MLK Weekend 2024 NYC

Exploring New York City's Black Heritage

MLK Day in NYC

harlem gospel choir

This year, Martin Luther King Jr. Day falls on Monday, January 15th. One great way to mark the holiday is with a gospel performance at Sony Hall. The Harlem Gospel Choir is the most renowned gospel choir in America. You can see them live for a Martin Luther King Jr. Day Matinee on Monday, January 15th. Expect a concert full of “sounds that are unfettered, joyous, and inspirational.”

sing harlem

2022 Sing Harlem Choir performs onstage at the 36th Annual Brooklyn Tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at Brooklyn Academy of Music on January 17, 2022 in New York City. (Photo by Astrid Stawiarz, Getty Images for Brooklyn Academy of Music.)

Also on Monday, the Brooklyn Academy of Music will host its 38th Brooklyn Tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This free public event takes place at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House (Peter Jay Sharp Building, 30 Lafayette Ave.) Artists, activists, civic leaders, and community members celebrate Dr. King's life and mission. This edition will feature keynote speaker Reginald Dwayne Betts—a poet, lawyer, and founder and CEO of Freedom Reads. Betts will offer reflections on freedom anchored in his own journey, his enduring commitment to social justice, and his work to radically transform access to literature in prison. Featuring uplifting performances by Sing Harlem and singer-songwriter Madison McFerrin. The celebration continues with a free screening of Rustin at 1pm at BAM Rose Cinemas and family friendly activities presented by BAMkids in The Adam Space.

jackie robinson museum

Jackie Robinson will be forever immortal for breaking baseball’s color line, and for an all-star career that included bringing a world championship to Brooklyn in 1955. The Jackie Robinson Museum tells the story of his life and legacy through pictures, artifacts, and multilayered storytelling. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day they will honor the legacy of Dr. King and the fight for civil rights with programming that looks at Jackie Robinson and Dr. King’s close friendship, and their collaboration during landmark campaigns of the Civil Rights Movement. Events include guided museum tours showcasing stories and artifacts representing Jackie Robinson and Dr. King’s collaboration, at noon and 2pm; tune into the Music of the Civil Rights Movement Interactive Workshop to learn about the significance of key songs and musical styles to the Robinson family and the Movement (ongoing, noon-3pm); Speak Out! through hands-on craft activities for all ages (ongoing, noon-3pm); and win prizes at the trivia game and museum scavenger hunt  (ongoing, noon-3pm).

The Children’s Museum of Manhattan (CMOM) will be celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from January 13th through the 15th, and every Saturday and Sunday in January. On Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day Weekend, CMOM will feature purposeful design and visionary art making, exploring a different theme from Dr. King’s vision. Other opportunities include Building a Beloved Community Mural, January 20th and 21st, 27th and 28th, and the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day Weekend. Also on the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day Weekend: look for the Mighty Community Art Installation, with the chance to use boxes, paint markers, and collage to design a neighborhood filled with the workers and resources it needs to thrive; CMOM’s I Have a Dream Community Wreath; and Interactive Storytime: Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Kid’s Book About Advancing Civil Rights With Nonviolence.

mlk day brooklyn children's museum

The Brooklyn Children's Museum, Winston Williams.

The Brooklyn Children's Museum will celebrate King through interactive performances, protest marches, community art programs, and volunteer projects. On both Sunday, January 14th and Monday the 15th you can find shadow puppet performances produced by Nehprii Amenii, music and protest marching with Brooklyn-based musician Fyütch, community art-making projects, and more.

King: A Filmed Record…Montgomery to Memphis.

The Museum of the Moving Image in Queens is celebrating on Sunday and Monday as well. Look for a talk, tours, media-making activities, and a screening of the classic documentary King: A Filmed Record…Montgomery to Memphis. Sunday's Martin Luther King, Jr. Family Day starts at 2pm. Monday's documentary screening begins at 1pm.

Other MLK 2024 NYC Celebrations

On Sunday, January 14th the Broadway Inspirational Voices will lead a celebration of joy, hope, and love at The Riverside Church. The Joy Regardless Concert begins at 5pm. Broadway Inspirational Voices (BIV) is a diverse community of Broadway artists united to change lives through the power of music and service.

As part of the 11th Annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Speaker Series, Juilliard will be hosting A Conversation With Bryan Stevenson, Founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, on Thursday, January 18th. Stevenson is a giant in racial advocacy work, working to mitigate mass incarceration and excessive punishment. (He's also a dedicated pianist and jazz musician, having performed with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.) As such, he will be speaking on the long legacy of jazz musicians in the fight for civil rights and justice.

strawberry fields city winer

Enjoy a reading from the book of John (and Paul, George, and Ringo) by Strawberry Fields on Sunday mornings at City Winery. On Sunday, January 14th, catch the Strawberry Fields Brunch: Honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

On Tuesday, January 16th, the Milbank Chapel at Teachers College, Columbia University hosts The Unity Concert, Inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King. The evening begins with a conversation on nonviolence, justice, and racial equity led by Teachers College professor Dr. Amra Sabic-El-Rayess, an expert on targeted violence and hate prevention. That presentation will be followed by a transformative experience through music, fostering unity across communities.

In 1968, the discovery of a section of historic buildings, the Hunterfly Road Houses, led to a rebirth of interest in Weeksville. Today the area is part of Crown Heights, where the Weeksville Heritage Center keeps alive the memory of a historic Brooklyn neighborhood founded by free African Americans. On Saturday evening, the center will be hosting Dinner & A Movie: The Color Purple (1985). A screening and a discussion will be followed by a 3-course dinner curated by Creole Soul, and a collage-making workshop led by Erica Buddington & Rachel Jarvis of The Herstory Studio. Tickets include dinner, collage materials, and a gift. On Sunday, the center celebrates the legacy of Dr. King with the MLK Day of Service: Youth Justice Expo. The expo promises engaging conversations, community-driven activities, and impactful initiatives.

Exploring Black Heritage in NYC

Nearly one-fourth of NYC is African American, representing the largest Black population outside of an African city anywhere in the world. Accordingly, New York City’s culture is enriched by Black influences, and Black heritage can be found all around the city.

Visiting Harlem

Although diverse and evolving, Harlem remains synonymous with African American culture. The neighborhood’s first wave of prominence came a little over a century ago as the Harlem Renaissance flourished, bringing global acclaim for Black achievements in music, literature, drama, and art. 

ralph ellison the invisible man

Image: New York City Department of Parks & Recreation.

Figures like Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Louis Armstrong became world-famous names, with a Harlem continuity running through James Baldwin and on up to Doug E. Fresh and Azealia Banks. Long-time resident Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man, is honored with a memorial plaza at Riverside Drive and 150th Street.

museo del barrio

Visitors today can experience a mix of locals, along with great dining and nightlife, live performances, history, and architecture. Harlem extends across the top of Central Park and blends with the Upper West Side around West 110th Street, where a statue of statesman Frederick Douglass stands. On the east side at the uptown tip of Central Park you’ll find the waters of the picturesque Harlem Meer. Outside the park is Spanish Harlem, known for its Puerto Rican presence. El Museo del Barrio (above) on Fifth Avenue celebrates Latino and Caribbean art from the precolonial period to the present. It’s just a block north of the Museum of the City of New York, which explores the city’s past, celebrates its present, and imagines its future. Among ongoing exhibitions you’ll find Activist New York, which explores the drama of social activism in NYC from the 17th century right up to the present. On Malcolm X Blvd. between 119th and 120th, you’ll find the retail flagship of online lifestyle brand NiLu, where you can browse thoughtful gifts, accessories, and home goods.

amateur night at the apollo

Many will tell you Harlem proper begins at 125th Street, a busy thoroughfare that gives a good sense of the neighborhood’s vibrancy. The legendary Apollo Theater is here, inside an ornate structure that dates to 1914. The famed Amateur Night at the Apollo brings aspiring performers to a big stage in front of a lively crowd. This classic talent competition has launched the careers of countless legendary artists, including Ella Fitzgerald,  Lauryn Hill, H.E.R, D’Angelo, and Machine Gun Kelly. A resident “Executioner” stands by to sweep off talent that doesn’t measure up—after all, at the Apollo it’s “be good or be gone.” 

The Apollo has a decades-long tradition of serving as a convener for its community as well as people from across New York City. That tradition continues as The Apollo partners with WNYC for the 18th annual celebration of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his enduring legacy on Sunday, January 14th. NPR’s Notes from America host, Kai Wright moderates the first hour of Uptown Hall: The Inconvenient King. Music, spoken word, and other forms of creative expression round out the afternoon. 

One of the city’s most impressive stretches of housing stands along Striver’s Row. Formally known as the St. Nicholas Historic District, it spans West 138th and 139th Sts. between Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard and Frederick Douglass Boulevard. The genteel structures here represent the height of 19th-century urban design.

welcome to harlem gospel tour

Sunday services are a famous part of Harlem and tour companies can help you navigate the scene. Welcome To Harlem is a great place to start, with a wide range of tours that include gospel, jazz, and the Harlem Renaissance. Every week (including January 14th) you can join their 4-hour Sunday Harlem Gospel and Brunch Tour. It begins at the Apollo Theater, explores the 125th Street area, and then carries through to Mount Morris Park Historic District area, full of prominent churches. Many well-known musicians and entertainers started their journeys here, and much of the music that started here is now immortalized in American pop culture.

The Harlem Gospel Walking Tour, led by the Harlem Heritage Tourism and Cultural Center, takes place every Sunday morning, with a live gospel service followed by a multimedia sightseeing walk through the neighborhood.

Dining in Harlem

sylvia fried chicken harlem

Sylvia's Restaurant. Photo by Su-May/Flickr.

Sylvia’s Restaurant, the “The Queen of Soul Food,” has been serving authentic Southern-inspired cooking for six decades. Enjoy down-home favorites like bar-b-qued ribs, fried catfish, mac ‘n’ cheese, and the iconic Harlem combo of fried chicken & waffles. Celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson has made a big splash in the neighborhood with Red Rooster, serving elevated takes on favorites like shrimp ‘n’ grits, fried chicken with hot honey, and steak frites. Frederick Douglass Boulevard between 110th and 125th streets has become known as Harlem’s Restaurant Row. Melba’s is a top pick here, serving comfort food classics in a retro setting, while Lido brings Italian charm to a busy corner. For an upscale cocktail experience, Sugar Monk pays homage to the speakeasies of the neighborhood’s past. Perhaps the best among the many great Harlem Ethiopian spots, family-run Benyam often relies on locally sourced ingredients, like the lentils in the sambusa, a savory stuffed pastry. Beef dishes like the tibs wot and kitfo are tender, flavorful favorites as well.

Other Black Heritage Highlights in Manhattan

Seneca Village 
Once the largest community of African American property owners in New York, between West 82nd and 89th Sts., Seneca Village was displaced by the construction of Central Park. On Thursday, January 18th, you can join the Central Park Conservancy for a walking tour of the site.

African Burial Ground
Discovered during construction of a federal office building, the African Burial Ground is the largest of its kind in North America. Some 15,000 intact skeletal remains of enslaved and free Africans from colonial New York are interred at this National Monument, which is just uptown from City Hall.

Looking for more? Here are 8 Powerful NYC Landmarks to Visit this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

About the Author

Ethan Wolff is the author of numerous guidebooks to New York, having covered the city for more than two decades. He has written for New York Magazine, BlackBook, and Details, among others. In addition to his work as the editor of City Guide, Ethan covers NYC’s talk and lecture scene for the website Thought Gallery. He lives with his wife and two daughters in the Windsor Terrace neighborhood of Brooklyn.

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