Why is the Tenement Museum Telling Black History?

December 3, 2021


Over the last several months, we’ve been thrilled to share with the public that in late 2022 we’ll be adding a new exhibit to one of our two historic tenement buildings, telling the story of Joseph and Rachel Moore, an actual Black family who lived in Lower Manhattan in the mid-19th century. 

Our mission has always been to tell as many stories of tenement residents as possible. This new story won’t be replacing any of our other tours, and all our current exhibits, about the stories of Jewish, Italian, German, Irish, Puerto Rican, and Chinese New Yorkers will remain as we expand to include the story of Joseph and Rachel Moore. We’ll continue sharing the fullness of Irish American stories through the lives of Joseph and Bridget Moore, Irish immigrants who experienced the possibilities and struggles of life in New York.

As with so many of our exhibits, the idea for our new tour emerged from a particular document, the 1869 city directory, that listed the Irish Joseph Moore at 97 Orchard Street, right next to a Joseph Moore of 17 Laurens Street, who is listed with a racial designation that showed he was a Black New Yorker. They are both waiters, with the same name, living blocks apart in Lower Manhattan. The presence of these two men together on this document led to questions from visitors and conversations on tours about how their experiences as Irish and Black New Yorkers would be connected. Working-class Black New Yorkers’ and Irish immigrants’ lives were constantly overlapping in the 19th Century as they often lived in the same neighborhoods. They formed communities and households, shared streets and buildings, and experienced joys and tensions. By learning about their experiences, we’ll explore how their stories help us understand the importance of the 1860s, and how their stories help us understand the present.

The Museum  will be very explicit in our telling that Joseph and Rachel Moore did not live at 97 Orchard Street, and we will use that as a point of departure to explain why, historically, it was difficult for Black New Yorkers to move out of the 8th Ward, where Joseph and Rachel lived, to the 10th Ward, where Joseph and Bridget lived.

The stories of real people are complicated, just like history is, and by researching and sharing these histories in the same museum, we enhance both stories, and will be telling a fuller, more complete history of the city and country.

To learn more about our new exhibit, check out this article in the New York Times, or listen to us on NPR’s Here & Now.