Before Central Park was created as an urban oasis for wealthy New Yorkers, the land on which it would be built was home to a community of working-class Black property owners, the first of its kind in New York City. The community was called Seneca Village.
Life in New York in the 1800s was a study in contrasts. Lower Manhattan was crowded. The rich and the poor shared the streets. Elegant buildings stood next to shacks. There were cobblestone streets and filth everywhere. The Great Fire of 1835 had destroyed Wall Street and much of downtown, which was crowded with wooden buildings. People began heading uptown, which was still mostly farmland. It was spacious and there was fresh air.
Seneca Village was located on approximately five acres of land between 81st and 89th streets at Seventh and Eighth avenues. It existed from 1825 to 1857 as a thriving, self-contained community of Blacks, English, Native Americans and German and Irish immigrants. It had its own school, three churches and cemeteries. A nearby spring provided fresh water. According to the census counts of 1885, approximately 264 people lived there. It was one of New York’s first successful cultural melting pots.
It is not clear how the settlement got its name, but some theories are that Seneca was a derivative of Senegal, a country in West Africa, where many of the people who lived in the village were from.
It all began in 1825, when John and Elizabeth Whitehead began selling pieces of their farmland. The first three lots were bought for $125 by a young African-American man named Andrew Williams. Other plots were purchased by members of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, which was the largest and wealthiest Black church community in the country. The Whiteheads sold 24 plots to Black families.
Religious life was an important part of the community. The First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Yorkville laid its cornerstone in Seneca Village in 1853. A box put into the cornerstone contained a Bible, a book of hymns, the church’s rules, a letter with the names of its five trustees and copies of two newspapers, the Tribune and the Sun.
Not many records exist, but we do know that the African Union Methodist Church was also in Seneca Village. Colored School No. 3 was housed in the church basement. Seventeen-year-old Catherine Thompson taught the village’s children.
Seneca Village is an important but seldom taught part of Black history. In addition to being home to the two most significant Black churches in the country, the village gave Blacks one of the earliest opportunities to own land.
Land ownership meant suffrage and the right to vote, though full voting privileges for Blacks would be a long time coming.
Significantly, those who lived in Seneca Village did not refer to themselves by many of the more derogatory names given to African-Americans. They used the term “African” not only to honorably describe their heritage, but also to signify the pride they had for their working-class community.
But the 30 years of progress at Seneca Village would be short-lived. Plans were underway to create an urban park in central Manhattan. Some 700 acres, including the land that Seneca Village occupied, were in the crosshairs for development. Park advocates and the media smeared Seneca Village, describing it as a shantytown and its residents as squatters who were standing in the way of Central Park.
Residents were offered money for their land, but the Seneca Village community fought to stay. The battle in the courts went on for two years, but the law won out in the end.
In 1857, after issuing a final warning to residents to leave, New York state used the power of eminent domain–the taking of private property for public use–to forcibly evict the residents of Seneca Village along with other property owners who lived within the boundaries of the proposed park–some 1,600 in total. Sadly, the residents of Seneca Village never reestablished their community in another location and the identity of this historic village was erased.
In 2001, a historical sign was unveiled at 85th Street and Central Park West commemorating the site where Seneca Village once stood.
In 2011, the Seneca Village Project organized an archeological dig of the site. The group focused on two primary locations and discovered artifacts and items associated with two Seneca Village households. This included the foundation walls and objects from the home of William Godfrey Wilson, who was a sexton for All Angels’ Church, and the home and backyard of resident Nancy Moore. They found chards of glass, broken plates, pieces of smoking pipes, pottery, a roasting pan, tea kettle and bones from butchered animals–all signs that this once was indeed a thriving community. One of the more poignant and personal items found that really highlighted the human experience was a small shoe with a leather sole and fabric upper that probably belonged to a child.
Interestingly, Moore’s yard had the original soil of Seneca Village, while the site of Wilson’s property appeared to have been dug up and filled during the park’s construction.
The next time you visit Central Park, take a walk to the site of Seneca Village and remember that this was the first Black community of property owners in New York City.
- Look it up: Use the Internet or other reference source to learn more about the history of Central Park and Seneca Village.
- Talk about it: What do you think life was like in 19th century Seneca Village? Learn more about the process of eminent domain. Do you agree or disagree that it should be used in the name of progress? Discuss this with your classmates.
- Write it down: Seneca Village was a thriving community. Make a list of things that are necessary to make a community great. Rate your own community. Is it a good one? What improvements would you make?
This Week in Black History
- April 30, 1899: One of the world’s greatest musical geniuses, Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington, is born.
- May 1, 1950: Gwendolyn Brooks becomes the first Black to win a Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
- May 2, 1920: The first game of the National Negro Baseball League is played in Indianapolis.
- May 5, 1969: Moneta Sleet becomes the first Black photographer to win a Pulitzer Prize for his photo of Coretta Scott King and her daughter at the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.