New York central park is a green oasis amid the dense, urban metropolis. But buried beneath the gently landscaped slopes and rocky ravines, the lakes, fountains and playgrounds of New York Central Park, lie traces of a dark history. Seneca village was a thriving African American and Irish community in the 1820s existing between what is now the park’s perimeter from west 82nd to west 89th street. Though the original inhabitants were evicted in the 1850s to create what would become the first landscaped park in the US, Seneca village remains significant as one of the first African American owned properties in Manhattan and as a rare example of racial harmony during this period.
ORIGINS OF SENECA VILLAGE
In the 1820s, large amounts of land were sold to the African American community, including the African American Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. With over 250 dollars worth of property, Seneca village also provided another enormous opportunity for African Americans because that was the amount of money legally required by an African American male to vote. The distance from the lower Manhattan settlement allowed the villagers to establish a controlled, peaceful community, and churches, homes and even a school were built by the mid-century.
Built during a period of great turbulence in the city’s history, the establishment of the village marks an important period, especially for the African American community. Though the African American presence is generally assumed to have begun with the great migration in the 20th century, the first African Americans arrived in the 1620s with Dutch colonists. The history of Seneca village is a testament to these communities and the part of history that many would prefer to forget. The enslaved population was only emancipated in 1827, at a time of great economic expansion for the city. A lot of the wealth was brought due to slave labour, making it all the more important that the history of the African American community is recovered and reconciled.
A THRIVING COMMUNITY
Despite the abolition of slave labour, discrimination was still present in New York, and the remote nature of the settlement provided a release, both from the social climate and the crowded, polluted conditions of the city. By the 1850s, the area was populated with over 250 people, most of whom were property owners. Approximately two-thirds of the population were of African-American descent, while the rest were primarily Irish and German immigrants. Contrary to popular misconceptions that the people here were ‘ poor squatters living in shanties ’, most of the residents were employed and paid taxes, and census records show that the children attended school. The property owners also had the right to vote, meaning that Seneca village at this time was an autonomous, stable and prosperous community in the heart of Manhattan.
THE FORMATION OF CENTRAL PARK
By 1850, a group of New York visionaries were beginning to agitate for the creation of an uptown park that resembled the vast, public ones in Europe. The city also wanted a space for recreation that would counter the unhealthy conditions of the city. People like James William Beekman, Andrew Downing, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux were a part of this movement and eventually became responsible for designing the country’s first public landscaped park.
A large underdeveloped plot of land in what was then considered upper Manhattan was selected for the project, and 775 acres of land was set aside by the New York legislature. The city acquired the land through a law that allowed the government to use private land for public purposes, as long as the owners were compensated. While this was a common practice at the time, it resulted in over 1,600 inhabitants, including those living in Seneca village being displaced. Though the landowners were compensated, many felt that their land had been undervalued. By the end of 1857, all the residents had dispersed and relocated to different communities in the region.
For a long time, Seneca village was lost from popular memory and history. It was only at the end of the twentieth century that a team of archaeologists uncovered a series of artefacts including a roasting pan, a small shoe and an iron tea kettle that allowed them to piece together what life might have been like in the Village.
Even today, very little is known about its history and what happened to the descendants of the evicted community, and research is still underway to learn more about its history. The traces of the Village are only a few feet below the park, and the archaeological excavations and archival research are not just of value historically but also to bring the African American presence in American history to the collective consciousness. “It’s really important to present this more comprehensive history,” said Marie Warsh, a historian for the Central Park Conservancy. “And to show that all of Manhattan, New York City has all of these layers and all these stories that can be told.”
- Smarthistory, 2018. Seneca Village: African Americans in early New York.Available at: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ct9iepqScxk> [Accessed 14 November 2021].
- The Central Park Conservancy, 2018. The Story of Seneca Village. [online] Central Park Conservancy. Available at: <https://www.centralparknyc.org/articles/seneca-village> [Accessed 14 November 2021].
- Copeland, C., Rothschild, N. and Wall, D., undated. Seneca Village. [online] Projects.mcah.columbia.edu. Available at: <http://projects.mcah.columbia.edu/seneca_village/index.html> [Accessed 14 November 2021].
- SCOTTO, M., 2020. Seneca Village History Uncovered in Central Park. [online] Ny1.com. Available at: <https://www.ny1.com/nyc/all-boroughs/news/2020/02/05/central-park-seneca-village-history-uncovered> [Accessed 14 November 2021].