“Passport to the Past” offers a glimpse into the underrepresented and hidden histories surrounding NYU’s Washington Square campus

New York University Kimmel Windows Gallery presents Passport to the Past, on view until March 21, 2022 on the corner of Washington Square East and West 4th Street, visible 24/7. Passport to the Past is an exhibition that makes visible the hidden history of resistance and resilience of women, indigenous communities, African-Americans, LGBTQ+, Latinx, Asian Americans around NYU as well as direct actions NYU students took in the sixties and seventies.

Created as part of the graduate class, Artistic Activism as Radical Research in the Department of Art and Art Professions at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, this exhibition is the outgrowth of a walking tour designed for freshman and graduate student orientation at NYU.

“Many buildings, parks and streets within the NYU vicinity literally hold this invisible history of resistance and resilience in their architectural structure,” said Dipti Desai, professor of Art and Education and director of the graduate Art and Education programs.

Passport to the Past grapples with New York University’s proximity to a rich history of everyday forms of resistance and resilience by women, indigenous communities, African-Americans, LGBTQ+, Latinx, Asian Americans, and other immigrants. New York University (NYU) sits on the occupied territory of the Lenni Lenape peoples. Along with the Lenape, other Native American tribes used this place for gathering, trade, healing, and travel.

“History is part of our daily lives as we walk through public and private spaces and therefore, any discussion of history and its enduring effect on human life has to acknowledge that we can never fully separate our relationships to the past from the present and future as well from our bodies/emotions. These buildings, streets, and parks serve as an entry point into understanding the past, which is complex and not always progressive, however it shows us how power impacts our daily lives in subtle, yet profound ways,” said Desai.

“As artists, activists, and educators we believe in the importance of creating different kinds of educational spaces at NYU where people can discuss and reflect upon the narratives about the past that surround us. Learning about this history of resistance opens for us the possibility to ignite our radical imagination to envision, fight for, and create spaces for a more just and equitable society for all of us today as these marginalized communities did in the past,” she continued.

Exhibition Sponsored by: NYU Art and Public Places, under the aegis of the Provost’s Office
Special Thanks to: Cassandra Chambers, Rhea Creado and Yingchen Liu
Organized by Dipti Desai, Professor Art and Art Education.
Exhibition  Design: Rhea Creado


Explore the Exhibition:

Washington Square Park

The park and surrounding area was once known as “The Land of the Black”.

Washington Square Park was once a marshland surrounding the Minetta Stream, used as a hunting ground by indigenous peoples of Manahatta. When the Dutch invaded and their colony grew, they required a larger food supply. In 1642, the Director of New Amsterdam solved this problem by freeing some slaves and granting them rights to farm on this land, under the condition that their children would be born back into slavery. Former slaves such as Domingo Anthony, Manuel Trumpeter, and Catalina Anthony established farms that fed the Dutch.

However, there was an ulterior motive. The Dutch lived on one side of the park, and the Lenape  on the other. The Black communities in the  middle acted as a buffer and faced the brunt of the attacks from the Lenape, aimed at the Dutch. The park and the land surrounding it was known as “Land Of The Blacks” and then “Little Africa.”

In 1664, under English law, the land was taken away from the freed slaves permanently and absorbed into Dutch and English estates. The African American population was concentrated in Minetta Lane and Minetta Street, where it was easiest for them to rent an apartment.

NYU Campus  

Loeb Student Union center, now Skirball Center (566 Laguardia place), Courant Institute of Mathematics at Warren Weaver Hall (251 Mercer Street), Kimball Hall.

In 1968, NYU students organized major protests, sit-ins, and several buildings were occupied. Student radicalism escalated in 1970 marking seventeen days of action—the most dramatic phase in NYU’s history. This radicalism was part of the larger civil rights and anti-war movements that swept across the United States. NYU’s president James McNaughton Hester, along with 29 other university presidents drafted a telegram to President Nixon voicing disapproval over the extension of the Vietnam War and the resulting disillusionment of American youth.

Approximately 500 NYU students held a rally on March 6,1968 outside Vanderbilt Hall and met with Chancellor Cartter in response to NYU administration allowing Dow Chemical Company’s job recruiters on an NYU owned off-campus loft that was guarded by NYU security and NYC police to prevent student sit-ins. Dow Chemicals was the main producer of Napalm, the toxic chemical burning agent used against people by the U.S. military in Vietnam. Chancellor Cartter revealed plans to set up a committee to study the entire issue of job recruitment on campus.

In 1970, NYU students occupied buildings around Washington Square to protest Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia and the massacre of student protesters at Kent State University.  200 students occupied the Loeb Student Union and later Kimball Hall and the Courant Institute of Mathematics in Warren Weaver Hall. Their demands included: withdrawal of troops from Vietnam and Cambodia, end of political repression in the U.S., and the destruction of a 3.5 million dollar computer that was called the  “war machine” leased by NYU from the U. S. Atomic Energy Commission.

African Free School  

African Free School, No. 2 - 135-137 Mulberry Street
African Free School, No. 3 -120 West 3rd Street (formerly Amity Street)

The African Free School system, founded in 1787 as a part of the New York Manumission Society, was an organization that supported the abolition of slavery in the U.S. The school system consisted of seven schools run by African-Americans for the children of slaves in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.The first African Free School was a one-room schoolhouse in lower Manhattan that served about 40 students until it was sadly destroyed by a fire. Its replacement school was constructed shortly after and went on to serve over 500 students, including abolitionist and educator Henry Highland Garnet. The African Free School system - and all of its seven locations - were officially absorbed into the New York city public school system in 1834.

Mother African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church  

W. 10th and Bleecker
The first Black Church in NYC had a tremendous effect on African-American life since the late 18th century and was a vital force for abolition and civil rights movement. It was home to some of the most prominent African-American civil rights leaders, including Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, and Frederick Douglass. It was known as the “Freedom Church” and was part of the underground railroad network. This was the third site for “Mother Zion” Church and remained at this location from 1864 to 1904. It later moved to Harlem in the 20th century with the migration of African-Americans uptown.
“We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future.” Frederick Douglass

The Stonewall Inn  

53 Christopher St
Stonewall Inn, a LGBTQ+ bar became the epicenter for the gay and lesbian liberation movement in the United States following the stonewall riots of June 28th, 1969. Homosexual relations were considered illegal and hence the bar was subject to regular police raids. Often, the bar recieved tip-offs before the raids occurred. However, on the morning of June 28, 1969 there was no tip-off, but those in the bar during the raid decided that resistance was necessary and a riot erupted between citizens and the police. The stonewall riots and protests in the area continued for days and is considered to be the single most important event leading to the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement in the United States.

13th Street Repertory Co. 

50 West 13th street (between 5th and 6th ave)
The 13th Street Repertory Company was an Underground Railway refuge for runaway slaves. Built in 1700’s the townhouse has a trapdoor in the dressing-room area backstage that leads to a 9-foot cellar. According to the The Villager newspaper (November 8, 1956) the information about a trap door for runaway slaves was given by Marianna von Allesch who had her ceramic workshop in this townhouse during the 1950s.

Margaret Sanger Clinic   

17 W. 16th Street
Margaret Sanger was a writer and a nurse who advocated for birth control and sex education. She is also the founder of the first birth control clinic in the United States in Brooklyn. Sanger was instrumental in changing how people talked about sex, venereal diseases and contraception. She opened multiple other clinics throughout NYC, including this one, which not only provided sex education to women, but to medical professionals, as well. Sanger produced a series of articles about pregnancy and birth control called “What Every Girl Should Know” and was subsequently arrested for the circulation of pornography. Throughout the 1920’s she formed the American Birth Control League, the National Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control, and the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau, which evolved into modern day Planned Parenthood.
“No woman can call herself free who does not control her own body”.  Margaret Sanger

Cooper Union: The New York Shirtwaist Strike   

30 Cooper Square
On November 22, 1909 in a Local 25 union meeting held at Cooper Union, Clara Lemlich, a 23 year old garment worker, was tired of speeches given by several men, including Samuel Gompers of the American Federation of Labor’s about labor conditions, in the shirtwaist factories and asked to speak. She got up and said: “I have no further patience for talk! I am a working girl, one of those striking against intolerable conditions. I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in generalities. What we are here for is to decide whether or not to strike. I make a motion that we go out in a general strike!” Her call for a strike was met with applause and immediately the union voted for a general strike. Within a day 20,000 to 30,000 out of an estimated 32,000 shirtwaist workers who were mainly women went on strike. This was the largest strike by women to date in U.S. history and lasted until February 1910. The women returned to work in unionized garment factories. The women returned to work in unionized garment factories. The women demanded better working conditions and higher pay for thousands of shirtwaist factory workers. The anniversary of the strike would later become International Women’s Day.

One of the garment companies that ignored these reforms for better working conditions that Clara Lemlich and others called for was the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. Two years later on March 25, 1911 their factory that stood on the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place became the site of one of the deadliest industrial disasters in U.S. history when it caught fire, killing 143 garment workers. Most of the victims were Italian and Jewish immigrants, mostly young teenage girls and women.This building, which still stands today is partly owned by NYU.

"I did not strike because I myself was not getting enough, the east side girl went on to tell her fifth avenue audience, I struck because the others should get enough. It was not for me, it was for the others.” The New York Times, Clara Lemlich, 12/16/1909.

Kintecoying, Powwow Point  

Astor PLace
Astor Place was called Kintecoying or, “Crossroads of Three Nations,” and was an important meeting place, or pow wow, between three Lenape communities of Manahatta. In keeping with tradition for meeting places, such as Kintecoying, a large oak or elm tree would most likely have existed at this spot, under which leaders from each tribe would meet to discuss issues, hold tribal councils to settle disputes, trade, play games (including bagettaway, better known as lacrosse) and hold spiritual ceremonies.

Three major trails intersect at Astor Place -- the trails are from the Shempoes village, the Rechtanck village and the Sapohannikan village. The Shempoes village was located between 10th street and 14th Street along Second Avenue. The Rechtanck was located between Clinton and Montgomery Streets along the coast of the East River and the Sapohannikan village was located in what we call today the west village.

La Revista Ilustrada de Nueva York 

756 Broadway
La Revista was a Latin American magazine that featured  literary criticism, creative fiction, serialized novels, musical scores, scientific information, women’s fashion, and current events whose editorial office was on this site. The La Revista not only served Spanish-speaking populations in New York, but also served as an international platform to discuss Americanismo and Latin America’s relationship with the United States at large. José Martí, a Cuban national hero and well known  Latin American poet, journalist, writer, professor, and publisher served as tbe Director of La Revista in 1882. During that time he also served as a joint counsel of Uruguay, Paraguay, and Argentina and was the founder of Cuban Revolutionary Party. It was here that José Martí who had moved to New York during his exile in 1881, first published Nuestra America his most famous essay on January 10, 1981 at La Revista  Ilustrada de Nueva York. In this essay, José Martí declares the independence of Latin America from the growing threat of the United States expansion.

African Grove Theatre

165 Mercer Street, 2nd Floor
In 1821 before the end of slavery in NYC, the African Grove Theater was founded by William Alexander Brown first at his residence on 38 Thomas Street and then later it moved to Bleecker and then Mercer street. African-Americans actors staged Shakespearean plays for black audiences. The theater was attended by both middle class and working class African-Americans. The performers adapted and often improvised, playing with language on stage. One of the actors playing Richard III riffed on his opening line, “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of New York.” The most common Shakespearean plays were Richard III and Othello. The white critics wrote sneering comments about the Shakespeare plays because they were performed by Black actors. The white audience sat in a separate section, because as the theater's management indicated, “Whites do not know how to conduct themselves at entertainments for ladies and gentlemen of color." (Eric Lott, 1993, p. 44).

2nd African Burial Ground  

Located on the west-side of First (Chrystie) Street, between Stanton and Rivington Streets, extending to the Bowery between Stanton and Rivington Street
Between 1795 and 1843, African-Americans were buried in this ground as the city cemeteries were segregated. The first African Burial Ground near Collect Pond (now Chinatown) was closed in 1794. At this time 20 percent of the city's population was of African descent. Although it is hard to indicate how many African-American were buried here, some estimate it to be 5,000 people. The only commemoration of the second burial site is the plaque for the beautiful tranquil garden M’Finda Kalunga Community Garden, which in the African language of Kikongo means “Garden at the Edge of the Other side of the World”.  

Press Contact

Sarah Binney
Sarah Binney
(212) 998-6829