February is Black History Month and just as NYC has everything anyone could want for entertainment and culture, it is also home to some extraordinary historical sites and landmarks. Check out our list of Black History sites in NYC to explore this month.
Surrounded by Crown Heights, Bed-Stuy, and Brownsville in Brooklyn, Weeksville was one of the largest free Black communities in the United States before the Civil War. The area is named for John Weeks, who purchased the property in 1838 with other Black investors. The community quickly grew and by 1850, had roughly 500 residents. Weeksville had its own businesses, schools, and churches. The area’s surviving homes–the Hunterfly Houses–were restored and the Weeksville Heritage Center was established to commemorate this historic community.
The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture is “devoted to the research, preservation, and exhibition of materials focused on African American, African Diaspora, and African experiences.” The center is named after Puerto Rican educator and bibliophile Arturo Alfonso Schomburg. Schomburg’s vast collection of 5,000 books, manuscripts and more were used to establish the center in 1926. Today the center is part of the New York Public Library system and hosts programs and exhibitions year round.
Just a few blocks from City Hall in Manhattan is the African Burial Ground National Monument. The site has two components: the memorial and visitor center around the corner at 290 Broadway. In 1991 human skeletal remains were found during the construction of a federal office tower at 290 Broadway. They found more than 15,000 remains of both free and enslaved Africans that lived in colonial New York. The area is said to be the nation’s largest burial ground rediscovered in the United States.
Before Central Park was Central Park, or Manhattan resembled anything like the city today, New York City was home to the Lenape. But during the 1840s, the area along West 82nd Street to West 89th Street (near the West 85th Street entrance) was a thriving African American community called Seneca Village. Many residents were property owners, with most living in two-story homes.
In 1853 the city acquired the land through eminent domain, and while landowners were compensated, their property was undervalued. By 1857 all residents were forced to leave to make room for the park. In 2019 the Central Park Conservancy installed temporary signage marking this historical spot, but visitors can also sign up for one of the Conservancy’s Seneca tours.
The Apollo Theater is a mecca for Black artistry. From jazz to soul, the theater has seen performances from legends like Billie Holiday, Ella Fitgerald, James Brown, Luther Vandross, Lauren Hill and more. Despite its reputation for showcasing the best in African American talent, when the Apollo first opened in 1914, it was a White-only establishment. The venue was originally a burlesque club, but that ended in 1933 after then Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s anti-burlesque campaign. The owners then pivoted to marketing to Harlem’s growing African American community, changing the format to variety shows and the rest is history. It is now one of the top performance venues in the world.
Known officially as the St. Nicholas Historic District, Stivers’ Row was named for its upwardly mobile residents which included musicians, artists, and intellectuals. Despite only taking up the two blocks of West 138th Street and West 139th Street between Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard and Malcolm X Boulevard, Strivers’ Row is rich in history.
Formerly a White-only development called the King Model Houses, by 1919 the area became the neighborhood of choice for the African American upper echelon. Famous residents included composer Will Marion Cook, Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr, Eubie Blake, and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. In later years the district was home to Tupac and Bob Dylan. A place just as famous for its unique architecture, some remnants of old signage call upon visitors to “walk your horses.” Free walking tours are a great way to see this community up close.
Poet and novelist Langston Hughes was an integral part of the Harlem Renaissance, and as such he called the neighborhood home. Located at 20 E. 127th St., the brownstone he lived in is now managed by the I, Too, Arts Collective.
From 1983 to 1988, renowned artist Basquiat lived and worked in a NoHo studio space at 57 Great Jones St. The building was owned by his friend and mentor Andy Warhol. If it weren’t for the small plaque out front, the graffiti covered space would be easy to miss.
The jazz great purchased this Corona, Queens home in 1943, and it has been preserved as a museum. The home was left nearly exactly how it was when Armstrong lived there with his family, giving visitors an intimate look at his life.
Located in Southeast Queens, Addisleigh Park was a suburban enclave for NYC’s well-to-do and famous African American residents. Jackie Robinson, Ella Fitzgerald, and Miles Davis all called this tiny subsection of St. Albans home. While there is no museum like Louis Armstrong’s home, the area is a great place to visit and browse the stately single family homes. The Queens Historical Society is offering virtual tours this month. Register with Eventbrite to attend.
Lewis H. Latimer was an African-American inventor and son of fugitive slaves. His work played a substantial role in the creation of the telephone, and he invented the carbon filament, which at the time was a major improvement in the production of incandescent light bulbs. His Queen Anne-style home is now a museum offering numerous exhibits and programs.