“When you are planning the museum, I beg of you, please, please don’t forget them [Black New Yorkers]. Their spirits walk those halls, and their bones lay in the earth there, and we remember them.” –Gina Manuel, descendant of George Downing, 19th Century Black Restauranteur
In 1988, the Tenement Museum co-founders received these words in a letter from Gina Manuel. This letter asked the Tenement Museum to honor and remember the Black New Yorkers who made the Lower East Side their home.
Early Tenement Museum efforts recognized that Black history was part of the neighborhood’s history. However, our first program about Black New Yorkers relied upon historical fiction based on composites to present the lives of a Black family. In our 32-year history as a museum, we have never officially interpreted the stories of real Black Lower East Siders, despite these histories being intertwined with the stories of immigrants and migrants on the Lower East Side.
Museums hold power in interpreting the past. Who is remembered, and by whom? Whose stories do we hear, and whose stories are erased or forgotten? The Tenement Museum plays a role in both preservation and erasure on the Lower East Side, and our responsibility as a cultural institution is to remember and listen to the stories of Black Lower East Siders. Our responsibility is to tell fuller stories of the neighborhood’s history.
This walking tour, in partnership with the African Burial Ground National Monument of the National Park Service Manhattan Sites, launching in Spring 2021, will visit sites of Black and African American history in the Lower East Side and Lower Manhattan. We’ll explore histories spanning 400 years of Black experiences in New York, from the 1640s through our current moment.
We’re working on this project for every Black student who came to the Museum and didn’t see themselves reflected in our stories, for every visitor who ever asked us about Black history in the neighborhood.
If you’re interested in learning more about the resources to develop Reclaiming Black Spaces, click below.
The nine stops on this walking tour will explore Black identity formation, community development, Black placemaking, and reimagining Black futures through stories of Black Lower East Siders that span centuries. We invite you, our public, into this process with us, and are eager to share these stories with you.
Explore Some Stops
‘Land of the Blacks’ and Sebastiaen de Britto
Wesley Williams Integrates Engine 55
African Burial Ground National Monument