I have discovered four incredible places by walking around my new neighborhood, the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Taken as a composite, these sites provide a quick tour of American history.
The Cemetery of the Shearith Israel Congregation is in Chinatown. The congregation was formed in 1654 by Spanish and Portuguese Jews fleeing Brazil, where the Inquisition was in full force. The first Jewish congregation in North America, it was founded by 23 Jews from Recife who landed unexpectedly and were granted permission to settle by the Dutch West India Company, overturning opposition by local Governor Peter Stuyvesant. In 1664, the British took over from the Dutch and most of the Jews departed to Holland. Only a handful of Jews remained, with the first, Benjamin Bueno de Mesquita, interred in the Cemetery in 1683. This remained the only Jewish congregation until 1825.
The Underground Railroad Stop in Tribeca was run by David Ruggles. Born a free African American in Connecticut, he became a leader in the abolition movement. He hosted an estimated 600 slaves fleeing the South in the 1830s and 1840s. Among them was Frederick Douglass, who escaped a Maryland plantation in 1838, later writing about his experience, “I was hidden for several days with Mr. Ruggles on the corner of Lispenard and Church streets.” Ruggles also ran a bookstore and published anti-slavery pamphlets.
The African Burial Ground is very close to New York City Hall. It was the resting place for 15,000 enslaved and free African Americans. It was placed just outside of the city walls on Chambers Street. This is the largest and earliest African burial ground. The first known person of African descent in Manhattan was Juan Rodrigues, a fisherman and free black sailor who came in 1613 to set up a trading post with the indigenous people, the Lenape. The first enslaved Africans came to New Amsterdam in 1625 as laborers for the West India Company. At one point in the 1700s, Africans were 20% of the city’s population. From 1711 to 1762, there was a slave market at Wall Street and the East River. Slavery ended in New York State only in 1827. Today there are remains of 600 Africans interred at this site.
The Transfiguration Church in Chinatown was founded by Father Felix Varela y Morales in the 1830s to serve immigrants. He was born in Cuba, then part of New Spain. After being ordained a minister, he was elected to the legislature, where he advocated for independence. This led to his being condemned to death as a traitor by the Spanish Government. He escaped to New York in 1823. He founded El Habanero, the first Spanish language newspaper in the US. Then he started the Church of the Immigrant in the Five Points neighborhood of Manhattan, the poorest part of the city. His parish focused on the immigrant Irish; he mastered the Irish language to better serve his parish. Now it is a church for Chinese Christians.
America has been made by individuals who imagine the possibility and refuse to conform. We need to bring attention to these stories to make our history inclusive, accessible and accurate. We are all more powerful when we seek to understand and honor our diverse heritage.