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New York Tenement Museum – Combatting distortions of American History

Written By | Dec 7, 2021
History, Tenement Museum, Rewriting history

Courtesy of NY Tenement Virtual Tour

WASHINGTON: American history is complex. It has its high points, and its low ones——and many in between. But in discussing history, it is essential that we be accurate. In recent days, such accuracy is in short supply, and an effort to distort our history is growing.

Consider the recent example of New York City’s Tenement Museum, which has been a standard stop for high school student trips to New York. The museum is focused on telling the stories of the more than 7,000 people who inhabited its 22 cramped apartments in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Those living in the building included Germans, Irish, Eastern European Jews, and Italians. There is little evidence of black people living in the NY tenements.

New York City Tenement Museum

When the museum was opened in 1988, it was devoted to recreating the immigrant experience of the more than 7,000 people who inhabited the 22 apartments in the five-story building. During that period, the inhabitants mirrored the nation’s immigration from Europe. There is no historical evidence that any black people lived in the cramped quarters of the building during that period.

However, when researching the life of an Irish man named Joseph Moore, the museum discovered another man with the same name, who was black. The museum is replacing the story of an Irish family who resided in the building, at 103 Orchard Street, in the late 19th century, with that of the black man who worked nearby but lived in New Jersey.

Now, the museum has decided to set up one apartment in the Tenement Museum to recreate how a black man named Joseph Moore, and his wife Rachel, lived.

The museum is revising all of its apartment tours to examine how race and racism shaped the opportunities of white immigrants.

“Basically, we’re taking apart everything and putting it back together again,” Annie Polland, the museum president, told the New York Times.

Discussing his own experience as an educator at the museum, Peter Van Buren, writing in the New York Post, recalled that,

“When I joined the museum as an educator in early 2016, it was a small, elegant, good place. Inside a restored 19th-century tenement apartment house, it told the story of some of the actual all-immigrant families who had lived there from inside their actual apartments. Of the more than 7,000 people who inhabited the building over its lifespan, researchers established who had lived in which rooms, detailed their lives, forensically reconstructed the surroundings…some rooms had 20 layers of wallpaper applied by the different generations who had lived here.”

Rule one for educators, Van Buren notes, was

“Keep it in the room,” which means “Focus on specific individuals and how they lived in the room where you were standing. Over the years, these included Irish, Jewish, German, and Italian immigrants. I have seen no Bangladeshis, Spaniards, blacks. Their stories lay elsewhere, outside the room. It is the same reason there is no monument to those who died on D-Day at Gettysburg. That didn’t happen there. That story is told somewhere else.”

Narratives at the Tenement Museum have been rewritten. In one case, Van Buren points out,

“The Irish immigrants went from suffering anti-Catholic discrimination in Protestant America to being murderers of innocent blacks during the 1863 Draft Riots. Never mind that the Irish family spotlighted in the museum lived there in 1869 and had no connection to the riots. To accommodate this change, the museum will do away with its current Irish family tour in lieu of a hybrid to emphasize black suffering and de-emphasize the actual life experiences of discrimination imposed on the Irish by ‘whiter’ New Yorkers. They will build a ‘typical’ apartment of the time on the fifth floor for the black family, an ahistorical place they never occupied, an affront to those whose real-life stories once did. It would make as much sense to build a space that tells Spider-man’s story.”

Or consider the New York Times 1619 Project, which argues that America is inherently racist and has been from the beginning.

While slavery, segregation, and racism is a part of our history and should be confronted and taught, the 1619 Project is hardly an accurate history.

In a letter to the Times, Princeton historian Sean Wilentz and other prominent historians such as James McPherson, Gordon Wood, and Victoria Bynum, argue that the project “reflected a displacement of historical understanding by ideology.”

The author of the 1619 Project, Nicole Hannah-Jones, writes, for example, that,

“One of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery as abolitionist sentiment was rising in Britain.”

Quite to the contrary, Prof. Wilentz sees the rising anti-slavery movement in the colonies and its influence on the Revolution as a radical break from millennia in which human slavery was acceptable around the world. He declares:

“To teach children that the American Revolution was fought in part to secure slavery would be giving a fundamental misunderstanding not only of what the American Revolution was all about, but what America stood for since the Founding.”

Historians point out that slavery was hardly an American creation but was a part of recorded history from the very beginning. It existed in Ancient Greece and Rome and at the time the Constitutional Convention met in 1787, it was legal everywhere in the world. The notion that slavery was, somehow, America’s “original sin” is completely ahistorical.

The idea that the American Revolution was fought to protect slavery because the anti-slavery feeling was growing in England is without foundation.

The anti-slavery sentiment was far stronger in the American colonies at that time.

Prof. Wilentz sees the rising anti-slavery movement in the colonies and its influence on the Revolution as a radical break from thousands of years in which human slavery was accepted around the world.

Beyond this, the American Revolution was kindled in New England where anti-slavery sentiment was strongest. Early patriots like James Otis, John Adams, and Thomas Paine were opposed to slavery, and the Revolution helped fuel the abolitionist movement.

Our Founding Fathers are coming under steady attack for not sharing the views of today. The removal of the statue of Thomas Jefferson from the New York City Council Chambers is an example of what the Quaker theologian Elton Trueblood called “the sin of contemporaneity,” finding our ancestors wanting for not sharing all of our current views.

In Jefferson’s case, the statue was commissioned by Uriah P. Levy, a Jewish naval officer seeking to commemorate Jefferson’s commitment to religious freedom.

When the Constitution was written, the separation of church and state and religious freedom was virtually unknown in the world.

In Europe, Protestants were persecuted in Catholic countries and Catholics had limited rights in Protestant countries. Jews faced restrictions almost everywhere. Yet, in America, because of leaders such as Jefferson and Madison, religious freedom became a reality. But Jefferson has no place in the New York City Council chamber.

We honor our Founders not because they were perfect, but because, though imperfect men, they did great things. At James Madison University in Virginia. Those who sought to change the school’s name because Madison was a slaveholder, were not successful. University president Jonathan R. Alger said that for all of Madison’s shortcomings,

“He was ‘the father of the U.S. Constitution,’ and frankly we wouldn’t be having a lot of these conversations if it were not for the work he did.”

At George Mason University, also in Virginia, Gregory B. Washington, the first black president of a public university named for another American founder who articulated principles of liberty and justice even as he enslaved people, opposed efforts to change the name.

He declared,

“By keeping Mason in our name, we keep both lessons of his life active in our quest to form a more perfect Union—-and certainly a better university.”

All of our histories should be taught, the positive as well as the negative. But it should be accurate. The Tenement Museum, the 1619 Project, and other efforts to impose a new politically correct imprint on a long and complex history are a step backward if we really want to understand the past.


Read More from Allan Brownfeld



Allan C. Brownfeld

Received B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary, and M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonweal and The Christian Century. His essays have been reprinted in a number of text books for university courses in Government and Politics. For many years, his column appeared several times a week in papers such as The Washington Times, The Phoenix Gazette and the Orange County Register. He served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, as Assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to members of the U.S. Congress and to the Vice President. He is the author of five books and currently serves as Contributing Editor of The St. Croix Review, Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and editor of Issues.