Tag Archives: black history

Before Harlem: The Stories of New York’s Forgotten Black Communities

PODCAST The history of African-American settlements and neighborhoods which once existed in New York City

Today we sometimes define New York City’s African-American culture by place – Harlem, of course, and also Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant, neighborhoods that developed for groups of black residents in the 20th century.

But by no means were these the first in New York City. Other centers of black and African-American life existed long before then. In many cases, they were obliterated by the growth of the city, sometimes built over without a single marker, without recognition.

This is the story of a few of those places.  From the ‘land of the blacks‘ — the home to New Amsterdam and British New York’s early black population — to Seneca Village, a haven for black lives that was wiped away by a park. From Little Africa — the Greenwich Village sector for the black working class in the late 19th century — to Sandy Ground, a rural escape in Staten Island with deep roots in the neighborhood today.

And then there’s Weeksville, Brooklyn, the visionary village built to bond a community and to develop a political foothold.

Greg welcomes Kamau Ware (of the Black Gotham Experience) and Tia Powell Harris of the Weeksville Heritage Center to the show.

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services or get it straight from our satellite site.

You can also listen to the show on Google MusicStitcher streaming radio and TuneIn streaming radio from your mobile devices.

Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #230: BEFORE HARLEM: New York’s Forgotten Black Communities

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The Bowery Boys: New York City History podcast is brought to you …. by you!

We are now producing a new Bowery Boys podcast every two weeks.  We’re also looking to improve the show in other ways and expand in other ways as well — through publishing, social media, live events and other forms of media.  But we can only do this with your help!

We are now a member of Patreon, a patronage platform where you can support your favorite content creators for as little as a $1 a month.

Please visit our page on Patreon and watch a short video of us recording the show and talking about our expansion plans.  If you’d like to help out, there are five different pledge levels (and with clever names too — Mannahatta, New Amsterdam, Five Points, Gilded Age, Jazz Age and Empire State). Check them out and consider being a sponsor.

We greatly appreciate our listeners and readers and thank you for joining us on this journey so far. And the best is yet to come!

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Three boys from Sandy Ground, Staten Island, circa 1912.

Staten Island Historical Society

More information about the Black Gotham Experience here, including a list of walking tours.  Check out the websites for Weeksville Heritage Center and the Sandy Ground Historical Society for more information about visiting hours and tours.

Have plans tomorrow (Saturday, June 10)? Both the Black Gotham Experience and Weeksville Heritage Center have daytime events. Stop by and see both of them!

 

 

This map of Seneca Village was made by Andy Proehl illustrating what the settlement looked like in the years before its destruction.

Courtesy Andy Proehl/Flickr

The approximate area via Google Maps. The Great Lawn now sits on the spot where the reservoir is.

The approximate area of Little Africa. The map is from 1889.

NYPL via Greenwich Village Society of Historical Perseveration

Richard Hoe Lawrence and Jacob Riis’s images of a “Black and Tan” dive bar on Broome Street near Wooster Street, 1890.

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

 

Minetta Lane, circa 1900.

MCNY

The approximate location of Weeksville, Brooklyn

Wikipedia

 

Brooklyn Public Library

The three surviving houses today

 

 

The picture at top features an African-American family posed in front of the John Brown Homestead in Torrington, Connecticut, circa 1890s-1900. I particularly love this picture (despite it not being in New York City) because the house is reminiscent of the Weeksville houses and those that were in Sandy Ground.

 

Connecticut Historical Society

 

Regrettably there are not a huge trove of photographs of any of the places mentioned in the podcast. If you know of any photography websites or resources, please leave the information in the comments so others may check them out. Thanks!

African Burial Ground: New York’s unforgettable monument (NPS 100)

This month America celebrates the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, the organization which protects the great natural and historical treasures of the United States. There are a number of NPS locations in the five borough areas. Throughout the next few weeks, we will focus on a few of our favorites.   For more information, you can visit National Parks Centennial for a complete list of parks and monuments throughout the country.  For more blog posts in this series, click here.
The following also features an excerpt from the Bowery Boys Adventures In Old New York, now available for sale wherever books are sold and online at Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

 

A vivid display inside the visitor center at 290 Broadway.

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AFRICAN BURIAL GROUND NATIONAL MONUMENT
DUANE STREET, CIVIC CENTER, MANHATTAN

 

The African Burial Ground, tucked right into the heart of Lower Manhattan, two blocks north of City Hall, represents one of the greatest archaeological finds and saddest stories in New York’s history. The somber monument, opened in 2007, gives long overdue respect and honor to the remains buried here of New York’s first African and West Indian communities.

 Contrast this with lower Manhattan’s other two burial grounds — at Trinity Church and St. Paul’s Chapel —with their carefully preserved marble tombstones and prestigious roster of permanent residents. Whereas Trinity’s cemetery has a fence to preserve the peace, this burial ground has no such border to keep the city at bay.

Photo 6.1

In fact, the African Burial Ground is far larger than the site of today’s monument. Its true size is unknown, although it is believed to cover about seven acres, stretching out under many of the surrounding buildings, including those in Foley Square and along Chambers Street.

The burial ground dates back to the seventeenth century, when New Amsterdam was a company town for the thriving Dutch West India Company, and the town’s early settlers were primarily traders, not builders or town planners. In their eyes, they didn’t sail all the way across the Atlantic from Holland to do menial work.

And so in 1626, to stimulate and facilitate the colony’s growth, the Dutch imported the New World’s first African slaves, a group of eleven people. Early records show that they were assigned names associated with their homelands or original captors: Antony Congo, Dorothe Angola, Jan Negro. Slave labor would be used to build many of New Amsterdam’s major structures, including the large wall that lined the northern edge of town.

One of the most notorious landmarks of the slave trade sat at the corner of Wall and Water Streets (once the shoreline, back in British New York). The Meal Market was established in 1711 not only for the buying and selling of raw products like grains, but also for the purchase and leasing of “negroes and Indian slaves.”

Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy New York Public Library

It’s interesting to note that under the Dutch, enslaved men and women could earn their freedom and eventually own property. But those who did gain independence were not permitted to reside within the city’s walls. Instead, they were forced out beyond the borders to settle in the “free Negro lots” found around the southern edge of Collect Pond.

Things got worse for the colony’s slave population in 1664, when the British took control and renamed the colony New York.

They brought with them their own stricter slavery traditions and stripped away those meager legal protections that had been afforded by the Dutch. New York was not a plantation town; many families owned one or two slaves and they were usually kept in or near their homes. By the 1740s thousands of enslaved men and women from Africa and the Caribbean lived in New York, more than one-fifth of the city’s population.

The visitor center serves as a museum about slavery and an exhibit to the early black experience in New York

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While a diverse number of religions were practiced under English rule, most black New Yorkers eventually converted to the Anglican Church. But Trinity Church did not allow the remains of black people, slave or free, to be buried in its churchyard. And so this population was forced outside the city walls again, this time claiming some land south of Collect Pond as their own private burial ground.

In their burial ceremonies and mourning practices, the city’s African and Caribbean residents were able to display their original religious beliefs, and could come here and bury friends and loved ones according to traditional burial customs.

The remains of 419 individuals are contained in mounds outside next to the monument.

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In the early years, at dusk, New Yorkers would hear the foreign-sounding music, drum beats, and the sounds of exotic ceremonies drifting down from the burial yard.

Well, that was simply too frightening for some white New Yorkers, and so, starting in 1722, it became illegal for blacks to congregate at night, and a 1731 law prohibited more than twelve people from gathering during the day at the burial ground. These draconian laws against black New Yorkers were instigated due to the events of April 1712, when a group of slaves conspired to burn the city. Twenty-one enslaved and freedmen were put to death in retaliation.

While these laws put a damper on many religious ceremonies, it was still possible to show some freedom of expression in the burials themselves. The dead were buried in wooden boxes, most facing east, as was customary for some African religions, and trinkets of religious or personal value (cowrie shells, pipes, buttons, and pieces of coral and crystal) were placed inside the coffins with the deceased.

Images of the remains found on the site of the very building you’re standing in are displayed inside the visitors center.

IMG_9969

With the departure of the British in 1783 and the beginning of the city’s great march northward, this land quickly became much more valuable. By the early 1810s, Collect Pond and its now-spoiled natural surroundings were simply filled in, the marshes drained, the hills leveled.

The graves of many of New York’s early slave and free black population, the resting place of approximately 15,000 bodies here, were covered over in landfill, in some places 16 to 25 feet deep.

Map of the site and the projected location of other burials. Below is a current Google Map satellite view of the site:

Courtesy National Park Service
Courtesy National Park Service

Screen Shot 2016-08-29 at 9.55.44 PM

The early structures built atop the burial ground were not very tall, none more than a few stories high. As a result, the depths of their foundations were no deeper than 20 feet or so. In some places, the burial ground lay below the newly erected buildings, completely preserved by the landfill that had been hastily thrown over it.

Flash forward—way forward—to 1991, when New York City was home to hundreds of skyscrapers, but unbelievably this small seven-acre area still only held structures of modest height. When work began on a nearby government building at 290 Broadway, excavators happened upon the first evidence of human remains. Throughout the next year, excavations would uncover a total of 419 bodies, along with a wide assortment of artifacts.

The monument to this discovery, completed in 2007 and operated by the National Park Service, returns a bit of grace and reverence to this site, and focuses on the spiritual beliefs of those who were interred here centuries ago. Immediately to your right is a set of seven evenly and elevated spaced beds of grass, where the bodies of the 419 have once again been buried, collected in hand-carved wooden sarcophagi.

The following words are inscribed upon the monument (Duane Street, between Broadway and Lafayette Street. Visitors’ center at 290 Broadway):

For all those who were lost
For all those who were stolen
For all those who were left behind
For all those who are not forgotten

WANT MORE INFORMATION? Visit the NPS African Burial Ground National Monument site for more information.

LISTEN TO OUR PODCAST! We have an entire show on the African Burial Ground. It’s Episode #115. You can find it on iTunes or download it from here.

The tale of the Cotton Club: “The Aristocrat of Harlem”

PODCAST The musical story of the Cotton Club, the most famous (and infamous) nightclub of the Jazz Age.

 

The Cotton Club, Harlem’s most prominent nightclub during the Prohibiton era, delivered some of the greatest music legends of the Jazz Age — Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Fletcher Henderson, Ethel Waters, the Nicolas Brothers.  Some of the most iconic songs in the American songbook made their debut at the Cotton Club or were popularized in performances here.

But the story of gangster Owney Madden‘s notorious supper club is hardly one to be celebrated.

That the Cotton Club was owned by Prohibition’s most ruthless mob boss was just the beginning. The club enshrined the segregationist policies of the day, placing black talent on the stage for the pleasure of white patrons alone. Even the club’s flamboyant décor — by Ziegfeld’s scenic designer, no less — made sure to remind people of these ugly admission practices.

This is the tale of Harlem late night — of hot jazz and illegal booze, of great music and very bad mobsters. Featuring some of the greatest tunes of the day by Ellington, Calloway, King Oliver and more.

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services or get it straight from our satellite site.

You can also listen to the show on Stitcher streaming radio and TuneIn streaming radio from your mobile devices.

Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #204: THE COTTON CLUB: THE ARISTOCRAT OF HARLEM

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The Bowery Boys: New York City History podcast is brought to you …. by you!

We are now producing a new Bowery Boys podcast every two weeks.  We’re also looking to improve the show in other ways and expand in other ways as well — through publishing, social media, live events and other forms of media.  But we can only do this with your help!

We are now a member of Patreon, a patronage platform where you can support your favorite content creators for as little as a $1 a month.

Please visit our page on Patreon and watch a short video of us recording the show and talking about our expansion plans.  If you’d like to help out, there are five different pledge levels (and with clever names too — Mannahatta, New Amsterdam, Five Points, Gilded Age, Jazz Age and Empire State). Check them out and consider being a sponsor.

We greatly appreciate our listeners and readers and thank you for joining us on this journey so far. And the best is yet to come!

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The Cotton Club was spawned from an earlier nightspot called Club Deluxe, owned by boxer Jack Johnson. (Below: Johnson in 1910)

Courtesy Getty Images)
Courtesy Getty Images)

Club Deluxe was renamed The Cotton Club in 1923 by Owney Madden, the mob boss and supplier of illegal booze.

owney

The original Cotton Club at 142nd Street and Lenox Avenue. The Douglas Theater, on the ground floor, is doing much better here, photo taken sometime in 1927:

108728676
Courtesy Getty Images

 

The entrance to the Harlem Cotton Club. Note the log decoration to make it appear like some old rugged shack.

Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy New York Public Library

A map from 1932 of the Harlem nightclub scene, featuring the Cotton Club, Small’s Paradise, Connie’s Inn, the Savoy Ballroom and more….

Courtesy Open Culture
Courtesy Open Culture

 

The Broadway Cotton Club as it looked one evening in 1938.

Courtesy Getty Images/ Michael Ochs Archives
Courtesy Getty Images/ Michael Ochs Archives

A look at the interior of the Broadway Cotton Club circa, during an New Year’s celebration, 1937, with Cab Calloway conducting.

Courtesy the Hi De Ho Blog, devoted to Cab Calloway
Courtesy the Hi De Ho Blog, devoted to Cab Calloway

 

An advertisement or program for The Cotton Club. The year 1925 is penciled in at the top, but it has to be from a later date. Calloway had just graduated from high school in 1925!

Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy New York Public Library

Maude Russel and her Ebony Steppers, performing in the 1929 Cotton Club show called ‘Just A Minute’.

Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy New York Public Library

A shot of Jimmy Lunceford and His Orchestra in 1934.

Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy New York Public Library

 

An advertisement for the Nicolas Brothers, for a performance in 1938 at the Broadway Cotton Club.

Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy New York Public Library

 

Lena Horne started out in the Cotton Club chorus line but eventually became a headlining star in her own right.

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The Dandridge Sisters were notable performers in the final years of the Cotton Club.

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The young and dashing Duke Ellington became a superstar in the years following his Cotton Club residency.

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Duke Ellington and his Cotton Club Band, in a 1930 film appearance:

In 1934, Cab Calloway made this short film featuring his music:

 

Cab Calloway’s here too, in this clip from the film Stormy Weather, but the real stars are the Nicholas Brothers in a breathtaking dance number:

 

THIS PODCAST FEATURED MUSICAL SNIPPETS FROM THE FOLLOWING SONGS:

Black and Tan Fantasy – Duke Ellington

Drop Me Off In Harlem – Duke Ellington

Speak Easy Blues – King Oliver Jazz Band

Charleston – Paul Whiteman

Mood Indigo – Duke Ellington

Swing Session – Duke Ellington

If You Were In My Place – Duke Ellington

Minnie the Moocher – Cab Calloway

I’ve Got The World On A String – Duke Ellington

Stormy Weather – Ethel Waters

On The Sunny Side of the Street – Duke Ellington

 

NOTES ON THIS SHOW:

— I made two amusing flubs in this show 1) Duke Ellington’s nickname is probably inspired by the Duke of Wellington, not (obviously) the Duke of Ellington, 2) the name of the movie with Lena Horne and the Nicholas Brothers is obviously named Stormy Weather, not  Stormy Weathers (which must be the name of a drag queen somewhere)

Jack Johnson‘s story is so much more complex and I wish I had more time to talk about him.  For more information, check out the incredible documentary (and the book it’s based on by Geoffrey C Ward) called Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson.

Modern Family: Black and Latino Alliances in New York City

The political landscape of modern New York City is a stew of neighborhood, borough, financial and ethnic interests built upon over two centuries of experience and tradition.  The most interesting story of the past fifty years — both locally and nationally — is the ascension of minority voices into the public sphere, reflecting population changes but also rising strategies of organization.

How did non-white New Yorkers first find their voice in modern politics? In Upsetting the Apple Cart, an impressive navigation through late 20th century politics by Frederick Douglass Opie, the answer comes from seemingly surprising places — the hospital, the classroom, the kitchen table.

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Opie, a professor at Babson College, inspects the particular relationship between New York’s black and Latino communities as they find ways to align at the workplace and in the voting booth. Today it seems obvious that two large minority interest groups might team up to achieve common goals, but it wasn’t until after labor and student activists explored the relationship in the 1950s and 60s that alliances were forged in the major political spheres.

The first half of Upsetting the Apple Cart traces the influences of both the unions and the civil rights movement upon minority workers at local hospitals and students at universities.  Frustrated by lower pay and unfair hours in comparison to their white counterparts, black and Puerto Rican New Yorkers found common ground and successfully organized. This culminated in a massive, ultimately successful city-wide strike on May 8, 1959, lasting almost two months.

2

Minority higher-education students at Columbia University, Hunter College and other school found other reasons to work together — to improve enrollment and educational needs. At Columbia students successfully closed the campus in protest over a new gymnasium being built in Morningside Heights, seen by many as an encroachment into the majority black neighborhood.

Personally I found the second half of Upsetting the Apple Cart more intriguing, but then, I love rooting around in the history of New York backroom political alliances.  Opie’s book excellently explains the early history of black and Latino political organization, from the rise of power in Harlem by the Gang of Four (including David Dinkins and Charlie Rangel) to the first politicians of Puerto Rican, Mexican and Dominican descent in New York.

UNITED STATES - NOVEMBER 08: Daily News front page dated Nov. 8, 1989, Headlines: DAVE DOES IT, Dinkins in close race, Florio wins in jersey, City Charter passes, David Dinkins elected Mayor of New York City (Photo by NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES – NOVEMBER 08: Daily News front page dated Nov. 8, 1989, Headlines: DAVE DOES IT, Dinkins in close race, Florio wins in jersey, City Charter passes, David Dinkins elected Mayor of New York City (Photo by NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

Politics is made from shifting alliances but it wasn’t until the victory of Harold Washington as mayor of Chicago in 1983 that the united front of African-American, Hispanic and Latino-American activists made itself felt in a major political race. Such unification of goals made its way to New York through the presidential aspirations of Jesse Jackson and the various (ultimately unsuccessful) attempts to unseat New York mayor Ed Koch.

The apex of minority political alliances occurred with the election of David Dinkins, famous for his appeal to the “gorgeous mosaic” of New York ethnicities. Dinkins won because, in the end, he appealed to a majority of New Yorkers. But Opie makes note of the unique organizations of outer-borough Hispanics that helped get him elected.

Wait, did I mention that Upsetting  the Apple Cart is also a cookbook? Somewhat incongruously, traditional recipes for tamales, arroz con pollo, fried chicken and other dishes pop up throughout the chapters. Opie, a food traditions professor, emphasizes the role of social interaction in creating these unique coalitions.  To paraphrase a popular adage, the best way to a neighbor’s heart is through her stomach.  The success of these early alliances lends some credence to food as the great uniter.

Upsetting the Apple Cart:
Black-Latino Coalitions in New York City from Protest to Public Office
by Frederick Douglass Opie
Columbia University Press

 

Strike pictures courtesy 1199SEIU

‘Spectacle’: The Story of Ota Benga

In 1906, visitors to the Bronx Zoo observed a rather bizarre sight in the Monkey House — the exhibition of a man in African dress, often accompanied by a parrot or an orangutan.


An African pygmy, so read the sign, “Age, 23, Height, 4 feet 11 inches, Weight 103 pounds, Brought from the Kasai River, Congo Free State, South Central Africa.” Displayed in one of America’s foremost institutions devoted to the display and care of exotic animals. Elephants, tigers, polar bears, snow leopards, bison. And one young man named Ota Benga.

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He is the subject of Pamela Newkirk’s engaging new book Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga, both a sincere ode to his tragic life and a contemporary accusation of the terrible forces that exploited him over a century ago.

But the story is really about the ghost of Ota Benga.

He spoke little English and there are no accounts from his perspective. Almost everything we know is from the perspective of a jaundiced press and the glare of condescending authority. He was the subject of great fabrications over the years; the truth is almost impossible to extricate from hyperbole.

While his story is front and center in Spectacle, but he barely raises his voice. He never had one.

1906 photograph of Ota Benga, described as being taken at Bronx Zoo. (Wikimedia) Title: Ota Bengi     Creator(s): Bain News Service, publisher     Date Created/Published: [no date recorded on caption card]     Medium: 1 negative : glass ; 5 x 7 in. or smaller.     Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-ggbain-22741 (digital file from original negative)     Rights Advisory: No known restrictions on publication.     Call Number: LC-B2- 3971-2 [P&P]     Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print     Notes:         Title from unverified data provided by the Bain News Service on the negatives or caption cards.         Forms part of: George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress).         General information about the Bain Collection is available at http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.ggbain     Format:         Glass negatives.     Collections:         Bain Collection     Bookmark This Record:        http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ggb2005022751/
1906 photograph of Ota Benga, described as being taken at Bronx Zoo. (Wikimedia)
Creator(s): Bain News Service, publisher 
Ota Benga is probably not even his real name. And even then, it’s twisted and distorted mercilessly, sometimes by the man himself. (When he died in 1916, he was known as Ota Bingo.)  In 1904 he was rescued from captivity in the Congo by the explorer and would-be scientist Samuel Phillips Verner.

This is probably true although Verner is an unreliable source, often changing his own biography to burnish his reputation in the science community.  Verner was the product of his age, seeing Africans as inferior beings but seeing their continent as a source of revenue. Verner sought to profit handsomely from his ‘explorations’ both by currying favor with the Belgian King Leopold II (the ruthless leader who exploited the people of the Congo) and by snatching human specimens for display in America.

Ota Benga first arrived with a group of other men and boys for an exhibition at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.  People delighted at his mischievous nature and unusual appearance. His teeth were filed into points, a decorative trait that exhibitors (including Verner) proclaimed were the product of a cannibalistic nature.

Below: Ota Benga at the St. Louis World’s Fair with other men taken from Africa 

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He went back with Verner to Africa only to arrive back in America by 1906 where he was placed in the care of the American Museum of Natural History. Ota Benga actually lived inside the museum, subject to more than a few indignities. “I have bought a duck suit for the Pigmy,” wrote Hermon Carey Bumpus, the director of the museum, to Verner. “He is around the museum, apparently perfectly happy and more or less a favorite of the men.”

Ota Benga’s removal to the Bronx Zoo and subsequent display in the Monkey House has certainly been a blight to that institution’s history. The decision reveals the outmoded and racist philosophies that pervaded scientific thinking of the day.

At best, Ota Benga was simply an object in an exotic diorama with audiences prodding him to do tricks. His humanity was barely considered. At worst, the exhibition lays bare the racism of the day in the most baldy sinister way possible, corroding even the most esteemed institutions of the day.

It’s a small relief to hear of the many criticisms the zoo received in the press back in 1906. Sanity soon prevailed and Ota Benga left the zoo to live in an orphanage in Weeksville, Brooklyn.

2Newkirk gives the life of Ota Benga a proper eulogy. She crafts an intriguing tale around the many uncertainties of his biography, sometimes even stopping to analyze his state of mind.  I greatly credit the author for parsing through volumes of inaccurate news reports in search of even the smallest grains of truth.

His story ends with an unsatisfying hollowness, outside New York and far from the Congo. Few in his life ever treated him as an equal. In fact, due to his size, he was frequently treated like a boy, although he mostly like ended his life in his early 30s.  He never found a place to fit in.

There’s only a single moment in the book where Newkirk lets us in on his marvelous potential, on a life that could have been under more fair and enlightened circumstances.

He becomes, for a moment, “a father figure and hero” to a group of small African-American boys in Lynchburg, Virginia.  “In Benga they found an open and patient teacher, a beloved companion, and a remarkably agile athlete who sprinted and leaped over logs like a boy. And with his young companions Benga could uninhibitedly relive memories of a lost and longed-for life and retreat to woods that recalled home.”

Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga

Amistad, HarperCollinsPublishers

by Pamela Newkirk

 

Other recently reviewed books on the Bowery Boys Bookshelf:

‘Days of Rage’ and Nights of Terror

Right before noon on March 6, 1970, an explosion tore open a lovely Greenwich Village townhouse at 18 West 11th Street and awoke New York City to a violent new threat.

The remains of three bodies were discovered in the smoking debris but they weren’t residents of this quiet neighborhood. They were members of The Weather Underground, a radical underground unit absorbing the counter-culture spirit of the 1960s and unleashing it — oftentimes randomly and irrationally —  onto a new decade.

Below: Oddly enough, the townhouse explosion occurred next door to the home of Dustin Hoffman and his wife.

Courtesy AP file photo
Courtesy AP file photo

Less than two years later, two New York police officers were brutally assassinated in the East Village, among the most brutal and shocking crimes against the NYPD in its history.  This wasn’t a random crime but a hit placed upon the officers by members of the Black Liberation Army, wielding some of the philosophies of the Black Panthers to dangerous ends.

Almost three years later, a bomb exploded inside the historic Fraunces Tavern during in the middle of a busy weekday lunch. Four men were killed in the sudden attack, made by the Armed Forces of Puerto Rican National Liberation (or FALN).

Below: Aftermath of the explosion at Fraunces Tavern (courtesy New York Daily News)

faln

In between these terrible disasters were several other bombings of other significant buildings, here in New York and in other cities through the United States.  All of them indicative of a violent (and ultimately failed) form of protest, as turbulently described by Bryan Burrough in his new book Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, The FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence.

This is probably one of the most frightening non-fiction books I’ve read in recent memory, a broad and exquisitely told tale that loosely links together a variety of American revolutionary action groups from the 1970s.

Some of the principal players of these groups are recognizable (Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn,  Patty Hearst), but the breadths of their actions has been seldom studied. Through interviews with members who’ve never spoken, Burroughs patches together connections among these disparate groups — even if those connections are more philosophical than physical.

Below: The mugshot of Bernadine Dohrn, 1970

Bernardine_Dohrn_published_1970

 

Most shared the belief that violence, disruption and chaos would lead America to a new revolutionary age. As Burrough points out, most were inspired by civil rights movement and the plight of black Americans, taking their anger and frustration into far more radical directions than the mainstream leaders who advocated non-violence and change through the law.

While the vulgar and gut-wrenching violence was often doused with machismo, many of these groups were led or operated by women.

The title comes from a series of demonstrations that occurred in Chicago in the fall of 1969, seen as a sort of kick off to this festering revolutionary movement.  Much of the book details the ‘underground’ hideouts and escape routes of these organization, whether holed up in Manhattan’s Chinatown or San Francisco (as the Weathermen were, often dressed in silly disguises) or running from capture through rural Georgia.

Burrough does not flinch from the horror, graphically describing the aftermath of many of the more loathsome crimes.  The 1972 deaths of two NYPD officers in the East Village is especially grim. (You can read news of the original account here.)

patty

In particular, I found the tale of the Symbionese Liberation Army especially gripping, notable less for their violent actions (although there certainly was some) than for the somewhat random notion to kidnap the granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst.  Many of these stories will replay in your memory as a reel of black-and-white news footage or a set of iconic photographs (such as the one above of Hearst).  Days of Rage offers a vivid and refreshing new context.

Burrough — a Vanity Fair writer perhaps best known for Barbarians At The Gate — is a thorough story-teller, conjuring fully blown narratives from the sometimes untrustworthy recollections of the surviving participants.  He’s often too thorough, sometimes including superfluous details because they’ve “never before been told.”

Chaos was an organizing principal for these groups which is partially way they were ultimately unsuccessful. As shocking as some of these horrifying attacks seem today, it’s a wonder many of them were successful orchestrated at all, given the tentative organizational structure and often incompetent leadership of these groups.

 

 

 

Top photograph courtesy Marty Lederhandler/AP Images.

Reservoir Square — 150 years ago!

Here are three stunning stereoscopic views of old Reservoir Square, the park next to the Murray Hill Reservoir that became sadly vacant after the fiery destruction of the Crystal Palace.  These stereoscopes — ancestors to the View-Masters which some of you may remember from childhood — were taken in 1865.

Now without its dazzling occupant, the park was landscaped for recreational use, but its location next to the imposing Egyptian-style reservoir made it a grim place to wander about in at certain times of the day.

During the 1860s this was still a sparsely populated area, even as Fifth Avenue on the other side began slowly filling up with luxury mansions and townhouses.

Just a couple years earlier, a horrible event occurred just nearby.  During that violent week of the Civil War Draft riots in July 1863, the Colored Orphan Asylum (just across the street, between 43rd and 44th Streets) was burned down by the mob, the children fleeing for their lives.

It’s a bit unsettling to look at this pictures from so long ago and realize how close they were to this terrible stain in New York history.  Many years after these pictures were taken, the park would be renamed after one of the city’s most prominent citizens — William Cullen Bryant.

Pictures courtesy the New York Public Library. Presumably these originals are located in Bryant Park today!

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On this Veteran’s Day, a salute to the Harlem Hellfighters!

The men of the 369th who were awarded France’s Criox de Guerre for distinguished acts of heroism:  Pvt. Ed Williams, Herbert Taylor, Pvt. Leon Fraitor, Pvt. Ralph Hawkins. Back Row: Sgt. H. D. Prinas, Sgt. Dan Strorms, Pvt. Joe Williams, Pvt. Alfred Hanley, and Cpl. T. W. Taylor

New York’s 369th Infantry Regiment was America’s first African-American regiment engaged in World War I.  While many white American soldiers would have been happy to serve next to trained regiments of any color, intense racial prejudice in the United States forced many who signed up to fight for their country to instead be assigned to the French army.

Nicknamed the Harlem Hellfighters, the regiment served alongside the French during the summer and fall of 1918.  Perhaps the most famous soldier of the 369th was Private Henry Lincoln Johnson (at right) whose deadly efficiency on the battlefield earned him the grim nickname Black Death.  He became the first of dozens from the 369th to receive the prestigious Criox de Guerre, the equivalent of the American Medal of Honor.

They returned to New York in February 1919 and marched through the streets of Manhattan on February 17 — from Greenwich Village to Harlem, in triumph.

From the New York Times the following day:

New York’s negro soldiers, bringing with them from France one of the bravest records achieved by any organization in the war, marched amidst waving flags and cheering crowds yesterday from Twenty-third Street and Fifth Avenue to 145th Street and Lenox Avenue.”

“At Thirty-Fourth Street the men marched under a shower of cigarettes and candy, and such tokens were pitched at them at other points in the line, but the files did not waver for an instant.

The men of the 369th photographed as they arrive back in New York City, 1919

From original caption (courtesy US National Archies):  “[The] 369th New York City Infantry (old 15th) [African American] troops and some of the 370th Infantry, Illinois [African American] troops, one of the most decorated regiments in the United States Army return to New York City. They saw [the] longest service of any American regiment as part of a foreign army, and had less training than any before going into action. They were never in an American division or brigade always being with the French.”

The 369th marching up Fifth Avenue.

The men are shown here in this assortment of newsreel footage from the war:

Pictures from the U.S. National Archives

Five items from the Village Voice, 50 years ago this week

Washington Square North, looking west, 1950, photo by Walter Sanders, Life Magazine

The entire back catalog of the Village Voice, New York’s original alternative weekly, is available online through Google News.  The early issues are especially full of character, a scrappy counter-culture organ which provides an interesting window into downtown Manhattan.  Here are some highlights from an issue which came out fifty years ago this week:

1) Washington Square Park, both the physical epicenter of Greenwich Village and the gathering place for the Village’s various cultural factions, faced a possible makeover by the city in 1964.  “This plan has two objectives.  The first is to clean up the park, which is now physically run-down and neglected.  The second, in response to complaints by adjacent property-owners, is to discourage beatniks and other ‘undesirable elements’ from congregating there.” [source]

The park had been a magnet for the beatnik scene since the early 1950s.   The folk singers who would gather on Sunday afternoons had won a major victory in 1961 after a so-called “beatnik riot” convinced the city to allow musical crowds to congregate there

The park was eventually altered that year, but one major change would have been applauded by all — the traffic lane that cut under the Washington Square Arch and through the park was officially closed.

2) Sara D. Roosevelt Park in the Lower East Side, meanwhile, remained a disheveled dump, and the Voice clearly saw it as a symbol of the city’s neglect of the poor. “While the Parks Department is champing at the bit to pour $750,000 into Washington Square …. Sara Delano Roosevelt playground resembles a post-war Berlin.  The latter, at Forsyth and Chrystie Streets, has been the scene of unrelieved wreckage for almost six years.  It was torn up to make way for a subway and no one one thought to put it back together again.

The Delacourte Theater, June 1964, a performance of Hamlet (courtesy NYC Parks)

3) The New York Shakespeare Festival has a new home at the Delacourte Theater in Central Park, but writer John Wilcock, author of the Village Square column, pines for the festival’s shaggier, less respectable days.  Respectability has rendered it commonplace, according to Wilcock. Now you have to line up to grab a seat!  “This is an improvement?”

4) The Black Revolution and The White Backlash, a lecture at Town Hall, featured an interesting group of guests, including LeRio Jones (aka Amiri Baraka):

5) The jazz and folk clubs: A glorious sampling of musical icons that week — Ella Fitzgerald, Stan Getz, George Carlin, the Highwaymen, Woody Allen, Jose Feliciano, Cannonball Adderley

The Broadway Musical: A trip through NYC’s musical history, from HMS Pinafore to Show Boat, along its most famous street


The comely ladies of ‘The Black Crook’. The show originally debuted at Niblo’s Garden, although I believe the photo above is from a later revival. (NYPL)

The Broadway Musical is one of New York City’s greatest inventions, 150 years in the making! It’s one of the truly American art forms, fueling one of the city’s most vibrant entertainment businesses and defining its most popular tourist attraction — Times Square.

 But why Broadway, exactly? Why not the Bowery or Fifth Avenue? And how did our fair city go from simple vaudeville and minstrel shows to Shuffle Along, Irene and Show Boat, surely the most influential musical of the Jazz Age?

This podcast is an epic, a wild musical adventure in itself, full of musical interludes, zipping through the evolution of musical entertainment in New York City, as it races up the ‘main seam’ of Manhattan — the avenue of Broadway.

We are proud to present a tour up New York City’s most famous street, past some of the greatest theaters and shows that have ever won acclaim here, from the wacky (and highly copied) imports of Gilbert & Sullivan to the dancing girls and singing sensations of the Ziegfeld revue tradition.

CO-STARRING: Well, some of the biggest names in songwriting, composing and singing. And even a dog who talks in German!  At right: Billie Burke from a latter-year Follies. (NYPL)

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services, subscribe to our RSS feed or get it straight from our satellite site.

You can also listen to the show on Stitcher streaming radio and Player FM from your mobile devices.

Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #159 The Broadway Musical: Setting the Stage

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The original grid plan from 1811. As you can see, Broadway was not meant to extend further than the Parade Ground, the largest planned plaza from the Commissioner’s Plan. Years later, the Parade Ground was reduced (becoming Madison Square) and Broadway was allowed to break the grid, creating plazas conducive for transportation and public gathering. (NYPL)

One of dozens of knock-off productions of HMS Pinafore, this one featuring children:

The facade of the Fifth Avenue Theater, once located at 1185 Broadway. Why was it called the Fifth Avenue Theater then? Possibly to just make the society ladies feel at home here!  This was home to three Gilbert & Sullivan original productions, including the premiere of The Pirates of Penzance.

The Florodora girls, from the hugely successful 1900 musical comedy which debuted at the Casino Theater. (NYPL)

One of the more fantastic creatures from Victor Herbert’s Babes In Toyland, which made its debut in Columbus Circle’s Majectic Theater. You can read my article here on the musical which inspired Herbert’s show, the musical version of The Wizard of Oz. (NYPL)

George M Cohan in a rare film appearance from 1932.

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Video of a Ziegfeld Follies from 1929, a bit past their heyday, actually. They would only last until 1931:

Sheet music from 1921 of one of the most famous songs from Shuffle Along (NYPL):

Dancing girls during the Actors Strike of 1919, which galvanized the industry and gave regular New Yorkers a window into the tough conditions faced by many background performers. (NYPL)

So the number ‘After The Ball’ — a huge hit song that made its stage debut in A Trip To Chinatown — made a return appearance to Broadway in 1927’s Show Boat!

Musical cues from this week’s show:
Give My Regards To Broadway and After the Ball performed by Billy Murray
Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man and Ol Man River, performed by Helen Morgan and Paul Robeson, respectively, from a 1932 cast recording, featuring Victor Young and His Orchestra
Love Will Find A Way, from a 1921 recording by Eubie Blake
Selection from HMS Pinafore, from a 1914 recording by the Victory Light Opera Chorus

 Here’s an interesting version of “After the Ball” by the song’s composer, Charles K Harris!

 And finally, a clip from the film version of ‘Show Boat’, featuring an iconic performance by Paul Robeson.
 

 From the original 1927 production of Show Boat at the Ziegfeld Theatre: