The Lower East Side’s (Not Very Well Known) Black History

Photo: Thierry Trombert

Since its founding in 1988, the Tenement Museum’s walking tours of the Lower East Side have told the stories of the European, Chinese, and Puerto Rican families who made their homes in the neighborhood throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. But they have never included the history of Black New Yorkers in the area. The museum’s founders had wanted to incorporate African American histories when its first exhibitions were being planned in the 1980s. “In researching these tenements, they thought they were going to find stories of Black New Yorkers who lived in these buildings, and they didn’t,” said Kathryn Lloyd, the director of programs at the museum. “But obviously, that’s not a sufficient answer.” The Tenement Museum is beginning to address this gap with a new walking tour called “Reclaiming Black Spaces,” which focuses on the history of people of African descent in the neighborhood, going back to when Manhattan was a Dutch colony in the 17th century. The five-stop tour, which officially launches on June 12, is part of a larger initiative to highlight the Black history that the museum has neglected, which also includes an upcoming exhibit about the Moores, a Black family who moved into an LES tenement in 1869.

Below are some highlights of the tour.

Tour Stop: 143 Allen Street, Sebastiaen de Britto’s Farm

A section of Allen Street that was once a part of Sebastiaen de Britto’s farm. Photo: Courtesy of the Tenement Museum

Highlight: The farm was part of the first free Black community in North America.

What’s the story?: The land here was once owned by Sebastiaen de Britto, a formerly enslaved African who was brought to the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam from Santo Domingo in the early 17th century. De Britto and his wife, Isabel Kisana, were part of a group of 30 enslaved people who petitioned the Dutch West India Company for their freedom and were given land. After being granted so-called “half freedom” (they still had to work for the Dutch West India Company whenever they were summoned, and their children were still considered property of the company) in 1647, De Britto and at least two other freed Black families built homes and began to farm the land that is now the LES. The six-acre de Britto farm sat roughly between what is today Ludlow and Bowery, from the east to the west, and Rivington to Broome, to the north and south. The farm was part of a much larger community of free Black farms that ran along a band in the middle of the island, from around Canal Street all the way up to midtown, acting as a barrier, as Lloyd put it, between the Dutch and the Lenape settlements further north.

What remains: There’s nothing left of the de Britto farm. The land grant expired in 1650, and there’s no mention of de Britto or Kisana in historic documents after that. When the British took over New Amsterdam in 1664, they stripped away the rights of Black people, including the right to own land.

What’s there now: The landmarked Sutton House, the home of cotton trader George Sutton in the 19th century. As Lloyd said, “This land, over centuries, goes from being a site of, in some ways, freedom and advocacy for Black New Yorkers to … a site of the history of enslavement and New York’s reliance on people in bondage to build us the wealth that this city has today.”

Tour Stop: 193 Eldridge Street, Studio We

A Studio We rehearsal. Photo: Courtesy of the Tenement Museum, Michael Heller, “Loft Jazz: Improvising New York In the 1970s”
The condo apartment building that now stands at 193 Eldridge Street. Photo: Valeria Ricciulli

Highlight: Studio We, a community music-performance and rehearsal space built inside an abandoned building in 1968.

What’s the story? In the late 1960s, the five-story tenement at 193 Eldridge Street was, like many buildings in the city at the time, nearly falling down. It had a caved-in roof, no plumbing, and many of the floors had collapsed. In 1968, the building’s caretaker, Howard Green, was heading to Europe, and his friend, jazz trumpeter James Dubois, asked if he could take care of it. He and several other musician friends moved into the building and turned it into a jazz venue they called Studio We. They built a stage on the sixth floor and set up other performance and practice spaces throughout the building. Studio We quickly became central to the city’s Loft Jazz scene an avant-garde form that pulled both from jazz traditions and pop genres, and was almost exclusively performed in residential settings like old tenement buildings. Dubois’s brother opened a soul-food restaurant on the first floor, where people could grab food for the performances. The space symbolized the late 1960s idea “that Black Americans should be responsible for creating the world and society they want to see for themselves,” Lloyd says. “Ideas of independence from white cultural structures and white financial structures that are dominating in the city, in society, and in jazz music at the time.”

What remains: Aside from the dark-red columns flanking the entryway to the building, nothing remains of Studio We. Dubois and his group of musician friends stopped holding performances there in the mid-1970s, but the memory of the music space was kept alive by one of its founding musicians, Juma Sultan, who went on to tour with Jimi Hendrix and have a successful musical career. Today, at 79, he lives in upstate New York, and his archive of photos and documents from Studio We’s heyday helped the museum put the story of this site together. He’s still playing gigs.

What’s there now: The brick tenement is now a condo building with five multimillion-dollar luxury lofts. A unit that sold in 2018 for $2.25 million featured exposed beam ceilings, reclaimed wood shelves, and “exposed brick whitewashed with Belgian limestone paint,” per the listing.

Tour Stop: 363 Broome Street, Engine 55

Engine 55 firehouse today. Photo: Valeria Ricciulli
Wesley Williams, one of the first Black firefighters in New York City, outside Engine 55. Photo: Schomburg Center

Highlight: The fire station where Wesley Williams, one of the very first Black firefighters in New York City history, started working in 1919.

What’s the story? Williams, who was from Harlem, was by no means embraced by his white colleagues: His co-workers wouldn’t eat with him, and once even left him inside a burning building. “He’s really sort of a pathbreaker, not only for being one of the first Black firefighters in the city, but we can sort of see him as a predecessor of the civil-rights movement, because he faced extreme racism entering the firehouse,” Lloyd says. Williams went on to become the first Black lieutenant in the FDNY in 1926, and was the second person in department history to earn a perfect score in the physical exam required to earn that rank. He later co-founded the Vulcan Society, a fraternal organization for Black EMTs and firefighters, dedicated to fighting discrimination in the fire department.

What remains: The Engine 55 fire station remains largely as it did then, but there’s nothing to connect it to Williams. He is instead memorialized in Harlem, where there’s a statue of him inside the Harlem YMCA , and the street where it’s located, 135th Street, was renamed Wesley Williams Place.

The Lower East Side’s (Not Very Well Known) Black History