New York's Buried African-American History
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
New York City’s past is darker and more complicated than you might imagine.
By Steven Butler
Buried last winter in an arctic blast, Minetta Street and adjoining Minetta Lane were a sorry, frozen, mostly deserted wasteland. Snow plows seemed to have forgotten to chug through the one-lane passages of this out-of-the way, oddly dog-legged corner of Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, and compacted ice made the sidewalks treacherous. A pair of professional dog-walkers nonetheless took refuge from nearby traffic, walking up and down the quiet lanes.
Though few passers-by seem to know it, the Minettas were once home (in 1830) to more than 14,000 freed African-Americans, enough to earn the area the moniker of “Little Africa.” There’s no visible sign of it today, but it’s part of the rich, still largely hidden-from-view history of involuntary immigrants — slaves — from Africa. “These people built our country,” says Nina, a teacher who asked not to use her last name as she led a class of fourth-graders on an annual pilgrimage through the visitors center at the African Burial Ground National Monument, just over a mile to the south of Minetta Lane. “It’s important to recognize that.”
It’s now enshrined as part of the city’s regular education circuit, but only recently so. After African slaves were barred from burying their dead on the grounds of Trinity Church in Lower Manhattan in 1697, they found an undeveloped site to the north — yes, it’s hard to imagine any part of Manhattan undeveloped — just uptown from current-day City Hall. Over the course of the 18th century, until 1794, many thousands of black New Yorkers, slaves and free alike, were interred at the 6.6-acre site, most buried in simple wooden coffins.
The memorial has resurrected these early New York laborers as real people, with history, families and culture.
There they rested for almost exactly 200 years, forgotten, and presumed lost amid the intensive building in the area. Then, in 1991, construction workers excavating for a government building at 290 Broadway began to uncover gravesites. The government’s General Services Administration, of course, wanted to push on. But New York’s African-American community would not have it. “This is our Ellis Island,” said then-mayor David Dinkins, referring to the national park celebrating the entry point for 12 million mainly European and Middle Eastern immigrants. After protests and fierce debate, the office tower was built subsequent to a redesign that preserved space for a memorial with more than 400 remains re-interred.
Excavated were not just the remains of the men and women who helped to build and operate the early city of New York, but also telling remnants of religions and cultures transported to and preserved in the New World. Howard University historian Edna Greene Medford and Emilyn L. Brown, a community activist, described the remains of a woman, designated as Burial 340, whose “waist beads and hourglass-shaped, filed incisors that had adorned her in life remained to define her culturally more than two centuries after death.” And then, in Burial 25, a young woman with her “face shattered, wrist fractured, and rib cage penetrated by a still-present musket ball — provided evidence of the violence that pervaded colonial New York.”
The memorial has resurrected these early New York laborers as real people — with history, families and culture.
Slavery was abolished in New York City in 1827, just a few years after the streams that gave the Minettas their name were put underground, to make way for the expanding population of free African-Americans. But by 1896, author Stephen Crane wrote, “The Italians have begun to dispute the possession of the lane with the negroes.” And with bars spreading around the corner of nearby McDougal Street, the character of the neighborhood had changed. “It was a street set apart, a refuge for criminals,” wrote Crane.
Ultimately, African-Americans abandoned the Minettas and it became a center of prostitution before it was redeveloped in the 1930s by Vincent Pepe. These days the street is dominated by the backs or sides of buildings that front on busier streets. Outside the side door of the Café Wha?, huge piles of trash await collection. For years, Panchito’s Mexican Restaurant, which backs onto Minetta Street, maintained the painted sign of the Fat Cat Pussycat theater, where Richie Havens, Cass Elliott and Bob Dylan once performed. Now it’s painted over in a solid red. Next door, Pepe’s renovated townhouse recently sold for $5.7 million. And across the way, a woman with a two-wheeled shopping cart descends to the street from her home. “I don’t know anything about the street,” she says. “I just moved in.”
- Steven Butler, Steve landed at OZY after years of reporting all over the world and living for long stretches in Asia and Europe for the Financial Times and U.S. News & World Report. He has managed correspondents everywhere as foreign editor at Knight Ridder but is delighted to be free of the printing press. Follow Steven Butler on Twitter Follow Steven Butler on FacebookContact Steven Butler