The Legacy of NYC’s Black History Can Be Found Everywhere
Seneca Village in what’s now known as Central Park is just one of many historic sites across the five boroughs.
From descendents of enslaved Africans who established New York City’s first Black settlement ("Land of the Blacks”) during the 17th century, to the Great Migration and growing communities of immigrants from the Caribbean and continental Africa, Black history in New York City coincides with the history of the city itself.
Currently, a diverse populace (from Black American and Trinidadian to West African, et al.) of 2 million Black residents make up 23.4% of the city’s population, and express their various cultures through music, art, dance, and food across the five boroughs. And to honor the journeys of past generations, we’ve compiled a list of 15 local places to learn about Black history.
From historic houses and landmarks showcasing individuals and events that have shaped the city, here’s where you can celebrate the undeniable impact of Black culture in New York City all year round, and be sure to dine at these stellar Black-owned restaurants between visits.
The area of West 82nd to West 89th Street in what’s now known as Central Park was once the site of a thriving African American community. Founded by free Black people in 1825, Seneca Village’s population would eventually bloom to include churches, schools, and cemeteries. With the commissioning of Central Park, the community was forced out in 1857 after it was branded a “shantytown” and denigrated by the press. The residents disbanded without a trace and the village’s history was lost until excavations in the early to mid 2000s uncovered food waste, cutlery, and more artifacts. Currently, plaques commemorating the location can be found within Central Park, and The Met has an ongoing exhibit dedicated to the site titled, Before Yesterday We Could Fly: An Afrofuturist Period Room.
After growing up in New Orleans, one of the most popular African American jazz trumpeters of his day, Louis Armstrong and his Bronx native wife, Lucille, chose a home in Corona, Queens, as their residence. Today, the Louis Armstrong House is a National Historic Landmark that preserves the legacy of the artist and visitors can listen to trumpet recordings, audio clips of Louis’ voice, and view his Japanese-inspired garden. And this summer, the new Louis Armstrong Center is set to debut across the street, with a permanent exhibition, Here to Stay, 75-seat performance venue, and more.
Addisleigh Park in St. Albans, Queens, is a historic neighborhood once famous for its African American jazz musician residents like Ella Fitzgerald and John Coltrane, along with other luminaries like Lena Horne and Jackie Robinson. In the early 1940s, even with widespread Jim Crow laws that forbade them from living in neighborhoods with a majority white population, African American musicians and families began moving into this racially restrictive area. By 1948, the Supreme Court case of Shelley v. Kraemer ruled these racial restrictions as unconstitutional, and African Americans moved into the area seduced by its seclusion and space. Renamed in 2022 by the New York City Department of Parks & Recreations as Archie Spigner Park, a Musician’s Oval was unveiled to honor the numerous Black jazz celebrities who once called Addisleigh Park home.
Near the Jacob Javits Federal Building on Broadway and Reade lies the remains of nearly 15,000 enslaved and free Africans unearthed in 1991 during building construction. In the 1620s, the Dutch introduced slavery to New Amsterdam (now New York City) and Africans were interred separately on the outskirts of the city, from Dutch colonial era through the British takeover in 1664. The burial ground closed in 1794 with the expansion of the city northwards. This five-acre public space is now a National Historic Landmark stretching from Foley Park to City Hall Park, with a granite sculpture memorializing the Middle Passage of Africans to the New World.
Stretching several blocks from East 96th to East 125th Street towards the East River, this area was home to predominantly German and Italian immigrants until after World War II, when Puerto Rican, Dominican Republic, and Haitian immigrants subsequently arrived. Also known as Spanish Harlem, El Barrio boasts diversity in the form of murals, restaurants, gardens, and community centers, depicting the rich tapestry of Afro Latin, Latinx, and Caribbean heritage. Virtual tours of the neighborhood are available from El Museo del Barrio, a historic museum showcasing Latinx and Caribbean art.
Born in 1848 to parents who were fugitive enslaved people, Lewis H. Latimer served in the Union Navy during the Civil War. He was gifted with engineering abilities and worked for the United States Electric Light Company where in 1879, he patented improvements to the incandescent lighting system that would ultimately be used around the world. The self-taught inventor who was gifted in art and poetry also worked under Alexander Graham Bell and for Thomas Edison as chief engineer. Latimer lived in this home until his passing in 1928. In 1988, the landmarked home was moved to its present location to avoid demolition. Currently, the Lewis H. Latimer House is a cultural institution offering educational programs in science, art, poetry, and is dedicated to innovators of color who have contributed inventions to American life.
Located within Prospect-Lefferts Gardens and its main avenues of Flatbush, Church, and Nostrand, Little Caribbean in Brooklyn has the largest and most diverse diaspora of Caribbeans outside the Islands. With plenty of local restaurants, shops, and small businesses, in 2017, Shelley Worrell of caribBEING—an enterprise highlighting Caribbean culture, community, and commerce—led the efforts to designate the community with this special moniker. In November 2021, the MTA also named the Newkirk Avenue Station as “Little Haiti,” recognizing the contributions of the Haitian community as it stands as the biggest immigrant group in Flatbush.
In 1711, a municipal market auctioning enslaved Africans as laborers was established in Downtown Manhattan, in what is now the Wall Street area between Pearl Street and Water Street. The market also traded corn and grains that were a staple in the colonial-era diet and it continued to function until 1726. Presently, the area is known as Mannahatta Park, an open space with benches and a view of the East River.
Founded in 1999 by Laurie Cumbo, the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA) puts on educational programming, art exhibitions, and community events related to issues faced by those of the African Diaspora. Current programs include the Bandung Residency, aimed to foster solidarity between AAPI and Black communities. MoCADA is open to tour and accepts volunteers for events.
Following smallpox and cholera epidemics during the 1840s, the Town of Flushing purchased separate interment land for residents who were concerned about contamination of burial grounds by infected corpses. This land was expressly for the African American and Native American communities—about 60% of the population—as family and church burial plots were overflowing from the epidemics. It’s estimated that the remains of 1,000 people are located here, and in 1914, the New York City Department of Parks & Recreations acquired the site and turned it into a neighborhood green space and playground. After going through several name changes like “Town Ground” and the “Colored Cemetery of Flushing,” the site was officially renamed The Olde Towne of Flushing Burial Ground.
In the 1830s, Sandy Ground was a thriving community of free African Americans and is the oldest, continuously inhabited free Black settlement in the U.S. Like many African American men who initially settled in the area, Captain John Jackson, the first documented Black man to purchase land here, was lured by work and land ownership prospects on Staten Island. Once previously named “Little Africa,” Sandy Ground is on the National Register of Historic Places and descendants of the original settlers still reside in the community. The site is still under archeological study and its museum retains African American traditions like quilt-making, music, and arts, for visitors to experience.
Founded in 1925 during the Harlem Renaissance by Arturo A. Schomburg, an intellectual born in Puerto Rico to a Black mother and white father, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture is devoted to the research and exhibition of materials relating to African American and African Diaspora experiences. Over his years, Schomburg amassed a large collection of books, art, writings, manuscripts and journals, which were purchased by the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library in 1926. The Center is currently open with exhibitions like Been Seen, documenting portrait exhibitions of the African American community in Harlem by the photographer, Austin Hansen.
West 138th and 139th Streets between Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard and Frederick Douglass Boulevard
Originally called King Model Houses, Strivers’ Row is now known as the St. Nicholas Historic District, and is a landmark-designated site consisting of row houses built in 1891-93. It’s a popular walking attraction for its variety of architectural styles and previous homes of renowned figures in music, politics, and entertainment. Located on two different city streets that are sandwiched between large avenues, “Striver” was the colloquial name given to this enclave as upwardly mobile African Americans began moving into the area after white flight in the early 1920s. Notable African Americans who called this place home include the tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the famed Congressman for whom the avenue is named.
Underground Railroad Safe Houses
Flushing, Queens, has been documented as a part of the Underground Railroad—a clandestine network of people, houses, and routes that transported Africans escaping enslavement in the South to freedom in the North—and one of its most important stops was Bowne House. As the oldest building in Queens that was built in 1661, its rich history of three centuries documents the Bowne family’s abolitionist activities and role in anti-slavery movements, and not only is it an official New York City landmark, but it’s also on the National Register of Historic Places. An additional documented historic landmark connected to the Underground Railroad is the Flushing Quaker Meeting House, built in 1694 by John Bowne and other Quakers as a monument to early religious freedom in the colonial United States.
Founded in 1838, Weeksville was named after James Weeks, the first African American man to purchase a plot of land in this area of Brooklyn. Over time, the community grew and became self-sufficient with numerous Black professionals and entrepreneurs, schools, and clubs. In 1863, it served as a safe haven for African Americans fleeing violence in Manhattan and those who participated in abolitionist movements. Over decades, the community faded but in 1968, it was re-discovered by historian James Hurley, who worked with volunteers and researchers to document the history of Weeksville. Remnants of this once-thriving community are seen in the Historic Hunterfly Road Houses, now restored and open at Weeksville Heritage Center. Currently, the center holds Black Diaspora art exhibitions, archival photo collections, and educational programming about the community.