Black history in Chelsea

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The neighborhood was home to a significant African-American community until about 1910


  • Cher Carden, a board member of Save Chelsea, highlighting touchstones of the neighborhood's African-American community, which thrived during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Photo: Lily Haight

Black history is not confined to one month, or, for that matter, to any single neighborhood or even region. In Chelsea, for instance, it’s in just about every nook and cranny of that district’s architecture — if you know where to look.

“There’s a lot of people who do not know that this northern part of Chelsea, from 23rd Street and even into the lower 30s, an area that used to be known as the Tenderloin, was also one of the major African-American quarters of the city before Harlem,” said Laurence Frommer, co-president of the preservation group Save Chelsea, which organized a recent tour of the neighborhood’s African-American touchstones.

“There was a huge influx of African-Americans into New York from the South, but from all over the country,” Frommer said. “In about 1870 or so, there were no more than about 20,000 African-Americans in New York City. By 1900, there were 60,000.”

In that short period, a black community in Chelsea thrived, making history in the city’s art, music and theater movements. A century or so later, the impacts of the black community can still be found.

What is now Selis Manor, a rehabilitation center for the blind on 23rd Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, used to be Proctor’s Theater, an impressive brick-clad structure built by impresario Frederick Francis Proctor. While Proctor started out showing plays, and at one point exhibited the state-of-the-art phonograph, his theater also hosted a performance by the Memphis Students, said to have been one of the first modern jazz bands, in 1905.

Neither students nor from Memphis, the Memphis Students was composed of 17 talented musicians, making up what historian James Weldon Johnson called “a playing-singing-dancing orchestra” who used banjos, mandolins, guitars, saxophones and drums in combination.

“When I talk about these things and read about these things I can imagine it as it’s happening. This is like watching seeds grow,” said Cher Carden, a board member of Save Chelsea and a jazz singer herself. “It was like the beginning of bringing jazz into the world. ... To know and to get close to that beginning is just amazing.”

Chelsea also played a part in preludes to the Civil Rights Movement.

Just down the street from where Proctor’s Theater used to stand is St. Vincent de Paul Church. In the 1850s the church’s pastor, the Rev. Annet Lafont, an abolitionist and major supporter of African-American rights, sought to teach black children at the parish school. This displeased white parents, who began to pull their children out of classes. Lafont was not deterred. Instead, with financial help from philanthropist Pierre Toussaint, he started teaching the children in his own home.

While the church still stands, it was shuttered by the Archdiocese of New York in 2013 and sold to hotelier Jeffrey Dagowitz.

“The issue these days ... is that a lot of religious organizations are cash poor and property rich. So they have two choices. They either sell it all outright and move on or they sell their air rights,” Frommer said.

Throughout the tour a similar theme cropped up: the constantly changing nature of the city’s neighborhoods. As fast as the African-American community in Chelsea grew, it diminished just a few decades later. When building started on Penn Station in 1910, at least 10,000 Chelsea residents were displaced.

The city had started to advertise apartment buildings as having only white tenants, slowly pushing out the African-American community.

By that time, Harlem was growing as a black community, and the Harlem Renaissance, the great flowering of African-American culture, was nearing full bloom.

In Chelsea, traces of the African-American community from around the start of the 20th century time period are difficult to find without a tour guide, and could become harder as new development takes hold. But if Save Chelsea has a say, the neighborhood’s history will continue to have a voice, if not a physical presence.

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