Have you ever heard of Seneca Village? It was a vibrant community of free African-American property owners in pre-Civil War New York – the largest of its kind. Although it is a distant memory now, the area was rediscovered in 2011 due to the excavation done by Columbia University and CUNY archaeologists. There is a theory that the place was named after the West African country of Senegal, which may have been the birthplace of some of the village’s residents. Before Central Park was built, Seneca Village flourished between West 82nd and 89th Streets, home to both African Americans and Irish immigrants! It was first established in 1825 when the Whiteheads divided their land and sold it as 200 lots. Andrew Williams, a 25-year-old African-American man, was the first person to purchase one of these lots – exciting, isn’t it?
The settlement thrived for 32 years before being destroyed by the city to make way for Central Park in 1857.
THE FORMATION OF SENECA VILLAGE
Seneca Village began in 1825 when local landowners John and Elizabeth Whitehead subdivided their property and sold it into 200 lots. Andrew Williams, a 25-year-old African-American shoe shiner, paid $125 for the first three lots. Epiphany Davis, a store clerk, paid $578 for 12 lots, and the AME Zion Church paid $578 for another six lots. From there a community was born. The Whiteheads sold roughly half of their land parcels to other African-Americans between 1825 and 1832. By the early 1830s, there were approximately 10 homes in the Village.
There is historical evidence that residents in Seneca Village had gardens and raised livestock, and the nearby Hudson River was a likely source of fishing for the community. Tanner’s Spring, a nearby spring, served as a water source. Seneca Village had 50 homes, three churches, burial grounds, and a school for African-American students by the mid-1850s.
A SUCCESSIVE AFRICAN-AMERICAN COMMUNITY
Seneca Village was a well-known thriving community that provided residents with the opportunity to live in a self-contained community away from the densely populated downtown area. Despite New York State’s abolition of slavery in 1827, racism persisted in New York City and severely limited the lives of African-Americans. Seneca Village provided a haven from this weather and also an escape place where many residents settled from the City’s unhealthy and congested conditions.
THE CREATION OF CENTRAL PARK
In the early 1850s, City officials started planning a large municipal park to counteract New York’s unhealthy urban conditions and provide recreational space. In 1853, the New York State Legislature passed legislation designating 775 acres of land in Manhattan—between Fifth and Eighth Avenues—as the country’s first major landscaped public park.
Central Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, influenced the development of urban parks nationwide and is widely regarded as a masterpiece of landscape architecture. Central Park is a National Historic Landscape (1963) and a City of New York Scenic Landscape (1974).
What happened to the people who lived in Seneca Village?
Seneca Village was completely demolished. The villagers and other settlers in the area were forced to leave and their houses were torn down for the construction of Central Park. The entirety of the village was dispersed.
Seneca Village made significant contributions to the land, earning it a place in Black History. The Central Park Conservancy created an outdoor exhibition that highlights significant historic buildings and provides deeper insight into the life and death of Seneca Village. Although the community existed for only three decades, Seneca Village was a cradle for the rights and upward social and economic mobility of emancipated Black Americans and new immigrants.
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