Destinations, The Arts

Explore New York’s Black History and Culture

February 1, 2017
Harlem Renaissance

Harlem was a cultural haven during the Harlem Renaissance.

African Americans have always been an essential part of New York City. Though the first Black residents were brought to the city against their will, African Americans later streamed into NYC from all over the country (and the world) seeking a better life. Black New Yorkers have enhanced all aspects of the city’s history and culture, particularly its music, literature, cuisine, and visual and performing arts. Here are some ways to explore and experience New York’s Black History and Culture.

Apollo Theater, NYC

The legendary Apollo Theater, a historic site of African American music. Photo: Jeff Dobbins

Black Culture in Harlem

Often called the “Black Capital of America,” Harlem is unquestionably the city’s most historic center of Black culture.  While the neighborhood is undergoing some development and gentrification, it’s still home to many historic sites. Some notable sites include Abyssinian Baptist Church, Strivers’ Row, Langston Hughes’ former home, Malcolm X’s mosque, and the neighborhood’s commercial hub, 125th Street.

Apollo Theater – the landmark theater that launched the careers of Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, James Brown, Jimmy Hendrix, and the Jackson Five to name just a few.  In addition to concerts, the famed Amateur Night takes places most Wednesdays. Check the theater’s calendar for a performance schedule. Fun and informative Theater tours are also available.

Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture – this branch of the New York Public Library is one of the world’s leading research facilities for African experiences and cultures. In addition to the research library and exhibits, the Center hosts events including discussions, theater and musical performances, and a film series. Check their program schedule for calendar and details. (And be sure and see the wonderful Aaron Douglas murals hanging above the main reading room).

Aaron Douglas murals, Schomberg Center, NYC

Two of the extraordinary works by Aaron Douglas in the Schomberg Center. Photo: Jeff Dobbins

Studio Museum in Harlem – Located on historic 125th St., this museum showcases works by artists of American descent.  Besides its impressive permanent collection, the museum hosts exhibitions and programs.  The museum is open Thursday – Sunday (Sundays free admission).

National Jazz Museum in Harlem – at this intimate museum, you can peruse exhibits, explore their library, and enjoy a vast CD and DVD archive. They also present a busy roster of performances and events.

Music is a quintessential aspect of Harlem’s culture. To experience superb music, see our guides to attending a Harlem Gospel Service and Harlem’s Jazz Clubs.

Harlem Heritage Tours offer walking and bus tours led by locals. They offer several tours focused on aspects of the neighborhood’s history, music, and food.

Speaking of food, Harlem offers some incredible treats, from soul food to craft cocktails. Check our post on Best Restaurants in Harlem and indulge.

African Burial Ground, NYC

Inside the moving African Burial Ground Museum. Photo: Jeff Dobbins

Black History throughout NYC

African Burial Ground – this Lower Manhattan site is the resting place of more than 15,000 free and enslaved Africans who were buried during the 17th & 18th Century.  Discovered in 1991 during construction of a Federal building, a National Monument and Visitors Center now stands at the site.

Weeksville Heritage Center – Weeksville was a village of free African Americans founded just after the abolition of slavery in New York.  The community thrived during the 19th and early 20th centuries and included schools, churches, newspapers, and benevolent associations.  It also participated in anti-slavery activities.  Three original Road Houses (1840s-1880s) feature exhibits and tours are available Tuesday – Thursday at 3pm. During warmer weather, the Center offers a roster of events and cultural programs.

Here’s an interesting video about Weeksville:


The Underground Railroad, the network of safe spaces for fugitive slaves escaping to freedom, ran right through NYC. Several sites of the “stations” still exist in the city. Plymouth Church was a center of the Abolitionist Movement and known as the “Grand Central Depot” of the railroad. In addition to harboring Black fugitives, pastor Henry Ward Beecher conducted “Slave Auctions” in which the congregation donated money to buy a slave’s freedom. The church features a small museum highlighting its abolitionist history. History Tours are available Sunday mornings after services and by appointment. 

David Ruggles not only sheltered runaways (including Frederick Douglass), but he fought for African American rights and opened the nation’s first Black Bookstore. His home, which was site of the “station” and store, still stands at 36 Lispenard Street and features a plaque commemorating Ruggles’ groundbreaking work.

Louis Armstrong House Museum, NYC

Inside the Louis Armstrong House Museum. Photo: via museum’s Facebook page.

Louis Armstrong House Museum – This Queens house was home to the Jazz legend from 1943 until his death. Meticulously preserved, it’s now a museum celebrating Armstrong’s life and music. It’s open to the public with guided tours led each week from Tuesday through Sunday.

Seneca Village – inside Central Park are the remnants of what was an interracial community, including hundreds of free African Americans. The village contained churches, schools, gardens and was the largest community of African-American property owners in 19tth century New York. While there’s not much left of the village, the Central Park Conservancy offers informative tours about the lost community.

Alvin Ailey Dance Theater

The renowned Alvin Ailey Dance Theater. Photo: Rosalie O’Connor, via Alvin Ailey Co.

NYC Black Cultural Performances

New York is home to many acclaimed performance ensembles that present works showcasing African American culture. Among the most respected are Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Dance Theater of Harlem, the National Black Theatre and Harlem Repertory Theatre. The Mama Foundation for the Arts presents musicals and concerts celebrating Black culture performed by local talent. Part of their mission is to train and nurture NYC teens from at-risk communities.

Hip Hop was created in New York and has become one of the world’s most popular genres of music and dance. Hush Tours offers excursions that focus on different accepts of the city’s Hip Hop scene.

West Indian Day Parade, NYC

The colorful, jubilant West Indian Day Parade in Brooklyn. Photo: Jeff Dobbins

NYC Black Cultural Events

New York’s Black communities hold several festive events celebrating their cultures. Notable annual events include Harlem Week, the West Indian Day Parade & Carnival and the African American Day Parade. Kwanzaa Celebrations are also part of the city’s holiday season.

NYC Black History Month

February is the nation’s Black History Month, and NYC cultural institutions celebrate with lots of exhibitions, events, and performances. Great places for comprehensive listings of Black History Month events are NYCGo and Time Out New York.

Harlem Week, NYC

Dancing in the streets. Harlem Week is a wonderful street party. Photo: Jeff Dobbins

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  • Reply Urban Travelista February 21, 2017 at 10:13 am

    Lovely and amazing information you can’t pass up

    • Reply Jeff Dobbins February 21, 2017 at 11:58 am

      Thank you for the nice comment. Have you had a chance to explore NYC and Harlem? If not, they’re changing quickly.

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