African American history in the Sullivan Thompson Historic District
Off the Grid has previously taken a look at African American history in the South Village, which was home to almost a quarter of the city’s African-American population during the mid-19th century and known as “Little Africa.” The newly designated Sullivan-Thompson Historic District included part of “Little Africa,” and in looking at the recently published designation report for the Sullivan-Thompson Historic District, a number of sites are called out specifically for their affiliations with this history. Here are a few.
As explained in the designation report: “The blocks that comprise the Sullivan-Thompson Historic District were inhabited by a mix of black and white residents by the end of the 1850s. Black residents often lived in the oldest buildings and in rear tenements accessible through alleys, and generally occupied manual labor and service positions. After the Civil War, the migration of black Villagers to newer wards uptown was offset by the influx of black migrants from the American South and immigrants from the Caribbean.”
On either side of Sullivan Street between Broome and Spring Streets, 21 buildings housed African America tenants, according to the designation report. As explained by Andrew Dolkart in his report on the South Village and according to census information, while blacks and white immigrants might live next door to one another, the pattern, at least in Little Africa, was for blacks to occupy all one building. 114 Sullivan Street, a former row house, housed nine African American residents in 1870, as seen in the Federal census of that year.
Seen in the district, but rare in other parts of the City were the multi-racial saloons known as ‘black and tans.’ With both blacks and whites crammed into tight quarters, saloons were important communal gathering places, although they were derided by such social reformers as Jacob Riis. One such saloon was the basement of 57 Sullivan Street (also an individual landmark) known as The Knickerbocker with an African-American proprietor/bartender, Charles Woodbeck, who resided next door at 532 Broome Street (demolished). The 1870 Federal Census indicates that in the blocks immediately surrounding 57 Sullivan Street, there was a mixture of blacks and whites (chiefly Irish and German immigrants).
Although the Federal census listed numerous African American families in the district between 1880 and 1910, black residents of the district were displaced by Italian immigrants who came to dominate the area during that time.