Frederick Douglass Boulevard or Eighth Avenue? Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard or Seventh Avenue? In Harlem, what a street is called may depend on who is speaking.
Other than Malcolm X Boulevard and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, where some street signs still hold the green “Lenox Avenue” or “125th Street” markers, other streets in Harlem show no indication of their previous names. You won’t find them on NYC Transit maps or Google Maps, either. However, among recent immigrants in Harlem’s Little Africa, stretching from Fifth Avenue to Morningside Park, it appears that word of mouth has kept the old names alive.
Kaaw Sow, the general manager of the Senegalese Association of America on 116th Street, pulls out a thick packet of papers containing the names and addresses of all West African immigrants who choose to register at the Senegalese community center. In flipping through the forms, it becomes evident that few choose to call the streets by their official names. The names of those prominent African-Americans, like Martin Luther King Jr. or Frederick Douglass, rarely appear.
“Most of the people when they give you their address, they give you Seventh Avenue or Eighth Avenue or Lenox,” Sow says. “If you ask someone, ‘can you tell me how to get to Adam Clayton Powell?’ They don’t know! You ask about Frederick Douglass Boulevard? They don’t know.”
Mandoye Ndiaye, a Senegalese immigrant who works at a computer technology shop in South Harlem, agrees with Sow.
Of Frederick Douglass, “a lot of people know it as Eighth Avenue,” Ndiaye says. And the Africans in the area, “90 percent of them don’t know the real name.”
The portion of what was previously Seventh Avenue in Harlem was officially changed to Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard in 1974 to honor that late African-American pastor turned politician, says Julia Robbins from New York City’s Department of Records. A large portion of Eighth Avenue above Central Park was changed to Frederick Douglass in 1977 to commemorate the African-American leader, writer and abolitionist. Similarly, 125th Street was changed to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in 1984, though street signs still show 125th Street alongside the King name. And all of Lenox Avenue was changed to Malcolm X Boulevard in 1987, honoring the African-American activist.
The immigration of West Africans to New York increased in the late 1980’s, long after many of those streets had been renamed. But the old names stuck for the newcomers.
Ibrahim Diakite came to New York from Mali nine years ago. He says, “I call them Seventh and Eighth. That’s easy for me.”
Steven Gregory, an anthropologist at Columbia University’s Institute for Research in African-American Studies, believes that the insular nature of the West African community in New York may contribute to the failure to use official street names.
“For all immigrant communities, one tends to rely on the resources of people who speak the same language, who tend to have similar business connections,” Gregory says. “You develop knowledge from co-ethnics.”
Sow agrees that West Africans from Senegal, Mali and Ivory Coast keep to themselves due to language barriers and cultural differences.
“If you don’t have the same practices, you don’t smoke or don’t drink, you don’t want to sit down with someone who is drinking alcohol,” Sow says. “When you don’t know people you want to keep yourself apart, even if there is no animosity between you guys.”
Camonghne Felix and Natali Rivers, two African-Americans who work in Harlem and refer to Frederick Douglass Boulevard as Frederick Douglass Boulevard, believe that the lack of fraternizing between African immigrants and African-Americans may contribute to the phenomenon.
Felix and Rivers say they think that most West Africans probably have no clue who historical African-Americans like Frederick Douglass are or how they are relevant to them.
“They feel no affiliation or camaraderie,” Felix says.
Sow interacts with many Senegalese, both longtime New York residents and new immigrants, on a daily basis. He believes that while the millennial generation does recognize who these historical African-American figures are, the older generations “don’t know because it’s not something they witnessed.”
Diaby Yayaba is an immigrant from the Ivory Coast who moved to New York 20 years ago. He chats in French with a customer inside Matogoma Mini Market, located on the corner of Frederick Douglass Boulevard and 116th Street. He shakes his head and says he has no idea who the person is whose name appears on the street sign right outside his shop.
Diakite, the immigrant from Mali, also does not know who Frederick Douglass or Adam Clayton Powell Jr. are.
“I see, but I don’t know,” he says while motioning towards the signs.
Herb Boyd, a black studies professor at City College of New York and a journalist at the New York Amsterdam News, one of the oldest African-American newspapers in the country, agrees that the street names often depend on whom you are talking to.
He thinks that African-Americans who lived through or strongly identify with the civil rights movement may be more concerned about how streets are referred to.
Jacob Morris, the director of the Harlem Historical Society, believes that referring to streets by their proper names is a part of the assimilation process.
“African immigrants are a very recent group,” Morris says. “They are somewhat insular and they haven’t assimilated.”
If their insular nature or lack of assimilation plays any role in their choice to refer to Harlem streets by their superseded names, most West Africans seem unaware. In conversations with shop owners and customers throughout Harlem’s Le Petit Senegal, a neighborhood stretching for two blocks between Frederick Douglass Boulevard and Malcolm X Boulevard, not one person says their choice of street name reflects any deeper identity concern. Almost all simply answer along the lines of: “Everyone calls them that.”