John Brown Russwurm, abolitionist, publisher

John Brown Russwurm (1799–1851) was an abolitionist, newspaper publisher, and colonizer of Liberia where he moved from the United States.  He moved from Maine to New York City, where he was a founder with Samuel Cornish of the abolitionist newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, the first paper owned and operated by African Americans. Mr. Russwurm was born in Jamaica to an English Merchant and an enslaved woman. He was sent to Quebec when he was young for his education. He reunited with his father in 1812 and moved to Maine with his father and stepmother. The stepmother kept him with the family after the death of his father in 1815. He… Read More

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Simon Congo, freed slave, landowner

Simon Congo (approx 1600/1608 – 1667/1668) was one of the first African men to be brought to New Amsterdam. He was born in the Congo and brought over with Paul d’ Angola, Anthony Portuguese, John Francisco, and seven other males in 1626. Their names indicate that they may have been slaves on Portuguese or Spanish ships captured at sea. Mr. Congo, along with the other men, served the Dutch West India Company in New Amsterdam for around 22 years. The Company released these slaves on a “half‑freedom” plan which gave the Company the produce and periodic labor that it required without… Read More

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George Downing, abolitionist and activist

George T. Downing (1819-1903) was an abolitionist and activist for African-American civil rights. From the 1830s until the end of slavery, Downing was active in the abolitionist movement and in the Underground Railroad, with his restaurant serving as a rest house. During the American Civil War, Downing helped recruit African American soldiers. Downing’s grandparents were former slaves. He attended one of the first free African schools in New York City and went on to Hamilton College. In 1842, Downing started a catering business in Manhattan. His work brought him in touch with many of the elites of the city, including the… Read More

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Vertner Tandy, architect

Vertner Woodson Tandy (1885 – 1949) was an American architect. He was the first African American registered architect in New York State. He initially attended Tuskegee Institute studying architectural drawing. In 1907 he graduated from Cornell University with a degree in architecture. Tandy also holds the distinction of being the first African American to pass the military commissioning examination and was commissioned First Lieutenant in the 15th Infantry of the New York State National Guard. He designed buildings for  Harlem millionairess Madam C. J. Walker,  St. Philip’s Episcopal Church at 204 West 134th Street in NYC, and the Ivey Delph Apartments, designed in 1948, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2005.… Read More

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Carrie McHenry Thomas, Parks Department

Carrie McHenry Thomas (1913 – 2013) was the first African-American to work at the Arsenal in Central Park with the New York City Parks Department. She was recruited in 1937 by Stuart Constable, the Director of Parks under Robert Moses. She worked in Room 100, which was then the Capital Projects division for Parks. She was one of three women working there, and started out as a Contract and Specification Writer. She worked in the Capital Projects division until 1978. She also advocated for the hiring of other African-Americans in the park department including engineers and architects. Ms. Thomas worked… Read More

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William Roche, Renaissance Ballroom

William Roche was an African American Real Estate Agent that helped build the Renaissance Ballroom in Harlem. Constructed in 1921, the combination ballroom, casino and movie theatre was touted as the first non-segregated institution of its kind. Mr. Roche (Roach) was an immigrant from Montserrat who became a major player in uptown real estate and a member of Marcus Garvey’s UNIA. He owned a house cleaning business, but bought the northeast corner of 137th Street and Seventh Avenue, now known as Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard. With Joseph H. Sweeney and Cleophus Charity, they built the Renaissance Theater there in 1921. They expanded… Read More

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Molly Williams, first female firefighter

Molly Williams  was the first known female firefighter in the United States. An African American, she was held as a slave belonging to a  Benjamin Aymar, a merchant in NYC,  who was affiliated with the Oceanus Engine Company #11 in 1818. During her time in the company she was called Volunteer No. 11. Williams fought fires in a  calico dress and apron and was said to be “as good a fire laddie as many of the boys.” Her service was noted particularly during the blizzard of 1818. Male firefighters were scarce due to an influenza outbreak, but Williams worked with the men on the ropes and pulled the pumper to the fire through the deep snow. Again, thanks… Read More

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