Tenement Museum makes room for black history


There’s no shortage of ghosts at the Tenement Museum, which has explored immigration, home, and related issues through tours of carefully maintained apartments in its five-story building on the Lower East Side for nearly three decades. But in recent years, the story of a particularly haunting presence has remained in the background.

In 2008, shortly after the opening of an apartment telling the story of Joseph Moore, a 19th-century immigrant Irish waiter, a museum teacher noticed something interesting in an 1869 city directory. Next to Moore’s name was another Joseph Moore, also a waiter, who lived in a few neighborhoods.

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

The teacher began inviting visitors to think of the two Joseph Moores. How would their lives have been the same or different? As other teachers picked up the story, conversation grew about how to talk about “the other Joseph Moore”—and about the museum’s widespread omission.

Now, as the museum celebrates its reopening on June 12 with a block party, it’s barely leaning into the story of Black Joseph Moore. It’s an apartment dedicated to him and his wife Rachel researching entertainment – the first one dedicated to the Black family. And it’s starting a neighborhood walkthrough called . is called “Reclaiming Black Space,” which explores sites associated with nearly 400 years of African-American presence on the Lower East Side.

The museum is also revising all of its apartment tours to take a more candid look at the ways that race and racism have shaped the opportunities open to mostly white immigrants whose struggles and efforts are explored.

“Basically, we’re taking everything apart and putting it back together again,” museum president Annie Poland said in an interview last month. Black Joseph Moore.

“The ideas about race were key to understanding every family’s experience, in every moment, in New York and on the Lower East Side,” she said.

The reopening comes after a difficult year for the museum. Last spring, the pandemic shutdown sent it a financial tail, which led to the layoff of most of its employees, which was also in the midst of a dispute unionization campaign.

And in June, after the police killing of George Floyd, some staff members protested what they saw as inadequate for the museum. statement of support For Black Lives Matter. Museum quickly released a second, more self-critical statement, “Committing ourselves to addressing the harmful ways that black history has been educated about immigrant, migrant, and refugee history.”

The museum, with its pre-pandemic annual budget of $11.5 million, may be a small institution. But it is taking on a much bigger – and very frightening – question: a museum – and a nation – that celebrates the immigrant experience includes the stories of black people who were involuntarily brought here. , and who had been out of opportunity for centuries. And is full citizenship open to most newcomers?

“The museum has always focused on the question of how people become Americans,” said Lauren O’Brien, lead researcher on the Joseph Moore Project and the new Walking Tour. “But what does it mean to be born an American, but not seen as an American?”

The first stop of the walking tour, a few blocks north of the museum, near the corner of Allen and Rivington Streets, illustrates that people of African descent were part of New York City from the beginning.

In the 1640s, it was the site of a six-acre farm. Sebastian De Brito, one of a group of enslaved Africans who successfully petitioned for partial independence and land from the Dutch East India Company in 1647. His farm was part of a larger area outside the official borders of New Amsterdam, known as the “Land of the Black People”.

That early black appearance is better known since 1991, when the remains of a colonial-era African burial ground Discovered in Lower Manhattan, prompting David Dinkins, the city’s first black mayor, to declare, “This is our Ellis Island.”

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

“While you are planning the museum, I beg you, please, please don’t forget them,” she wrote. “Their spirit walks in those corridors, and their bones lie there in the ground, and we remember them.”

O’Brien also found evidence that in the museum’s early years, some of the story was told around a joint 19th-century black family named Washington. But that faded away, as the museum focused on its specific approach: tours of the renovated apartments that would zero in on the families who actually lived at 97 Orchard Street between 1863, when the building was erected, and 1935, when it went up.

This created a magical physical time capsule, but also a limitation. Today’s Eight restored locations at 97 Orchard Street Present 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 lived in the building over the years included any black families.

In 2017, the museum opened a second building just off the block, which allowed it to add the stories of a Chinese immigrant and a Puerto Rican family, and extend the timeline to the 1980s. But the researchers found no clearly documented black residents, either immigrants or natives, in that building.

By then, some teachers had begun to fill in the gaps with the story of the “other” Joseph Moore.

“People talked about it in their own way,” said teacher Daryl Hamilton, who first saw the two Josephs in the city directory and mentioned it in his tour. “One of the great things about the Tenement Museum is that we teachers are left to interpret and present things in a way that feels right to us.”

Over the years, the museum has also invited black history scholars such as Leslie Harris, the author of Black. “In the Shadow of Slavery: African-Americans in New York City, 1626–1863,” To talk with your employees. And in 2019, it hired O’Brien, a graduate student at Rutgers University-Newark, to research what became the “Reclaiming Black Spaces” walking tour.

For some of the museum staff, this was not enough. In Recent articles about labor issues Public historian at the museum, Erin Reid, a teacher who was fired last July, said that managers did not support all teachers’ approach to the story of Black Joseph Moore.

“We shouldn’t have talked too much about this,” Reid recalled. “Managers would be like, ‘Okay, why are you talking about the draft riots? Why are you talking about slavery?'”

Poland, who became president of the museum in January (after a stint as head of programs and interpretations from 2009 to 2018) acknowledged that some teachers “felt unheard.” And she said that earlier revisions to the Irish Apartment Tour had left some difficult questions “unresolved”, including how to cover complex topics, such as 1863 Civil War Draft Riots, during which white mobs (including Irish immigrants) attacked Black New Yorkers.

But the museum, Poland said, was “listening, and trying to figure out the best ways to handle the material, the structure they had.”

The Joseph and Rachel Moore Apartments, on the fifth floor, won’t open until 2022. But starting in July, the current Moore tour, called the “Irish Outsiders,” is being replaced with a hybrid tour featuring both Joseph discussing, and previewing a museum’s detective work.

Black Moore was born 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.

By 1869, as the directory shows, he was living in a previous house at 17 Lawrence Street in what is now Soho. (Both the street and the building no longer exist.) In the 1860s, the Eighth Ward – and Moore’s Tenement – ​​contained a mix of Black, Irish, and intermarried Black-Irish families.

The museum talks about Moore as a kind of internal immigrant, coming to New York in search of opportunity, and perhaps more security, at a time when the Fugitive Slave Act placed even freed blacks at risk of kidnapping. In New York in the mid-19th century, the waiting table was a well-paying job that was in high demand for black waiters. (The finished Moore apartment will include a copy of an 1848 manual by Black Hotel steward Tunis Campbell, considered the first of its kind.)

And highly skilled black waiters were sometimes paid more than their immigrant white counterparts, in part, Professor Harris noted. A movie Created for the museum’s recent fundraising gala, as they organized and fought for those wages.

The story of the relationship between Black and Irish New Yorkers is often remembered primarily as a protest, which erupted in violence in the 1863 Draft Riots. And after the Civil War, according to Harris, black waiters were increasingly pushed out, as white patrons sought to be served by whites.

But the picture, the museum insists, is more complicated. After the riots, about 2,000 black residents left the city. But in 1869, Moore was still there. Was there an alliance with his Irish neighbors that helped save him, O’Brien wondered?

As with many European immigrant families whose stories are told in the museum, their descendants climbed the socioeconomic ladder, leaving homes in the suburbs for middle class prosperity.

By the 1880s, Joseph Moore has been living in Jersey City. But then his path turns cold, at least for now. And for African Americans largely, O’Brien said, the upward trajectory toward inclusion in the American Dream was often blocked.

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

There is much to be uncovered about Black Joseph Moore—including, hopefully, some surviving descendants of the museum. But the complexities of the Black Story, Poland said, are part of every American’s history, regardless of how and when their family got here.

“We’re rediscovering ourselves, and trying to figure out who we are,” she said of the museum. “Once you start looking for this history, it’s all around us.”



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