Tenement Museum makes room for Black history

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Tenement Museum makes room for Black history
Lauren O’Brian, a historian who created a new walking tour emphasizing the Lower East Side’s Black history, at the Tenement Museum in New York, May 27, 2021. As the museum prepares to celebrate its reopening, it is researching an apartment re-creation dedicated to a Black family, introducing a neighborhood walking tour called “Reclaiming Black Spaces” and revising all of its apartment tours to look more squarely at the ways that race and racism shaped the opportunities open to the mostly white immigrants whose struggle and striving is explored there. Simbarashe Cha/The New York Times.

by Jennifer Schuessler

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- There is no shortage of ghosts at the Tenement Museum, which for nearly three decades has explored issues of immigration, home and belonging through tours of the meticulously re-created apartments in its five-story building on the Lower East Side of New York City. But in recent years, the story of one particularly ghostly presence has lingered 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 educator noticed something interesting in an 1869 city directory. Right above Moore’s name was another Joseph Moore, also a waiter, living a few neighborhoods away.

Same name, same profession. But there was an extra designation — “Col’d,” or Colored.

The educator started inviting visitors to think about the two Joseph Moores. How would their lives have been similar or different? As other educators picked up the story, a conversation grew about how to talk about “the other Joseph Moore” — and about the museum’s broader omissions.

Now, as the museum celebrates its reopening with a block party June 12, it is leaning hard into the story of the Black Joseph Moore. It is researching an apartment re-creation dedicated to him and his wife, Rachel — its first dedicated to a Black family. And it is introducing a neighborhood walking tour called “Reclaiming Black Spaces,” which explores sites connected with nearly 400 years of African American presence on the Lower East Side.

The museum is also revising all of its apartment tours to look more squarely at the ways that race and racism shaped the opportunities open to the mostly white immigrants whose struggle and striving is explored there.

“Basically, we’re taking apart everything and putting it back together again,” Annie Polland, the museum’s president, said in an interview last month, after offering a peek at the as-yet unrestored top-floor apartment that will be dedicated to the Black Joseph Moore.

“Ideas about race were important for understanding every family’s experience, at every moment in time, in New York and on the Lower East Side,” she said.

The reopening comes after a tumultuous year for the museum. Last spring, the pandemic shutdown sent it into a financial tailspin, leading to the furlough of much of its staff, which was also in the midst of a contentious unionization drive.

And in June, after the police killing of George Floyd, some staff members 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, committing itself to “addressing the damaging ways we have educated about immigrant, migrant and refugee history, while omitting Black history.”

The museum, with its pre-pandemic annual budget of $11.5 million, may be a small institution. But it is taking on an enormous — and enormously fraught — question: How does a museum — and a nation — that celebrates the immigrant experience incorporate the stories of Black people who were brought here involuntarily and who for centuries remained shut out of the opportunity and full citizenship open to most newcomers?

“The museum has always looked at the question of how people become American,” 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?”

‘This Is Our Ellis Island’

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

In the 1640s, it was the site of the 6-acre farm of Sebastiaen de Britto, one of a group of enslaved Africans who in 1647 successfully petitioned the Dutch East India Co. for partial freedom and land. His farm was part of a larger area, outside the official boundaries of New Amsterdam, known as “Land of the Blacks.”

That early Black presence has become better known since 1991, when the remnants of a colonial-era African burial ground were discovered in lower Manhattan, prompting David Dinkins, the city’s first Black mayor, to declare, “This is our Ellis Island.”

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

“When you are planning the museum, I beg of you, please, please don’t forget them,” she wrote. “Their spirit walks those halls, and their bones lay in the earth there, and we remember them.”

O’Brien also found evidence that in the museum’s early years, there had been some storytelling around a composite 19th-century Black family named the Washingtons. But that fell away as the museum focused on its distinctive approach: tours of re-created apartments that would zero in on families that had actually lived at 97 Orchard St. between 1863, when the building was erected, and 1935, when it was boarded up.

That created a magical physical time capsule but also a limitation. Today, the eight restored spaces at 97 Orchard St. present the stories of German, Irish, Italian and Eastern European Jewish families. But the museum’s 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 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 researchers also found no clearly documented Black residents, either immigrant or native-born, in that building.

By then, some educators had started filling in the gaps with the “other” Joseph Moore story.

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

Over the years, the museum has invited Black history scholars like Leslie Harris, author of “In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626-1863,” to speak with its staff. 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 museum staff members, it was not enough. In a recent article about labor issues at the museum published in the journal The Public Historian, Erin Reid, an educator who was laid off last July, said managers had not been supportive of all educators’ approaches to the Black Joseph Moore story.

“We weren’t supposed to talk about a lot of this,” Reid recalled. “Managers would be like, ‘Well, why are you talking about the draft riots? Why are you talking about slavery?’”

Polland, who became the museum’s president in January (after a stint as head of programs and interpretations from 2009-18), acknowledged that some educators “felt unheard.” And she said that earlier revisions of the Irish apartment tour had left some difficult questions “unresolved,” including how to incorporate complex topics like the 1863 Civil War draft riots, during which white mobs (including Irish immigrants) attacked Black New Yorkers.

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

City of Opportunity?

The Joseph and Rachel Moore apartment, on the fifth floor, won’t open until fall 2022. But starting in July, the existing Moore tour, called “Irish Outsiders,” is being replaced with a hybrid tour discussing both Joseph Moores and offering a preview of the museum’s detective work.

The Black Moore was born free in 1836 in Belvidere, NewJersey, a rural town halfway between New York and Philadelphia. (Slavery was not fully 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 rear tenement at 17 Laurens St., in what is now SoHo. (Both the street and the building no longer exist.) In the 1860s, the Eighth Ward — and Moore’s tenement — housed a mixture of Black, Irish and intermarried Black-Irish households.

The museum talks about Moore as a kind of internal immigrant, coming to New York to seek opportunity — and perhaps greater safety at a time when the Fugitive Slave Act put even free Blacks in danger of kidnapping. In mid-19th-century New York, waiting tables was a well-paid job, with Black waiters much in demand. (The finished Moore apartment will include a copy of an 1848 manual by Black hotel steward Tunis Campbell, believed to be the first of its kind.)

And highly skilled Black waiters were sometimes paid more than their immigrant white counterparts — partly, Harris notes in a film made for the museum’s recent fundraising gala, because they had organized and fought for those wages.

The story of relations between Black and Irish New Yorkers is often remembered as one mainly of antagonism, which flared into violence in the 1863 draft riots. And after the Civil War, according to Harris, Black waiters were increasingly pushed out, as white patrons demanded to be served by whites.

But the picture, the museum emphasizes, 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?

With many of the European immigrant families whose stories are told at the museum, their descendants climbed the socioeconomic ladder, leaving the tenements for middle-class prosperity in the suburbs.

By the 1880s, Joseph Moore was living in Jersey City, New Jersey. But then his trail, at least so far, goes cold. And for African Americans broadly, 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’s no resolution of being considered an American.”

There’s much to be uncovered about the Black Joseph Moore — including, the museum hopes, some living descendants. But the complexities of the Black story, Polland said, are part of every American’s history, no matter how and when their family came here.

“We’re discovering ourselves again 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.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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