For years, African Americans visiting New York made sure to take a trip to the epicenter of the city's black history — Harlem. But in the past decade, as the uptown community has undergone a dramatic revitalization, New York's best-kept secret has exploded in popularity. Now tourists from around the world visit the sites of the original 1920s Renaissance, attend Sunday church services, cheer and jeer at the Apollo Theater and pull up to plates of soul food at Sylvia's Restaurant.
But black New York is much more than just Harlem. The Big Apple has a rich heritage of African-American history — if you know where to find it.
So avoid the crowds and check out what else New York has to offer us:
Weeksville Heritage Center
1698 Bergen St., Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn
You know Bedford-Stuyvesant, aka Bed-Stuy, from Spike Lee's movies Do the Right Thing and Crooklyn and as the setting of the TV show Everybody Hates Chris. Although, like Harlem, Bedford-Stuyvesant is rapidly morphing into a multicultural mecca, back in the day when hip-hop icons like Jay-Z, Mos Def and Notorious B.I.G. were growing up there, "Do or Die Bed-Stuy" was much rougher.
Lesser known is Bed-Stuy's past as a thriving haven for African Americans after the abolition of slavery in New York state in 1827. James Weeks, a freedman, purchased land in what is now Bed-Stuy in 1838. He established Weeksville, a village of free African Americans — laborers, laundresses, craftsmen, doctors, entrepreneurs and professionals. Weeksville sparkled throughout the second half of the 19th century, creating schools, an orphanage, an elderly home, churches, benevolent associations and newspapers.
"A lot of free black communities were started by white people, like Quakers," says Jennifer Scott, vice director and director of research at the Weeksville Heritage Center. "But Weeksville was started by black people for black people. It's a story of victory."
Dr. Susan McKinney-Steward, the first black female physician in New York and the third in the country, was born in Weeksville in 1847. By 1850 the community of 500 residents had the highest rate of property owners of any free black community in the United States.
Weeksville began to wane in the late 1880s, when a population shift changed the demographic mix of the surrounding area. "After the Brooklyn Bridge was built in 1883, the neighborhood became more integrated with European immigrants," explains Scott. "Weeksville kind of phased out."
The community was "rediscovered" by community activists in 1968, and in 2005 the Weeksville Heritage Center restored four houses and opened them to the public. You can now tour the "Hunterfly Road Historic Houses," which feature furnishings, clothing, artifacts and photographs dating back to the 1800s. One of the homes was painstakingly restored and furnished thanks to oral histories offered by members of the Williams family, who lived there for 40 years.
And next year, the center is scheduled to launch a new, 19,000-square-foot education and art center, which will feature a media lab, a research institute and a performance space and exhibition gallery. The center currently hosts concerts, family workshops and a farmers market on summer weekends.
For more information or to take a tour, go to weeksvillesociety.org. It's best to call or email before you go.
The African Burial Ground National Monument and Visitor Center
290 Broadway, at Duane Street in lower Manhattan
Most people think of slavery as a Southern institution. They have no idea that the slave trade flourished in New York for 200 years. New York state abolished slavery in 1827, one of the last Northern states to do so.
During construction of a government office building near City Hall, workers discovered human graves about 24 feet belowground. Over the next two years, 419 skeletal remains were removed from what was a 6.6-acre "Negro Burial Ground." It took a loud and sustained protest to halt the excavation and insist that the remains be properly and respectfully cared for. But eventually, the bones and artifacts were transferred to Howard University in 1992 for examination and analysis.
Ten years later, the remains were put in hand-carved coffins from Ghana and brought back to New York City in a six-day procession — at once lively and solemn — culminating in a ceremony to honor the way an estimated 15,000 slaves lived, worked and died in New York.
In 2007 the African Burial Ground National Monument opened to the public. Thousands of visitors come to the memorial — seven raised mounds containing human remains and artifacts — to pay tribute to our dead. Though New York law prohibited slaves from gathering in groups of 12 or more or holding funerals after sunset, historians believe that the dead were buried with dignity and respect according to African traditions.
Last year the National Park Service opened the $4.4 million African Burial Ground Visitor Center, near where the remains were reinterred — and it is a must-visit site.
Lovingly and passionately created, the multimedia displays breathe life into New York's slave past. A photographic mosaic of the actual skeletal remains speaks to the care and science evident in the project, though it is also shocking to see that half of the skeletons are children. An introductory film uses interviews and dramatic re-enactments to tell the story of how slaves lived, buried their dead and contributed to the foundation of New York. The film and exhibition also chronicle the discovery of the burial ground and more recent activism that kept an office building from being constructed on top of our ancestors.
Along with visiting the memorial and Center, make time for an African-American history tour of lower Manhattan offered by Cyrus Forman, a park ranger and very enthusiastic and knowledgeable historian. Everything mentioned, including the tour, is free. For more information: 212-637-2019; nps.gov/afbg.
Located in the New York Harbor
From the early 1890s to 1954, more than 12 million immigrants sailed into the New York Harbor — under the shadow of the Statue of Liberty — and into Ellis Island, the country's major inspection station.
In 1990 the Ellis Island Immigration Museum was opened and quickly became a major New York tourist attraction. For many of the museum's 2 million visitors, the highlight is searching the computerized passenger records to find information about their ancestors.
Ellis Island has never been a magnet for African-American tourists. Most of us figure that our ancestors came over on another kind of boat, so why bother? But actually, Ellis Island has a surprising amount to offer African-American visitors. Artifacts, clothing and photographs honor Caribbean immigrants like Marcus Garvey, who played a major role in the Harlem Renaissance. Cicely Tyson and Colin Powell both had family who passed through Ellis Island.
"Three hundred thousand Caribbean immigrants came through Ellis Island, and their story is told here," says Peg Zitko, vice president of public affairs for the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation. "Their records are also in our database."
In September the center will launch the first phase of a renovation that will extend its focus beyond just immigrants who came through the island to provide a broader look at immigration in America. The first phase will explore immigration before the opening of Ellis Island in 1892 and include an examination of "forced immigration," aka slavery. In 2013 the museum will officially change its name to Ellis Island: The National Museum of Immigration and launch its second phase, which will look at immigration after the '50s.
"Contemporary immigration may be the most interesting part of the story," says Zitko. "Everyone will be represented — Asia, South America and so on, and certainly Africa."
According to the latest census figures, more than 8 percent of American blacks are now foreign-born, compared with 1 percent in 1960. Of those, 34 percent emigrated from Africa, compared with 1 percent in 1960.
The grand opening of the new Ellis Island two years from now, adds Zitko, "will represent the building of this nation's history."
The ferry to Ellis Island departs from Battery Park at the bottom tip of Manhattan every 20 minutes beginning at 8:30 a.m. Tickets cost $13 for adults, $10 for seniors over 62, $5 for children 4 to 12. To beat the crowds, it's best to order tickets in advance online at statuecruises.com.
Before Ellis Island, the ferry stops at Liberty Island, home of Lady Liberty. You can get off the ferry and walk around the pedestal of the statue for no extra charge. (If you choose not to disembark, the boat passes close enough to the Statue of Liberty to get a decent snapshot.) If you'd like to get off and catch the view of New York from the crown, you'll need to pay an additional $3 per ticket.
Actually, the Statue of Liberty also has special significance to black Americans. For years, rumors circulated that the original model for Lady Liberty was a black woman, but the design was changed to appease white Americans who would not accept an African-American Liberty.
After increasing pressure, the National Parks Service investigated the claims and found that the statue's sculptor, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, did in fact use drawings of Egyptian women at the very earliest stages of designing Lady Liberty. There is no evidence, however, that Bartholdi's design was changed because of racially motivated indignation. So go ahead and think of her as a "sister."
54 Pearl St., at the lower tip of Manhattan
Fraunces Tavern, now a museum bar and restaurant located in lower Manhattan, is one of the oldest and most storied buildings in New York City. Before the Revolutionary War, it served as a meeting place for the Sons of Liberty, the underground organization formed to protest taxation without representation. Members included Samuel Adams, Paul Revere and John Hancock. Later, in 1783, when George Washington decided to leave the military, he said goodbye to his officers at Fraunces Tavern.
What does this have to do with us? The tavern was owned and operated by Samuel Fraunces, who was from the French West Indies. Though the museum at the tavern has little discussion of Fraunces' racial identity — the 1790 census lists him as free and white, and in his portrait he looks white or, at best, extremely light-skinned — the man was known as Black Sam.
In Black Manhattan, the classic 1930 historical chronicle of early African-American life in New York City, author James Weldon Johnson describes Fraunces as a colored man who bought the tavern in 1762. "He was well known and well liked by the most prominent New York Citizens of the day," wrote Johnson. According to the book, when Washington became president in 1789, he made Fraunces his steward in what was then the White House in New York City. He remained an employee of Washington's in New York and Philadelphia until 1796.
The museum, now owned by the Sons of the Revolution in the State of New York, has little information about Fraunces' African heritage. It's more an homage to George Washington. Go if you're a Revolutionary War buff.
The museum is open Monday to Saturday, 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. Closed Sunday. Admission is $10 general, $5 for seniors and children under 18, and free to children 5 and under.
Better bet: Honor Black Sam's memory next door at the Fraunces Tavern Restaurant, run by the Porterhouse Brewing Company. The atmosphere is quaint and rustic, and the food isn't bad — and reasonably priced for New York City. For more information: 212-968-1776; frauncestavern.com/.
Check out photos of these places at our gallery "New York's Black History."
Linda Villarosa is the director of the journalism program at the City College of New York and is contributing to a documentary about HIV/AIDS in black America for PBS.