The Hidden History Of Central Park And The Black Village Destroyed To Create It
Many of us grew up viewing New York through the prism of movies and television; familiar with the various landmarks even if we’d never set foot there ourselves.
Those of us who’ve been immersed in American pop culture can instantly visualise the Statue of Liberty holding her welcoming torch aloft, or picture the cinematic grandeur of the Empire State Building.
Among these feats of architecture is, of course, Central Park; a vast expanse of urban greenery that encompasses a public ice rink, a zoo and the open-air Delacorte Theater.
One of the most-filmed locations on Earth, Central Park often feels like an additional character in NYC-set movies; an oasis of calm in the dense metropolis where our heroes can stroll and cry and fall in love.
In darker depictions, we see Central Park as a place of fear and danger, to be steered clear of at all costs after the sun goes down.
At once portrayed as beautiful and frightening, Central Park has regularly been portrayed as a wild and fragmented mirror of the city itself. A place of culture and nature, of crime and blood and devastating injustices.
But, as with many moments in history, Central Park’s creation relied upon the destruction of another site. And so many are woefully unaware of the far older history embedded in the very soil of the park, the sorrow and destruction buried beneath the American Elms and the cheerful carousel.
The long-destroyed Seneca Village, one of New York’s first free black settlements, began taking shape in 1825, after local landowners John and Elizabeth Whitehead subdivided their land and sold it off as 200 lots.
25-year-old African American shoeshiner Andrew Williams purchased the first three lots for $125, with store clerk Epiphany Davis buying 12 lots for $578. The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, a historically black church, bought a further six lots.
The community expanded further between the year 1825 to 1832, with the Whiteheads – unlike many of their fellow 19th century white landowners – selling land parcels to African Americans for an affordable price.
Seneca Village was built at a crucial point in history for black Americans. Slavery in New York was abolished in 1827, at around the same time Seneca Village began to bloom.
Although slavery had been abolished in the state, local political attitudes reflected New York’s close affiliations with the South, and there was widespread discrimination and disparities between black and white residents as per the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.
Slave owners who moved to New York from another state were entitled to bring slaves with them as ‘property’ until 1841. Emancipation may have arrived in New York, but this would have been a difficult place for a black American to live.
Free African Americans were often forced to work in low-wage jobs, with precious few property ownership opportunities. Many lived as renters in the poor neighbourhoods of Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn.
Built in what was then a rural area, Seneca Village appears to have been a rare place of hope and vibrancy in the pre-Park era, with many African Americans escaping racism and crowded conditions to form a community that would bring opportunities for their families.
This was a place that brought residential stability and healthier living conditions; a far cry from the infamous Five Points District, a neighbourhood described by novelist Charles Dickens as a place of ‘poverty, wretchedness, and vice’.
Writing in his American Notes (1842), Dickens gave the following memorable description of Five Points, which was New York City’s very first free black settlement:
Debauchery has made the very houses prematurely old. See how the rotten beams are tumbling down, and how the patched and broken windows seem to scowl dimly, like eyes that have been hurt in drunken frays.
In comparison, most residents in Seneca lived in two-storey homes, with evidence found of gardens and barns. It’s thought that some residents owned livestock, and that they had access to good quality drinking water and an abundance of natural resources.
There was a high level of school attendance among children, with many adults working in industries such as domestic service, food service and construction.
By the 1830s, there were around 10 homes in Seneca Village, and by the mid-1850s there were 50 homes, three churches and a cemetery, as well as one of the very few schools to be made available for African American children.
At around this time, white German and Irish immigrants – who also faced discrimination and marginalisation in the city – had begun to move in.
Although there were tensions between these groups elsewhere in the area, here there is evidence to suggest Seneca was an integrated and harmonious community, with records of interracial marriages and of white and black citizens attending church services and gatherings together.
Seneca Village residents enjoyed greater prosperity than other black New Yorkers at this time. By 1855, around half of residents were homeowners, affording them crucial rights that were not widely held.
Home ownership brought the right to vote, and therefore the chance to have a voice in who was shaping the policies of the day.
As of 1821, the state of New York required black men to own property worth at least $250, and to hold residency for a three year period before being permitted to vote.
Out of the 100 black New Yorkers who could vote back in 1845, 10 were Seneca Village residents, the location of the greatest number of black property owners in New York prior to the Civil War.
Known to be ‘Manhattan’s first prominent community of African American property owners’, Seneca Village remains a source of historical fascination. But sadly, this history was cut short.
By the 1840s, members of the city’s elite started calling for a large park to be built in Manhattan, inspired by the grand, fashionable public parks of Europe.
There were already several residential settlements built upon the desired site, including Harsenville, the Piggery District, the Convent of the Sisters of Charity, and Seneca Village. Settlements that needed to be scrubbed from existence before the park could come to be.
This plan was backed by powerful, influential men, including New York Evening Post editor William Cullen Bryant and famed landscape designer Andrew Jackson Downing.
As per an article on Central Park history from Rutgers University, contemporay newspaper portrayed Seneca Village as an impoverished, disease ridden ‘wasteland’ with residents derided as ‘squatters’ and ‘bloodsuckers’.
For example, a 1856 article in the New York Daily Times, entitled The Present Look at Our Central Park read:
If some of the hogs, goats, and other inmates of the shanties in this vicinity do not die of the yellow fever this Summer, it will only be because Death himself hesitates to enter such dirty hovels.
Many members of the public were therefore persuaded that Central Park’s creation was absolutely necessary, that this ‘shanty town’ needed to be wiped out altogether.
Residents had no choice but to leave by 1857, displaced through a process known as ’eminent domain’. This meant property owners living on the land had to leave but would be compensated for their property’s value. Renters received no compensation.
Central Park Conservancy Historian Marie Warsh told UNILAD:
We know that some residents wrote letters stating that the value assigned to their property was too low. We don’t know of any actual demonstrations or protests in the form of people coming together to fight this.
As per newspaper reports highlighted by Rutgers University, there was resistance to the park’s construction, with one New York Times article noting that ‘there was much opposition and even hand-to-hand conflict with the police’.
Another article, this time published in the New York Daily Times, read:
The policemen find it difficult to persuade them out of the idea which has possessed their simple minds that the sole object of the authorities in making the park is to procure their expulsion from the homes which they occupy.
Ultimately, the fight, and the community, was lost. We can only imagine how residents felt at having been given no choice but to move on, to see the homes where their children grew up lost forever beneath recreational parkland.
However, traces of the lives they led afterwards still remain. For example, Central Park historians know a fair bit about the Williams family, who reinvested their compensation money into property in Queens.
Researchers were able to trace their decedents right up to present day, with the men of the family having inherited the name of the Seneca Village patriarch – Andrew Williams – throughout the centuries.
The Williams family daughters have all been given names beginning with ‘A’ as a way of proudly commemorating their ancestor, a man who was there at Seneca’s beginning, and who ‘immediately protested’ its destruction.
The original Andrew knew his property was worth $4,000 and argued his case to be compensated for that amount. However, he was forced out with the far lesser sum of $2,335 in April 1856. By June 1856, he had purchased land in Newtown.
His descendent, Ariel Williams – who has conducted extensive research into her family history – made the following comments in a Central Park video about what came next for Andrew:
With this new land, he was really able to invest in Andrew Williams II’s education. He was the first one that was able to read and write, and invest in other things as well and continue to be a property owner.
You can find out more about the Williams family in the following clip:
Sadly, so much of what everyday life in Seneca village would have been like was lost long ago; glimpsed briefly in the fragments of china and candlesticks uncovered by archaeologists nearly two centuries later. In the crumbling remains of a child’s leather-soled shoe.
Marie Warsh told UNILAD:
There are no diary entries or any records of residents. There are government documents that provide us with demographic information such as name, age, profession, and who lived together in a household. There are also some church records and newspaper articles.
However, researchers have been able to take this to get a sense of who lived there and some of their relationships with one another.
For more than a century after its demolition, this once promising settlement was largely forgotten by the ever-changing New Yorkers strolling above its hidden ruins.
However, public interest was reignited following the publication of The Park and the People: A History of Central Park (1992) by Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar, which shed new light on the long-dispersed community.
I don’t think it was deliberately kept quiet, in the sense that people knew about it and made a conscious decision not to talk about it.
After the park was built, it was lost. There were no real written accounts of it and the community had disbanded.
In the 1990s some historians began closely studying old maps that showed who lived on the land before Central Park was created and figured out that in one area there was a concentration of African Americans living together.
This is what spurred awareness of Seneca Village and the research that is ongoing to this day.
The land where Seneca Village was once situated – an approximate five acres between 82nd street and 89th streets – has long been cleared of the buildings that made it home. However, there are still echos of the past.
A 2011 archaeological excavation uncovered significant remains, and archaeologists and students were able to compile a collection of several thousand artefacts from the site.
This included domestic items from Seneca Village households, with many items demonstrating that the inhabitants could have been more prosperous than the biased papers of the day insisted.
Splintered pieces of fashionable Chinese imported crockery and parts of toothbrushes were unearthed at the dig, not unlike those used in Greenwich Village at the time, where middle-class white people lived.
Indeed, such findings directly dispute the cruel and dehumanising terms used by the media at the time to justify the disruption of so many lives.
What remains of Seneca Village points towards a dignified and inclusive settlement, with residents who took great pride in their community.
The fact that its story remained buried beneath park soil for so many years illustrates just how blatantly such histories are left out of the neat timeline we have been expected to adhere to for far too long.
If you have a story you want to tell, send it to UNILAD via [email protected]
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CreditsSeneca Village Project and 4 others
Seneca Village Project
New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission
Whitney Museum of American Art/YouTube