Marking African-American History Month in the Village
As February is African-American History Month, now seems like an especially appropriate time to highlight the African-American history of the South Village, the subject of a separate chapter in the South Village designation report entitled “Little Africa.”
The South Village’s “Little Africa” community was the largest African-American settlement in New York throughout much of the 19th century, and lasted through the early 20th century until displacement by European immigrants, new housing opportunities uptown, and the destruction of many of the last vestiges of the community for the construction of the IND subway line and the extension of Sixth Avenue below West 3rd Street obliterated almost any traces of that once thriving community.
From the designation report:
By the time of the 1863 Draft Riots, which targeted several locations in the South Village, the area was home to nearly a quarter of the city’s African-American population. After the Civil War, the community in the South Village grew larger still, with the influx of recently freed refugees from the South seeking a new way of life.
The community consisted of several streets in today’s South Village, including Amity Street (now West 3rd Street), Bleecker Street, Laurens Street (now LaGuardia Place), MacDougal Street, Thompson Street, and Sullivan Street. But the core of the community appears to have been located on several small streets: Minetta Street, Minetta Lane, and Minetta Place (no longer extant) at the foot of Sixth Avenue, which were lined with humble brick houses dating from the 1820s to the 1840s.
…the residential areas of the neighborhood were also integrated. Because of the negative connotations associated with “race mixing” Little Africa was a rare place where interracial families could settle, the census listing numerous interracial families in the years from 1880 to 1910…
Although the African-American population of the South Village slowly decreased from 1880 onwards, a small but significant African-American presence persisted on Minetta Street and Minetta Lane, as late as the 1910s. Other areas of the city were now accommodating African-Americans, providing a chance to live in newer, more spacious apartments. The influx of immigrants resulted in dwindling employment opportunities in the limited job markets that were open to the existing black population, such as domestic servants, laundresses, chauffeurs, and waiters. The 1900 U.S Census records show a multi-cultural residency of Italian, German, Belgian, and French families as well as a small African-American presence. By the late 1920s most of Manhattan’s black citizens were concentrated in neighborhoods uptown, specifically the Tenderloin (24th to 42nd Streets between Fifth and Seventh Avenues), San Juan Hill (West 60s), and Harlem. As their parishioners made the transition uptown, many of the churches that served the African-American community of the South Village decided to follow them.
You can read the entire “Little Africa” section of the South Village Historic District designation report here.
But if you’re interested in exploring the African-American history of the neighborhood, don’t stop there.
Read the New York City landmark designation report and the State and National Registers of Historic Places report on the East Village’s Charlie Parker House here.
Read about the Village roots of the Martin Luther King national holiday here.
And you can read more about “Little Africa” on GVSHP’s blog here.