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The Tenement Museum gives way to black history

Ghosts abound at the Tenement Museum, which for nearly three decades has explored issues of immigration, domicile and belonging through tours of the meticulously recreated apartments in its five-story building on the Lower East Side. But in recent years, the story of a particularly ghostly presence has lingered in the background.

In 2008, shortly after an apartment opened that told the story of Joseph Moore, a 19th century Irish immigrant waiter, a museum educator noticed something interesting in an 1869 city directory. Just above named Moore was another Joseph Moore, also a waiter, living a few quarters away.

Same name, same profession. But there was an additional designation – “Cold” or colored.

The educator began to invite visitors to think of the two Joseph Moors. How would their lives have been similar or different? As other educators picked up the story, a conversation developed about how to talk about “the other Joseph Moore” – and the museum’s broader omissions.

Now, as the museum celebrates its reopening with a block party on June 12, it leans heavily on the history of Black Joseph Moore. He’s looking for an apartment recreation dedicated to him and his wife, Rachel – his first dedicated to a black family. And it features a neighborhood walking tour called “Reclaiming Black Spaces,” which explores sites linked to nearly 400 years of African-American presence on the Lower East Side.

The museum is also revising all of its apartment tours, to examine more clearly how race and racism have shaped the opportunities open to the mostly white immigrants whose struggle and efforts are explored there.

“Basically we take everything apart and put it back together,” said Annie Polland, president of the museum, in an interview last month, after offering a glimpse of the unrestored top-floor apartment that will be dedicated to black Joseph Moore. .

“Ideas about race were important to understanding the experience of every family, every moment, in New York City and on the Lower East Side,” she said.

The reopening comes after a tumultuous year for the museum. Last spring, the pandemic shutdown plunged it into a financial spiral, leading to the dismissal of many of its staff, who were also in the midst of a controversial organizing drive.

And in June, after the police murder of George Floyd, some staff protested what they saw as the museum’s insufficient statement of support for Black Lives Matter. The museum quickly issued a second, more self-critical statement, pledging to “address the damaging ways in which we have educated the history of immigrants, migrants and refugees, while omitting black history.”

The museum, with its pre-pandemic annual budget of $ 11.5 million, is perhaps a small institution. But it poses a huge – and extremely heavy – question: how does a museum – and a nation – that celebrates the immigrant experience incorporate the stories of blacks who were brought here unintentionally, and who for centuries remained excluded? of opportunity and full citizenship open to most newcomers?

“The museum has always looked at the question of how people become Americans,” said Lauren O’Brien, principal investigator of the Joseph Moore Project and the new walking tour. “But what does it mean to be born an American without being considered an American? “

The first stop on the walking tour, near the corner of Allen and Rivington streets, a few blocks north of the museum, makes it clear that people of African descent have been a part of New York City from the start.

In the 1640s, it was the site of the six-acre farm of Sebastiaen de Britto, one of a group of African slaves who, in 1647, successfully requested the Dutch East India Company for a freedom partial and land. His farm was part of a larger area, outside the official boundaries of New Amsterdam, known as the “Land of Blacks”.

This first black presence has been better known since 1991, when the remains of an African cemetery from colonial times were discovered in Lower Manhattan, prompting David Dinkins, the city’s first black mayor, to declare: “It is our Ellis Island. “

In the museum’s archives, O’Brien discovered a letter from a woman named Gina Manuel from 1988, the year it was founded, urging the founders to include the story of the Black Lower East Siders.

“When planning the museum, I beg you, please don’t forget them,” she wrote. “Their spirits go through these halls, and their bones lay in the dirt there, and we remember them.”

O’Brien also found evidence that in the museum’s early years there had been stories surrounding a 19th-century composite black family called the Washington DCs. But that went away, as the museum focused on its distinctive approach: recreated apartment tours that would focus on families who had actually lived at 97 Orchard Street between 1863, when the building was erected, and 1935, when he was barricaded.

This created a magical physical time capsule, but also a limitation. Today, the eight restored spaces at 97 Orchard Street feature the stories of German, Irish, Italian and Eastern European Jewish families. But museum researchers never found any evidence that the more than 7,000 people who have lived in the building over the years included black families.

In 2017, the museum opened a second building just up the block, which allowed it to add stories of a Chinese immigrant and a Puerto Rican family, and extend the timeline into the 1980s. But the researchers also found no clearly documented black residents, whether immigrant or native-born, in this building.

By this time, some educators had begun to fill in the gaps with the “other” story of Joseph Moore.

“People talked about it in their own way,” said Daryl Hamilton, the educator who first noticed the two Josephs in the city phone book and mentioned it on his tour. “One of the great things about the Tenement Museum is that we educators have to interpret and present things in a way that works for us.”

Over the years, the museum has also invited black history scholars such as Leslie Harris, author of “In the Shadow of Slavery: Afro-Americans in New York City, 1626-1863”, to speak. with its staff. And in 2019, he hired O’Brien, a graduate student from Rutgers University-Newark, to research what became of the “Reclaiming Black Spaces” walking tour.

For some museum staff, this was not enough. In a recent article on museum work issues published in The Public Historian, Erin Reid, a licensed educator last July, said managers have not supported all educators’ approaches to the history of Black Joseph Moore.

“We weren’t supposed to talk about it a lot,” Reid recalls. “Managers would say, ‘Well, why are you talking about riots? Why are you talking about slavery? “

Polland, who became president of the museum in January (after a stint as head of programs and performances from 2009 to 2018), acknowledged that some educators “felt inaudible.” And she said previous revisions to the Irish Apartment Tour had left some difficult questions “unresolved,” including how to incorporate complex topics like the Civil War riots of 1863, in which white crowds (including Irish immigrants) attacked black New Yorkers.

But the museum, Polland said, “was listening and trying to find the best ways to manipulate the material, given the structure it had.”

The Joseph and Rachel Moore apartment on the fifth floor won’t open until fall 2022. But starting in July, Moore’s existing tour, called “Irish Outsiders,” is replaced by a hybrid tour discussing the two Josephs. and providing insight into the museum’s detective work.

The Black Moore was born free in 1836 in Belvidere, NJ, a rural town halfway between New York and Philadelphia. (Slavery was not completely abolished in New Jersey until the Civil War.) He moved to New York City in the late 1850s.

In 1869, as the directory shows, he was living in a back building at 17 Laurens Street in what is now SoHo. (The street and the building no longer exist.) By the 1860s, the Eighth Ward and Moore’s apartment building housed a mix of married Black, Irish, and Black-Irish households.

The museum speaks of Moore as a sort of internal immigrant, coming to New York City to seek opportunities and perhaps greater safety, at a time when the Fugitive Slave Act put even free blacks at risk of kidnapping. . In the mid-19th century in New York City, waiters were a high-paying job, with black waiters in high demand. (Moore’s finished apartment will include a copy of an 1848 manual written by the steward of the Black Tunis Campbell Hotel, considered the first of its kind.)

And highly skilled black waiters were sometimes paid more than their immigrant white counterparts, in part, Professor Harris notes in a film made for the museum’s recent fundraising gala, because they organized and fought for these. wages.

The history of relations between black and Irish New Yorkers is often seen as one primarily of antagonism, which escalated into violence in the riots of 1863. And after the Civil War, according to Harris, black servers were increasingly in addition expelled, because white customers asked to be served by whites.

But the picture, underlines the museum, is more complicated. After the riots, some 2,000 black residents left the city. But in 1869 Moore was still there. Did he have alliances with Irish neighbors that helped protect him, O’Brien wonders?

Along with many European immigrant families whose stories are told in the museum, their descendants rose through the socio-economic ranks, leaving homes for the prosperity of the middle class in the suburbs.

In the 1880s, Joseph Moore lived in Jersey City. But then his trail, at least so far, cools off. And for African Americans in general, O’Brien said, the upward trajectory to inclusion in the American Dream was often blocked.

“You don’t have that crisp, clean ending,” she said. “There is no resolution to be considered an American.”

There is much to discover about the Black Joseph Moore, including, the museum hopes, living descendants. But the intricacies of black history, Polland said, are part of the history of every American, no matter how and when their family arrived here.

“We are discovering ourselves again and trying to understand who we are,” she said of the museum. “Once you start looking for that story, it’s all around us. “

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