In the spring of 2008 on the Lower East Side, a photographer named Kamau Ware was working as an educator at the Tenement Museum. The museum preserves and interprets immigrant stories of the people who lived in the tenement building on 97 Orchard Street. On a Monday, Kamau was giving the Getting By tour to a middle school group that happened to all be of African descent. Kamau explained the origins of the Tenement building and how German Jewish and Italian immigrants who lived there struggled to get by in the late 19th and early 20th century. As the tour was wrapping up, he asked if there were any final questions. One of the girls who had been silent raised her hand and asked: “Where were the Black people?”
The question was simple but not only searching for a place on a map. The question was one of identity. Where are Black people in the story of New York City?
After the tour, Kamau began researching New York City’s African past and was surprised to see that Black people literally helped lay the foundation to the City. Black people were also central to the founding of British New York that utilized the island as the main commercial hub for the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The impact of Black people on New York City was immense, predating tenement buildings by over two centuries. To share what he was learning, he committed to creating a walking tour dedicated to illustrating the impact of the African Diaspora on New York City.
The Black Gotham Experience started two years later in 2010 as a visual and physical intervention in the cityscape combining history and visual storytelling to bring New York’s Black heritage into public consciousness. The initial walking tour was organized into three unique stories: Other Side of Wall Street (1609-1699), Caesar’s Rebellion (1700 – 1781) and Citizen Hope (1782-1883). In 2015, the Experience was further extended when production began on a graphic novel series to complement the walking tours and add the missing visuals of Black life in New York City.