To mark Martin Luther King Day, there are four streams in Manhattan that relate to black history in New York City. Chronologically, they cover more than three centuries from the arrival of the first Angolan and Congolese slaves in New Amsterdam in 1626, to the civil rights period in Harlem.
On the subject of black history and rivers, perhaps no poem is as evocative of the connection as Langston Hughes‘ “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” The composition speaks of how some of the world’s major streams have enriched the soul of the African American.
Hughes wrote that the poem came to his mind around 1920 when he was on a boat heading down the Mississippi. A year later, he briefly studied at Columbia University and then resumed traveling the world. He returned to Harlem in 1930, living there until his death in 1967. The poem is so closely connected to Hughes that his ashes were deposited in 1991 beneath a cosmogram illustration of the major rivers at the Schomburg Center in Harlem.
At the dedication on January 31, 1991, the leading lights of poetry among African Americans attended, including Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Amiri Baraka, and the cosmogram’s artist Houston Conwill. The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture is the leading place to learn about the city’s black history, located in the heart of Harlem. Now, let’s move on to the hidden waters. Unless otherwise noted, the maps used were designed by the legendary city stream cartographer Egbert Ludovicus Viele.
This stream originated in two branches on the Upper West Side, running through what would become Central Park, and emptying in the East River. In the early colonial years, slaves were used to chop down trees along this stream, earning it the name Saw Kill.
During the New Amsterdam period, a community built by former slaves emerged along the banks of Minetta Creek in present-day Greenwich Village.
In 1643, Big Manuel and Paul Angola established their farms after being granted “half-freedom” by the Dutch West India Company. Along with nine other former slaves, they established New York’s first African American community. At the time, this “Little Africa” as it was known, was on the northern outskirts of New Amsterdam, a swampy expanse that acted as a buffer between the town and hostile natives further north. A path along Minetta Brook that connected these farms was dubbed Negroes Causeway by early mapmakers. Within 20 years, another 20 emancipated Africans joined these pioneer farmers. Little Africa maintained its status as the city’s primary black neighborhood until the late-19th century.
With nearly a fifth of the city’s population comprising of slaves and former slaves, a new cemetery was established in 1697 on the city’s northern outskirts, to the southeast of Collect Pond. This 6.6 acre site was known as either Negroes Burial Ground or African Burial Ground, depending on how the mapmakers and local residents felt about the black population. By 1784, between 15,000 and 20,000 individuals were interred at this cemetery.
Among the buried were the 21 executed for taking part in the slave revolt of 1712, when an armed mob of slaves and free blacks attacked firefighters who were putting out a blaze at Maiden Lane, near Broadway. Following this unsuccessful uprising, the city’s blacks became the subjects of additional laws designed to restrict their movement, ability to gather and amass capital.
A second series of executions followed in May 1741 following a wave of arsons and illegal gatherings of black individuals. In an apparent witch-hunt, the accused provided names, ensnaring more suspects into the alleged conspiracy. Between May and August of that year, 17 blacks and four whites were executed outside a gunpowder storage located on a peninsula in the pond, a spot labeled Magazine Island. The site of the executions is presently occupied by the Jacob Javits Federal Office Building, better known as 26 Federal Plaza.
The pond at Morningside Park appears natural but in reality was once a construction pit for a gymnasium that was never completed. Proposed by Columbia University in 1960, the 2.2-acre structure would have straddled the cliff with a separate building entrance on each side. Columbia students would enter on Morningside Terrace and Harlem residents at Morningside Avenue, nearly five stories below the level of the terrace.
At the time, the architects thought nothing about the intrusion of a modernist structure on the rundown Victorian landscape. Eight years after the gym was proposed, national and world events cast the facility in a different light. The presence of a wealthy university with a mostly white faculty and student body overlooking a low income majority black neighborhood below appeared to be reflected in the gymnasium. In addition, while the university would own and operate the proposed gym on public parkland, it would only be open to Harlem residents during specified times. Very quickly, protest signs emerged referring to the proposed building as “Gym Crow.”
When construction began in February 1968, demonstrators rushed in to stop the project. Columbia University was forced to retreat and built its gym within its campus.
For the next two decades, the gymnasium’s foundation pit sat unused as the city, neighborhood advocates and Columbia University debated the reuse of the site. In 1988, construction resumed on the pit as it was being transformed into a two-acre pond. Designed by the landscape architecture firms Quennell Rothschild and Bond Ryder and Associates, the pond included a bird sanctuary isle and a 50-foot waterfall cascading down the Manhattan schist cliffs.
To learn more about slavery in New York, here are two very detailed books on the topic:
To zoom in on Manhattan’s black history, the first detailed book on the topic is James Weldon Johnson’s 1930 work titled, “Black Manhattan.”