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Reclaiming history, renaming the world

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This story was originally published at Prism.

Close by the intersection of Allen and Rivington Streets in lower Manhattan, our walking tour guide, Laura, asked us to envision ourselves in this same spot, except surrounded by hundreds of trees, grass grazing our ankles, as we would have been in the mid-17th century. Back then, this area—which includes current day Little Italy, Chinatown, and Greenwich Village—would have been farmland and home to “The Land of the Blacks,” so named after enslaved Africans who successfully petitioned the Dutch West India Company for 30 land grants. Their negotiations won them “partial freedom,” which included increased rights and legal status and a lifetime of precarity—they could be called back to labor at any time, and their children remained enslaved. Across from where we stood, Laura pointed out 143 Allen Street, a single-family rowhouse without any formal historical marker that was a part of the original settlement and the first stop in the Tenement Museum’s newest walking tour, Reclaiming Black Spaces.

Projects like the museum-run Reclaiming Black Spaces and Brooklyn-based Slavers of New York, an independent sticker campaign highlighting how historic New York families were involved in the slave trade, are working to reconfigure a cityscape that’s been manipulated to reflect a narrow segment of history, one that erases the stories of Black communities and their role in shaping the city’s growth and iconic status. These efforts to educate the public are critical to preserving the full scope of New York’s history. When certain stories aren’t uplifted and placed into the public consciousness, it can be easy to assume they never existed. And while there are many such stories about New York’s Black communities, perhaps the most important is the obscured history of how the city benefited from and perpetuated slavery, providing the foundation for its role as the world's financial capital.

“The deep roots of Black communities and Black New Yorkers within lower Manhattan is so tied to the history of slavery, and that history is so often erased from the stories of northern cities,” said Kat Lloyd, the museum’s director of programs and interpretation.

For more than three decades, the Tenement Museum documented the history of the Lower East Side through two historic sites at 97 and 103 Orchard Street and multiple walking tours, providing a glimpse into the lives and stories of European American immigrants, and more recently, Chinese American and Puerto Rican immigrants. But while there had been an early plan to include stories of a Black family living in the tenements at 97 Orchard Street, records of a Black family living in those homes never emerged, and the plan was slowly whittled away. Outside of a theatre play and a self-guided walking tour developed in the 1990s, there hadn’t been any museum programming dedicated to the lives of Black Lower East Side residents.

Visitors to the museum noticed that information gap, often inquiring where Black communities had historically been located and how they fit into the fabric of the neighborhood, Lloyd said. To flesh out answers to those questions, the museum began developing Reclaiming Black Spaces in 2018. Its launch in 2021 has turned out to be particularly timely. Lloyd noted how the tour’s mission to resurface previously erased and ignored how Black........

© Daily Kos

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