Movement to preserve Harlem's rich history through markers
Harlem, known for its vibrant cultural legacy and historic significance, is commemorating its rich Black history through a series of historical markers.
These markers, initiated by the preservation organization While We Are Still Here, aim to celebrate influential figures and events that have shaped the neighborhood's identity. The group says it’s paying homage to those of the past before that unique oral history is forgotten.
"People of color from all over the world came to Harlem because they were seeking freedom and liberation ... Harlem has this extraordinary legacy that we're trying to retain," said Karen Taylor, founder and executive director of While We Are Still Here.
Taylor lives in one of the neighborhood’s historical landmark buildings, 555 Edgecombe at 160th Street and Edgecombe Avenue - also known as Count Basie Place and Paul Robeson Boulevard. It was once the home of legends such as singer, actor and activist Paul Robesonand boxer Joe Louis. Taylor says this is where the idea to honor cultural icons was formed.
“We want to make Harlem’s history unavoidable by installing these signs throughout Harlem,” said Taylor.
In one heartfelt tribute, a second line procession took place on 153rd Street to honor the Father of the Tenor Saxophone, Coleman Hawkins. The group unveiled a vibrant purple marker, one of 25 that will be installed throughout the community.
The Signs of the Times: Harlem Heritage Markers project was initiated in 2015 and is supported by the African American Cultural Action Fund through the National Historic Trust. To date, five of these historical markers have been unveiled.
“We honored Marcus Garvey on Eighth Avenue, Malcolm X on Amsterdam Avenue, J. Rosamond Johnson on 162nd Street and Larry Neil on Jumel Terrace,” said Taylor.
The next unveiling will celebrate Regina Anderson Andrews, known as the Harlem Renaissance Librarian. Taylor says Andrews was the first Black person to manage a New York Public Library branch.
“Not only did Regina do her librarian work, she made writing space for Langston Hughes so he could come and write. And her apartment on St. NicholasAvenue was a hub for the Harlem Renaissance writers,” said Taylor.
A pressing concern of the group is that Harlem's unique history may be slipping away with the changing demographics. Census data from the past decade indicates an increase in white residents and a decrease in the Black and Hispanic communities.
"Once the African American community leaves because of gentrification, there will be no public record of what happened in Harlem," said Taylor.
Longtime Harlem residents like Robert Blount echo this sentiment. Blount, who has lived in Harlem for 55 years, believes there should be more historical content to preserve the neighborhood's legacy.
“We had a prominent Black culture up here, close-knit neighborhood close-knit community and because of gentrification, it has dissipated,” said Blount.
Hector Rodriguez, a resident of Harlem for 47 years, admitted not being fully aware of all the neighborhood's history and expressed support for the historical installation markers, saying, "It's great for the community; we need that"
The preservation organization is determined to complete all 25 installations by next year, ensuring that Harlem's vibrant history remains a cherished part of the community's identity. Learn more about these unveilings HERE.