New York City, NY

When New York’s Central Park Represented a Free Black America: The History of Seneca Village

Joel Eisenberg

The Manhattan landmark was one of the first U.S. settlements composed of primarily African-American property owners.

https://img.particlenews.com/image.php?url=3SOTwY_0g6FJANG00
Seneca Village Interpretive SignCentral Park Conservancy (public domain)

Author’s Note

This article is based on New York City historical records and accredited media reports. All linked information within this article is fully-attributed to the following outlets: Central Park Conservancy (CentralParkNYC.com), Statue of Liberty’s “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus, CBSNews.com, Google.com, and Pix11.com.

Introduction

History begets history.

New York City‘s Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island represented freedom to many if not all who arrived on U.S. shores from overseas, and the landmarks today are considered fittingly symbolic.

An excerpt from Emma Lazarus’ "The New Colossus" sonnet, mounted on a bronze plaque inside the Statue of Liberty pedestal's lower level, reads: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The area now known as Central Park also contributed to this concept of freedom and in a big way, though the area does not receive nearly the note in this regard as the aforementioned landmarks.

Let us explore further.

Seneca Village: An Overview

According to Central Park Conservancy (CentralParkNYC.com,) in its January, 2018 piece entitled “Before Central Park: The Story of Seneca Village”: Before Central Park was created, the landscape along what is now the Park’s perimeter from West 82nd to West 89th Street was the site of Seneca Village, a community of predominantly African-Americans, many of whom owned property. By 1855, the village consisted of approximately 225 residents, made up of roughly two-thirds African-Americans, one-third Irish immigrants, and a small number of individuals of German descent. One of few African-American enclaves at the time, Seneca Village allowed residents to live away from the more built-up sections of downtown Manhattan and escape the unhealthy conditions and racial discrimination they faced there.

Other statistics are mentioned in the comprehensive piece, including specific land divisions and the selling of available lots: Seneca Village began in 1825, when landowners in the area, John and Elizabeth Whitehead, subdivided their land and sold it as 200 lots. Andrew Williams, a 25-year-old African-American shoeshiner, bought the first three lots for $125. Epiphany Davis, a store clerk, bought 12 lots for $578, and the AME Zion Church purchased another six lots. From there a community was born.

In “Uncovering the History of Seneca Village in New York City,” a February, 2022 report published on CBSNews.com, the piece begins with a comment about few knowing the history they are trodding upon when walking through the venerable park.

As excerpted from the article, which references a potentially still larger history within the community, in part via an archeological dig that has been considered as possible evidence:

“Seneca Village was a place of opportunity. It was a reaction to racism," said Cynthia Copeland, president of the Institute for the Exploration of Seneca Village History. She has spent decades uncovering its story.

Correspondent Faith Salie asked, "There's a chance that Seneca Village was part of the Underground Railroad?"

"There is, and it's speculative, but highly probable," Copeland replied.

To date, there is no proof of the contention, though various media outlets — as a targeted Google search will verify — agree the matter will continue to be explored.

Seneca Village thrived from 1825-1857, a relatively brief duration.

Local New York news outlet WPIX-TV features an archived February, 2020 article on their website, Pix11.com, entitled “Hidden New York: Seneca Village Unearthed,” which answers the question as to “what happened” to the historic largely Black community: For African American property owners, Seneca Village provided residential stability and an investment in the future. Another incentive to owning property at the time was that it gave African Americans the right to vote. Thirty years into their community and through eminent domain, the city paid every person to up and leave, essentially kicking them out. The church and the villages all, but vanished until the 1990s when researchers started diving into census records and maps.

And once again, lost history becomes found history.

Conclusion

In recent years, Seneca Village has finally begun to receive its due recognition as a particularly important, though largely under-publicized, piece of the American Experience.

Note: In the event of any new findings or developments on historical matters referenced herein, I will follow this article with an update.

Thank you for reading.

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I am an award-winning author, screenwriter for film and television, and producer. My mission on News Break is to share socially important perspectives on both culture and pop-culture. Member of PEN America, and the WGA.

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