For anyone seeking ways to celebrate Black History Month besides seeing “Black Panther,” I’ve compiled a list of New York City’s African-American museums. As an aside, I’m not sure seeing “Black Panther” actually counts, but I went today and it was awesome.
Of course, many of the city’s general arts and cultural institutions feature African-Americans as part of their permanent collections and in temporary exhibitions. For example you could pay homage to the Obamas, Beyoncé, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and others at Madame Tussaud’s. Or visit Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx for its tour visiting Duke Ellington and other great African-American “residents.”
New York has nine museums devoted to African-American culture, art, and history. I reckon that seven are well worth a visit, whatever month you happen to read this.
I’ve also included an addendum of two non-African-American places and a “maybe.” These are less appropriate but may still merit visits to ponder black history.
African Burial Ground National Monument, Lower Manhattan. A solemn and dignified memorial to the pre-Revolutionary War black experience in New York City.
Lewis Latimer House, Flushing, Queens — A tribute to a largely forgotten African-American inventor, musician, poet, and general Renaissance guy, who worked with Edison perfecting the light bulb and became an important executive at GE.
Louis Armstrong House Museum, Corona, Queens. One of the city’s best house museums and a tribute to a truly singular, titanic genius of music history, and the modest life he and his wife led in Queens.
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Harlem. An essential resource for black history, literature, and the arts. Leverages the New York Public Library’s supreme skill at curating shows that use primary documents to bring history to life.
Studio Museum in Harlem, Harlem. A fantastic collection and great space make this a must-visit institution for African-American art in New York City.
Weeksville Heritage Center, Bed-Stuy/Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Historic houses and a sleek, modern visitor’s center commemorate Weeksville, an African American community started in the 1830s.
I Don’t Recommend
National Jazz Museum, Harlem. An institution with grand ambitions hampered by limitations of space and capability. Jazz may just not work well in the confines of a museum.
The Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA), in Downtown Brooklyn, has a great name, but a small space that doesn’t suit its mission statement or its ambitions. So I can’t recommend it.
Sandy Ground Historical Society, Staten Island. Sandy Ground was an early African-American community. I tried, unsuccessfully, to visit this place this week. It’s a huge trek to get somewhere not reliably open during its ostensible open hours. Check out Weeksville in Brooklyn instead. Sandy Ground’s website is here.
Addendum: One “Maybe,” Two “Others”
Fraunces Tavern Museum, Lower Manhattan. This is my “maybe.” Some reckon that Samuel Fraunces, saloonkeeper, spy, and aide to Washington, was black. Mainly because his nickname was “Black Sam.” However, there’s little solid evidence for this claimed racial background, and most historians seriously doubt it. Still, ‘maybe.’
General Grant National Memorial, Morningside Heights, Manhattan. Obviously Ulysses S. Grant wasn’t an African-American, but in an era when some parts of this country still can’t seem to get rid of Confederate monuments, why not visit one of New York’s greatest monuments to the victors in the Civil War?
King Manor Museum, Jamaica, Queens. Rufus King was not an African-American either, but he was an early, persistent voice against the compromises that the framers of the Constitution made allowing slavery in the infant United States. His historic home today serves as a monument to an early abolitionist.
Okay, I’ve got one more, but it’s not a physical place. I feel compelled to add the Museum of UnCut Funk, a virtual institution that co-presented the Finance Museum’s great exhibit on blacks on U.S. currency. As surely the funkiest museum in the world, I highly recommend visiting it online, even if it’s not technically in New York.