 12, 1865, Garnet became the first African-American to address the U.S. House of Representatives when he delivered a sermon commemorating the victories of the Union army and the deliverance of the nation from slavery.

In 1875, Garnet married Sarah Smith Tompkins, who was a notable suffragist and the first Black woman to be a principal of a New York City Public School. While Sarah Smith Tompkins (commonly known by the name Sarah J. S. Tompkins Garnet), lived with Henry Highland Garnet on MacDougal Street following their marriage, her connections to the area date back to nearly a decade earlier, to 1866, when Board of Education Records and City Directories list her as living at 50 West 13th Street, which was then numbered as 64 West 13th Street.

50 West 13th Street, 2020

This building was at the time owned and occupied by Jacob Day, one of New York’s wealthiest and most successful 19th century African American businessmen and real estate owners. Day was also a advocate for the abolition of slavery, African American civil rights, particularly voting rights, and a prominent supporter of key African American institutions including the Abyssinian Baptist Church, which was located nearby at 166 Waverly Place. This congregation dates back to 1808, when a handful of free Blacks withdrew from the First Baptist Church in New York in protest of the practice of segregating blacks in what was called a “slave loft.”

Abyssinian Baptist Church on Waverly Place, 1907 Image from the Library of Congress

The church eventually gained a reputation as being one of the richest Black churches in the city, and moved to their home on Waverly Place in 1856. Despite changes in leadership and disagreements over whether the church should be moved to Harlem, the congregation remained strong, and by 1900 had over 1,0000 members. The church also contributed to a number of charitable activities, including aid to members in need and contributions to city missions. The two buildings that currently stand on the site, 160-162 and 164-166 Waverly Place, were built in 1905 and 1907, which was around the time many traces of Little Africa began to disappear from the area and African-Americans moved to the Tenderloin in the West 20s and 30s, San Juan Hill in the West 60s, and eventually Harlem.

Much of this information comes from our Civil Rights and Social Justice map. Click here to learn more about these locations, and the many other sites with significant ties to the African-American, LGBTQ +, Women’s Hispanic and Asian-American History.

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