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April 30, 2024, 11:13 a.m.
Aggregation & Discovery

The New York City Tenement Museum used historic Black newspapers to create its latest exhibit

“Archiving materials still matters even in our digital age, primarily if the stories you explore provide a counter-narrative to the dominant society.”

In December, the Tenement Museum in New York City opened its latest exhibit, “A Union of Hope: 1869”. The exhibit is a carefully curated recreation of Joseph and Rachel Moore’s apartment in SoHo, that aims to immerse visitors into what life (and home) was like for the couple at that time.

It was the first time the Tenement Museum — which recreates and exhibits the homes of “working-class tenement residents who moved to New York City” — featured a Black family and their experiences. To bring the exhibit to life, lead researcher Marquis Taylor relied on the archives of Black newspapers of the time to better understand the conditions and contexts that the Moores lived in. Reprinted copies of the papers are installed in the exhibit for visitors to see.

The use of immigrant and community press archives isn’t new for the Tenement Museum. For the “Family Owned” exhibit about the Schneiders, German-speaking immigrants who owned and operated a lager beer saloon, the museum referred to the New-Yorker Staats-Zeitung, which was the most read German-language newspaper in 19th-century New York.

At a time when digital news sites are shuttering and their archives are in limbo, I went back and forth with Taylor to learn more about his research for this exhibit, piecing together pictures of Black life through the Black press, and the importance of archiving. Our Q&A below has been edited for length and clarity.

Hanaa’ Tameez: How did you find the papers’ archives, and how accessible were they?

Marquis Taylor: The Weekly Anglo-African [was] the sole surviving Black newspaper based in New York City during the Civil War. It constitutes a significant portion of the archive used for “Union of Hope: 1869.” The paper began in 1859 and dissolved in 1865. In 1947, the Committee on Negro Studies of the American Council of Learned Societies sponsored a major microfilm project that resulted in parts of The Weekly Anglo-African being microfilmed and transferred to the Library of Congress. There are fragments of the newspaper accessible on microfilm at scattered archives throughout the country.

Still, there’s no coherent record of The Weekly Anglo-African. My engagement with this source required a piecemeal method because most repositories holding The Weekly Anglo-African on either microfilm or digitally scanned have different issues of the paper. I primarily view the paper on microfilm, available at the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, and Northwestern University. I used Ancestry.com and Readex, a newspaper database, to view the digitized copies of the paper.

Other 19th-century Black newspapers, such as Frederick Douglass’ Paper, The Colored American, and Freedom’s Journal, were also involved in developing the archive for this exhibit. These papers are through the Accessible Archives database, which I have access to as a Northwestern graduate student.

Tameez: What was it like going through those papers? Was anything missing or particularly difficult to track down?

Taylor: Newspapers are exciting sources to examine. Nineteenth-century Black newspapers provide an entry point to the issues, concerns, and priorities of Black New Yorkers during the antebellum and Civil War eras. In the pages of Black newspapers, subscribers read about abolitionist efforts throughout the United States and the Caribbean, as well as the latest news within Black churches and schools throughout the city and neighboring states.

Those same patrons also intensely debated various issues, ranging from the benefits of leaving the U.S. and migrating to Haiti or Liberia to the limitations of city living versus moving to the countryside. These stories and debates illuminate both the complexity and diversity of thought among Black New Yorkers in precarious moments fraught by the strengthening of laws that undermined the freedom and rights of free people of color.

Although the Black press offers valuable information, there are silences, too. There is a masculine undertone present in much of the 19th-century Black press. Women are seldom discussed as social and political equals of men. Women of extraordinary achievement and those connected to some existing structure within the Black community, like churches and schools, appear in the Black press. That framing has made locating ordinary working-class Black women, like Rachel [in the exhibit], a challenge.

However, in a serialized set of articles about working-class Black New Yorkers, one centers on a washerwoman residing in a tenement apartment in New York City. Dr. James McCune Smith, New York City’s first Black physician, authored the articles. Smith’s article on the washerwoman was an indispensable source for the Museum and our interpretation of the parlor space in Joseph and Rachel’s apartment.

Tameez: What trends did you find about journalism and the Black press in that era?

Taylor: Editors of Black newspapers were acutely aware of their responsibility to elevate the social, moral, and spiritual standing of their Black readership. Browsing the pages of the Black press, readers can easily understand that outlawing slavery, securing political rights like universal suffrage, and equitably funded public schools for Black students were critical demands among Black people in the antebellum United States.

Also, these papers focused almost exclusively on the positive elements of Black life. To this extent, Black newspaper editors were highly intentional about the stories they would share and those they would not openly discuss. In The Weekly Anglo-African, there was ample coverage of respectable forms of leisure, such as church concerts, meetings among Black political leaders, and lyceums at Black public schools. The Black press did not report on saloons and dance halls, which were essential sites for working-class Black New York life.

The strategy of respectability that Black newspaper editors engaged in was informed by the mainstream press’s hyperfocus and sensationalist reporting of news involving Black people. The mainstream press’s emphasis on crime, squalor, and morbidity among Black people prompted Black journalists to respond and chart a vibrant moral geography of Black New York.

Tameez: In the present day, we often see news sites shut down and their journalism lost because it isn’t archived. How did this process make you think about news archives and journalism as a first draft of history?

Taylor: Conducting the research for “Union of Hope” has made me appreciate newspapers as a first draft of history and the work of today’s journalists even more. Like today, journalists of the 1860s reported on current events, often providing the perspectives of individuals and collectives. In posterity, these sources offer the necessary context and testimony to the historical moment that historians analyze because of its immediacy. City directories and census records are also crucial for the exhibit’s archive, but few sources provide the level of detail for everyday life like newspapers.

Newspaper articles also do a good job of capturing complexity. For “Union of Hope,” we used two newspaper articles focusing on Black New Yorkers’ responses to the passage of the 15th Amendment in the mainstream press. An article published by the Commercial Advertiser in May 1870 mentions the celebration held among Black residents of the Eighth Ward after the passage of the 15th Amendment. The excitement of newly enfranchised Black men and their community exudes from the page of the Commercial Advertiser.

We juxtapose that article with a portion of a sermon by Rev. William F. Butler, a Black pastor at St. Marks M.E. Church, reprinted in The New York Times. Butler cautioned Black Americans to consider universal suffrage for Black men as just one step in a much broader project of attaining civil liberties and equality for Black people in the United States. Pairing these two sources complicates Reconstruction in critical ways for our visitors.

News sites that do not properly archive their work might one day be lost to us, which is concerning. The closure of media spaces reminds us that archiving materials still matters even in our digital age, primarily if the stories you explore provide a counter-narrative to the dominant society.

Tameez: Now having gone through this experience, what do you think we lose when there are fewer outlets led by and for people of color?

Taylor: Fewer news outlets led by and for Black people contribute to the silencing and omission of stories and perspectives of Black people over time. These stories and perspectives are often in conflict and differ from those of the dominant society. In July 1861, Robert Hamilton, the editor of The Weekly Anglo-African, declared to readers, “We alone are able to tell our story.”

Hamilton’s words emphasize the urgency of Black people to be at the forefront of telling their own stories against the widespread use of degenerating depictions of Black people in the mainstream white press. Without papers like The Weekly Anglo-African, the Tenement Museum would have even fewer sources that illustrate lower Manhattan’s Eighth Ward — the community that Joseph and Rachel Moore called home — and its residents beyond the focus on crime and vice that mainstream papers like The New York Times and New York Daily Herald often deferred to in writing about this community.

Over 160 years later, Robert Hamilton’s words continue to ring true. Within our current political moment, the aversion to promoting stories and histories that illuminate slavery’s legacy is strong. With the impulse to defund DEI initiatives, ban books, and attempt to delegitimize critical race theory, few institutions, journalists, and news companies will maintain their commitment to sharing this true but challenging history.

Marquis Taylor leading a tour of the Union of Hope: 1869 exhibit. Photo courtesy of the Tenement Museum

Hanaa' Tameez is a staff writer at Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (hanaa@niemanlab.org) or Twitter DM (@HanaaTameez).
POSTED     April 30, 2024, 11:13 a.m.
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