Tenement Museum to Feature a Black Family’s Apartment for the First Time

By admin Dec19,2023

For the past 35 years, the Tenement Museum has told the stories of immigrants and migrants who lived in New York City in the 19th and 20th centuries to help visitors better understand the city through the lives of its working class.

For the first time in its history, the museum will soon feature the apartment of a Black family as a permanent exhibit.

A Union of Hope,” the new exhibit in the Lower East Side museum, will include the recreated apartment of Joseph Moore, a coachman, and Rachel Moore, a housekeeper. The exhibit was supposed to open in 2022, but was delayed. Limited tours begin on Dec. 26, and it will open completely in February.

The Tenement Museum has centered Black history in the past, including during walking tours and public talks, said Kat Lloyd, the museum’s vice president of programs and interpretation. But the families featured since the museum’s opening in 1988 have largely been immigrants and refugees from Europe. This is, in part, because the museum has focused on people who lived in the two buildings where the museum is located, Ms. Lloyd said.

But that’s changing.

“The most sort of glaring gap for us was the story of Black New Yorkers who lived in tenements,” Ms. Lloyd said. The new exhibit will help the organization achieve “this goal of restoring history and telling a fuller wider story.”

The museum learned of the Moore family in 2008. One of its exhibits featured an Irishman also named Joseph Moore who had lived in one of the museum’s buildings at 97 Orchard Street. Over the years, visitors were curious about another Joseph Moore listed in the city’s directory, which was part of the exhibit. That Joseph Moore had “col’d” next to his name, an abbreviation for “colored,” signifying he was Black.

In 2019, the museum decided to create an exhibit about that Joseph Moore. He was born in Belvidere, N.J., and moved to New York City in 1857, where slavery had already been outlawed for 30 years. He married Ms. Moore in 1864, and they lived in a two-room apartment at 17 Laurens Street, in what is now SoHo, for at least six years.

In addition to the Moores, three other people lived in the apartment: Jane Kennedy, a dressmaker and Ms. Moore’s sister-in-law from her first marriage; Rose Brown, an Irish immigrant who worked as a washerwoman; and Louis Munday, Ms. Brown’s son who was Irish and Black.

Curators of the exhibit drew from a number of resources, including published essays and newspaper clippings, to recreate the two-room apartment.

In one room, two beds are against the walls, one of which the Moores would have shared and the other for Ms. Kennedy, Ms. Lloyd said. A sewing station for Ms. Kennedy sits near a window. Museum curators also included a framed photo of Abraham Lincoln on the fireplace mantle after finding that a newspaper article about another of Mr. Moore’s apartments in 1889 had noted such a portrait.

“It’s very, very rare for us to have a description of an actual apartment where one of our subjects lives,” Ms. Lloyd said, adding that the portrait encourages visitors to dwell on “what kind of symbolism Lincoln might hold for Joseph, for others within his community.”

The apartment’s only other room includes a turkey carcass stored in a larder, or cupboard. The carcass was inspired by an essay in “Heads of Colored People” by Dr. James McCune Smith, the first African-American to receive a medical degree. The essay describes a woman who receives a turkey carcass as payment from her employer.

“The washerwoman essay is really like the closest we have to a source that is describing a Black tenement home in this period,” Ms. Lloyd said.

The second room also features a stove with enough space to fit a large pot of water for laundry. Oysters, which were sort of the “pizza slice of the 1860s,” Ms. Lloyd said, rest in a pan on the stove.

To give visitors an idea of what the conversations among Black Americans in the 1860s might have sounded like, the Tenement Museum partnered with the Black Gotham Experience, an organization offering walking tours across the city.

In one such conversation, two school-age children discuss “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” which was published in 1852. Another features adults crowded around a newspaper, discussing the ratification of the 15th Amendment in 1870, paving the way for Black men to vote.

Marquis Taylor, the lead researcher for the exhibit, said photos, speeches and newspapers, including the six or so Black newspapers in New York in the 1850s and 1860s, were essential to constructing the conversations.

The newspapers captured a “diversity of opinions,” he noted, covering events at Black churches, efforts by Black New Yorkers to repeal the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and efforts by Black women to repeal property requirements to vote.

Recently, Ms. Lloyd wondered aloud what a Black woman named Gina Manuel would think about the exhibit. In 1989, Ms. Manuel wrote to Ruth J. Abrams, one of the museum’s founders, after listening to her on WNYC AM Radio, Ms. Lloyd said.

In the letter, Ms. Manuel told Ms. Abrams about her ancestors who lived in tenement buildings on the Lower East Side before being “pushed out” to Hell’s Kitchen. She begged Ms. Abrams to not forget them in the museum.

“Their spirits walk those halls, and their bones lay in the earth there, and we remember them,” Ms. Manuel wrote.

“Most of society seems to write us off when they look at the history of New York City, and America, but my people were part of New York City,” she said. They “deserve to be remembered.”

By admin

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