HARLEM WEEK 2019: Mapping gay history in Harlem and beyond

August 16, 2019
By: Jared McCallister

Walls of Jericho Frieze

The 1941 8-foot by 80-foot “Green Pastures: The Walls of Jericho” frieze by African-American Harlem Renaissance sculptor Richmond Barthé. (Ken Lustbader/NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, 2018)

Before millions recently celebrated and reflected on the Stonewall Inn uprising and its motivation for the battle for gay rights, the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project was mapping the history of the movement — including contributions from Harlem and the city’s African-American community.

Featured historic locations in the website’s “Influential Black New Yorkers” and “Harlem Renaissance” sections are the former residences of singer Ethel Waters, jazz great Billy Strayhorn and literary giants Langston Hughes, Lorraine Hansberry and James Baldwin.

Among the site’s Harlem highlights are:

  • Openly gay archivist and historian Alexander Gumby’s Harlem Renaissance-era Gumby Book Studio, on the second floor of a Fifth Ave. rowhouse uptown.
  • The Countee Cullen Branch of the New York Public Library, named for the prominent gay poet Cullen. It’s the first New York Public Library system branch to be named for an African-American, according to the project.

The historic sites, which are located throughout the five boroughs, include:

  • A Staten Island house on St. Paul’s Ave. where lesbian writer/activist Audre Lorde lived with her partner and two children for 15 years.
  • The 8-by-80-foot “Green Pastures: The Walls of Jericho” — by Harlem Renaissance sculptor Richmond Barthé — which was placed at the city’s Kingsborough Houses in 1941.

These locations are just four of more than 200 sites highlighted in the project.

Under the theme, “Making an invisible history visible,” the project has been shining a spotlight on historic and cultural sites linked to the city’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community to show what its creators call “the richness of the city’s LGBT history and the community’s influence on America.”

“These curated themes help us highlight the significant contributions that LGBT people of color have made to our city’s and country’s collective history, from important cultural movements such as the Harlem Renaissance to the arts, literature, and activism,” said project manager Amanda Davis.

“So much of what was learned in the fight for LGBT equality was based on the model set by the black civil rights movement, and it’s been eye-opening to see just how much of an influence LGBT New Yorkers of color have had on both fronts she said, adding that the project is “ongoing and growing.”

“We’re continuing to document LGBT sites throughout the city’s five boroughs with the goal of increasing diversity in our entries, writing new National Register of Historic Places nominations, conducting public outreach, etc.. said Davis, noting that donations help fund the initiative.

The NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project is an initiative of the Fund for the City of New York’s Partner Program.

Started in 2015, the project — a scholarly initiative designed to be an educational resource — follows in the footsteps of the nation’s first map for LGBT historic sites, created in 1994 by the Organization of Lesbian and Gay Architects + Designers.

And the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project is based on more than a quarter-century of research by its directors – Andrew Dolkart, architectural historian and a Columbia University professor, historic preservation consultant Ken Lustbader and former city Landmarks Preservation Commission senior historian Jay Shockley.

There many ways to search the website — by borough, decade, neighborhood and other categories. The locations include educational institutions, medical facilities, community spaces, performance venues and businesses.

And the initiative is ongoing. According to project representatives, additional sites for the project are being sought, including “activist demonstration and meeting locations, performance venues, former residences of notable people, works of public art and architecture, medical facilities associated with the AIDS crisis, and important social centers such as community spaces and bars, clubs, and restaurants.”

To help fund the not-for-profit effort, donations can be made on the project’s website.

Visit the project at www.nyclgbtsites.org to get information or make donations.

Checks — made payable to the Fund for the City of New York, with “NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project” written on them — can be mailed to: Fund for the City of New York, 121 Avenue of the Americas, New York, N.Y. 10013. All donations are fully tax-deductible, and company matching-gift programs terms may apply.