A Short History of Tea In Harlem

Tea in Harlem has been a constant since its early years with the Muscoota Indians in East Harlem to the Harlem Renaissance with Lelia Walker’s Dark Tower on 136th Street in Central Harlem.

We’re sure that the “Muscoota” Indians of the East Harlem Plain, Vredendal (Peaceful Dale) grew tea throughout the area.

In the 17th century, with the first European settlement in Nieuw Haarlem by the Dutch West Indian Company they shipped and traded slaves and tea from the Netherlands to what is now Harlem. The Dutchman Hendrick de Forest “found” Haarlem with Dutch settlers in 1637. The settlement was formalized in 1658 under leadership of Peter Stuyvesant.

By 1666, the Netherlands epitomized the height of fashion in tea serving and every well to do home had it’s own exclusive tea room. The Dutch were the first to add milk to both tea and coffee.

In the 18th century, the Jumel Mansion Tea Room in Inwood, exemplified the tea rooms of the period. This Tea Room also served as an office for Gen. George Washington during the Revolutionary War in 1765. The tea leaves were harvested from one of the only remaining Colonial gardens in the America, which sits behind the historic Mansion.

It’s said, that then President George Washington returned to the Mansion on July 10, 1790, and dined with members of his cabinet. Guests at the table for tea included two future Presidents of the United States: Vice President John Adams and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton and Secretary of War Henry Knox also attended.

The Jumel Mansion Tea Room was the style of serving tea up until the 18th and 19th centuries, this is a window that gives us a look into how tea is served in the next century.

In the 20th century during the Harlem renaissance, Madam C.J. Walker’s daughter, Lelia Walker (later known as A’Lelia Walker), was the iconic figure of 1920’s Harlem grandeur. In her townhouse, known as the Dark Tower she served tea to Alberta Hunter, Jimmy Daniels, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, and many other poets, writers, artists, on 136th Street and Adam Clayton Powell, Blvd., (aka 7th Avenue).

Adding water to leaves in Harlem is as old as the ages, and the tradition continues.

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