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Black Lives Matter – Seneca Village New York New York in 1855

November 23, 2015

Black Lives Matter – Seneca Village New York New York in 1855




Seneca Village

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Not to be confused with Seneca, New York.

Map showing the former location of Seneca Village (Egbert Viele, ca. 1857)

Seneca Village was a small village in the borough of Manhattan in New York City, founded by freed black people.[1] Seneca Village existed from 1825 through 1857, when it was torn down for the construction of Central Park.

The village was the first significant community of African American property owners on Manhattan, and also came to be inhabited by several otherminorities, including Irish and German immigrants. The village was located on about 5 acres (20,000 m2) between where 82nd and 89th Streets and Seventh and Eighth Avenues[2] would now intersect, an area now covered by Central Park. A stone outcropping near the 85th Street entrance to Central Park is believed to be part of a foundation of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.[3]


The origin of Seneca Village’s name is not exactly known; however, a number of theories have been advanced.

  1. One theory suggests the word “Seneca” came from a Roman philosopher named Lucius Annaeus Seneca, whose book was often read by African American activists.[citation needed]
  2. In Upstate New York, the Hamlet of “Seneca Falls” was established in the 17th century. Notable strides in Women’s Rights and Civil Rights were made in this area. In New York, many major names were repeated in naming new provinces and villages. Seneca Falls was connected to the Erie Canal in 1828. Many names, such as Seneca and Bedford, can be found throughout Manhattan and other areas of NY.[citation needed]
  3. Another theory is that the village was named after a group of Native Americans, the Seneca nation.[4]
  4. Sara Cedar Miller, the Central Park Conservancy’s historian suggests, “It must have been an ethnic slur,” a way to simultaneously denigrate Indians and blacks.[5]
  5. Some suggest it is a derivative of Senegal, a country in West Africa, where many of the people who lived in the village were from.[6]
  6. Yet other theories suggest the name could also have been used as a code for the Underground Railroad.[6]


Mixing pot

Blacks first came to the area in 1825, when John Whitehead, a deliveryman, began selling off parcels of his farm. Andrew Williams first bought three lots for $125. By 1832, about 25 more lots were sold to African Americans.[1] Epiphany Davis, a laborer and trustee of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, bought 12 lots for $578 the same day. The church itself then bought 6 lots. Between 1825 and 1832, real estate records show, the Whiteheads sold at least 24 land parcels to black families.[5] Seneca Village became a gathering place after one main historical event: slavery’s coming to an end in New York State on July 4, 1827.[citation needed]

In the early 19th century, Seneca village attracted many other ethnic groups for different reasons. Seneca Village grew in the 1830s when people from a community called York Hill were forced to move after a government-enforced eviction; the York Hill land was used to build a basin for the Croton Distributing Reservoir.[citation needed]

Later, during the potato famine in Ireland, many Irish residents came to live in Seneca Village[citation needed], swelling the village by 30 percent during this time.[4] Both African Americans and Irish immigrants were marginalized and faced discrimination throughout the city. Remarkably, despite their social and racial conflicts elsewhere, the African Americans and Irish in Seneca Village chose to live in close proximity to each other.[7]

Institutional buildings

The village had three churches, a school, and several cemeteries. The First African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church of Yorkville laid its cornerstone in Seneca Village in 1853. A box put into the cornerstone contained a Bible, a hymn book, the church’s rules, a letter with the names of its five trustees, and copies of the Tribune and The Sun newspapers. Its sister church, known as Mother AME Zion, is in Harlem on 137th Street.[citation needed]

There was a school located in a church where 17-year-old Catherine Thompson taught the village’s children.[6]

1855 Census

In 1855, a New York State Census found that Seneca Village had 264 residents.[8][9] At this time in New York City‘s history, most of the city’s population lived below 14th Street, and the region above 59th Street was only sporadically developed, and was semi-rural or rural in character. No one knows where the residents of Seneca Village resettled. To date, no living descendants of Seneca Villagers have been found.[3]


As the campaign to create Central Park moved forward park advocates and the media began to describe Seneca Village and other communities in this area as “shantytowns” and the residents there as “squatters“. The village was razed for park construction. Residents were offered $2,335 for their property.[3] Members of the community fought to retain their land.[10]For two years, residents resisted the police as they petitioned the courts to save their homes, churches, and schools. Some villagers were violently evicted in 1855.[3] However, in the summer of 1856, Mayor Fernando Wood prevailed, and residents of Seneca Village were given final notice. In 1857, the city government acquired all private property within Seneca Village through eminent domain. On October 1, 1857, city officials in New York reported that the last holdouts living on land that was to become Central Park had been removed.[11]

A newspaper account at the time suggested that Seneca Village would “not be forgotten…[as] many a brilliant and stirring fight was had during the campaign. But the supremacy of the law was upheld by the policeman’s bludgeons.”[1] There are few records of where residents went after their eviction and the community was destroyed.[7]

After its destruction, public memory of Seneca Village disappeared for over a century.[citation needed]



The Seneca Village project, which formed in 1998, is dedicated to raising awareness about Seneca Village’s significance as a free, middle-class black community in 19th century New York City. The project facilitates educational programs, which engage school children, teachers and the general public, and bring Seneca Village into public knowledge.

In February 2001, Parks Commissioner Henry Stern, State Senator David Paterson, Borough President C. Virginia Fields, and New York Historical Society Executive Director Betsy Gotbaum unveiled the Historical Sign commemorating the site where Seneca Village once stood.[7][12]

Archeological excavations

Following a 1997 exhibition on the community at the New-York Historical Society, archaeologists Diana Wall and Nan Rothschild and educators Cynthia Copeland and Herbert Seignoret of Barnard College, New York University and the City College of New York decided to see if any archaeological traces of the village remained. They worked with local historians, churches and community groups to shape the direction of their research project on the site.

With student participation, the project conducted exhaustive archival research and preliminary remote sensing. Researchers used soil borings to identify promising areas with undisturbed soil. In 2005 the team performed ground-penetrating radar tests, successfully locating traces of Seneca Village. After extended discussions with the New York City Department of Parks and the Central Park Conservancy, officials granted permission for test excavations in the regions of the village most likely to contain intact archaeological deposits.[7] Digs took place in 2004, August 2005,[13] and summer 2011 [14] the buried remains of the village were the subject of archaeological investigation.[14][15]

The 2011 excavation uncovered the homestead of William Godfrey Wilson, a sexton for All Angels’ Church, and another important deposit from the backyard of two other Seneca Village residents. Archeologists found over 250 bags of artifacts, including the bone handle of a toothbrush and the leather sole of a child’s shoe. The public location of the site in Central Park meant that excavators had to back-fill incomplete units each weekend and could not cut any root thicker than half an inch. Nighttime guards also monitored the site to ensure that it was undisturbed. Following the excavation, more than 300 people attended an open house atthe project site.[citation needed]


  1. ^ Jump up to:a b c “MAAP – Place Detail: Seneca Village”.
  2. Jump up^ “Seneca Village”.
  3. ^ Jump up to:a b c d Martin, Douglas (January 31, 1997). “A Village Dies, A Park Is Born”. The New York Times.
  4. ^ Jump up to:a b Template:Dead link\date=November 2014
  5. ^ Jump up to:a b Martin, Douglas (April 7, 1995). “Before Park, Black Village; Students Look Into a Community’s History”. The New York Times. Retrieved May 23, 2010.
  6. ^ Jump up to:a b c Williams, Jasmin K. (August 13, 2007). “The Village In The Park”. New York Post.
  7. ^ Jump up to:a b c d Wall, Diana; Diana Wall; Nan A. Rothschild; Cynthia Copeland (2008). “Seneca Village and Little Africa: Two African American Communities in Antebellum New York City”. Historical Archaeology 42 (Living in Cities Revisited: Trends in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Urban Archaeology (2008)): 97–107.
  8. Jump up^ “Seneca Village”. The New York Historical Society. Retrieved 2006-05-15.
  9. Jump up^ Shipp, E.R. (August 21, 2005). “The Price of Progress: Eminent domain can lead to pain as well as advancement”. Daily News (New York).
  10. Jump up^ “William’s Affidavit”. The New York Historical Society. Retrieved 2006-05-15.
  11. Jump up^[dead link]
  12. Jump up^ “Media Advisories”.
  13. Jump up^ “Seneca Village – Archaeology”.
  14. ^ Jump up to:a b “Seneca Village 2011”. Columbia Univ., Media Center for Art History. Retrieved 2 September 2012.
  15. Jump up^ Foderaro, Lisa W. (2011-07-27). “Unearthing an African-American Village Displaced by Central Park”. The New York Times.


  • Killcoyne, Hope & Majno, Mary Lee (illustrator) (1999). The Lost Village of Central Park. New York: Silver Moon Press.
  • Rosenzweig, Roy & Blackmar, Elizabeth (1992). The Park and the People: A History of Central Park. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.

External links


Seneca Village // History – YouTube

Feb 28, 2012 – Uploaded by SenecaVillageProject

The Village Below Central Park Seneca Village began in 1825 with the purchase of land by a trustee of AME …

“The Lost Village In New York City”

By Daisy Alioto   May, 2011

Smack in the center of New York City — in the confines of Central Park — there are ghostly vestiges of a 19th century neighborhood that once was vibrant and thriving but now is largely forgotten: Seneca Village.

It is considered by historians to be one of Manhattan’s earliest communities of African-American property owners.

This much is known: Between 1825 and the mid-1850s, it was alive. Seneca Village was home to a variety of Americans. Most were of African descent, but there were also Irish and German and maybe some Native Americans, as well. The 1855 state census noted that 264 people lived there. The area had a school, three churches and some cemeteries.

A couple of years later, everyone in the village was told to leave and the neighborhood buildings were razed to clear the way for Central Park. In recent times, historians have begun exploring the village’s past.

But for all the present-day records-probing and sites-excavating, there are still many unknowns surrounding Seneca Village.

One of the greatest mysteries: Researchers have not been able to find a single living descendant of anyone who was a resident of Seneca Village.

The Village Today

You can stroll around the area that was once Seneca Village by entering Central Park through Mariners’ Gate at 85th Street and Central Park West. The grounds are flanked by playgrounds and, at this time of year, dotted with tulip beds.

The village lay between 82nd and 87th streets, just east of Central Park West.

To trace a path that runs up to Central Park’s expansive Great Lawn is to tread among the pines where the frame house and barn of village resident George G. Root once stood — in his time a stone’s throw from two more houses, known to belong to Epiphany Davis. Andrew Williams, a free black shoe shiner, purchased three lots of land near there on Sept. 27, 1825.

The area has been examined closely by researchers. Anthropology professors Diana Wall of The City College of New York and Nan Rothschild of Columbia University, and adjunct instructor Cynthia Copeland of New York University, are founding members of the Seneca Village Project, which spearheads the study of the village in an educational context and its commemoration. The project’s website offers aninteractive map and photos from the site.

Cynthia explains how a number of events in the 1990s colluded to bring the history of Seneca Village to light. In 1991, a 17th and 18th century site of thousands of African burials was uncovered in Lower Manhattan. Now the African Burial Ground National Monument, the discovery at the time spurred people to think about early African presence in New York City’s history.

She also credits Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar, authors of a 1992 publication, The Park and the People: A History of Central Park, for including Seneca Village in their section on pre-park history. The authors used material they found in the New York Historical Society repository, where Cynthia was a curator. In 1997, the historical society mounted an exhibition, “Before Central Park: The Life and Death of Seneca Village,” which was called a “piercingly emotional show” by The New York Times.

In 2004, the historians began digging to see what they could find. They continued excavations when funding and time allowed. One focal point was the home of William Godfrey Wilson — a church sexton in the village — complete with vestigial signs of domestic life: pots and pans, a tea kettle and, particularly poignant in the imagining of the past, a child’s shoe.

Looking For Descendants

Meanwhile, as the historians were hunting for inanimate representations of the lost village, the Seneca Village Project also began looking for living, breathing people who might have genealogical ties to those long-ago villagers. At the 1997 New York Historical Society exhibit, the names of Seneca Village residents were listed and visitors were asked if they or anyone they knew were related to those original denizens. The anthropologists made a similar query at a series of lectures about Seneca Village given around New York City in the early 2000s. They continue to make appeals whenever possible.

So far, not a single soul has come forward with true knowledge of any inhabitants.

Part of the problem, says Nan Rothschild, is not knowing where residents moved after the village was erased.

Diana Wall wonders if the contentious clearing of the area has shrouded its history in sadness and left a hole in family narratives: “Could it be,” she asks, “that because people were evicted from Seneca Village, it was an unhappy part of their past that they chose to forget?”

Both researchers express a wish to dedicate more time to locating the residents, but with courses to teach and other projects, that’s difficult. The excavation itself has served as a classroom for over 100 students, Nan estimates, and locating living descendants of the village would be meaningful to all of them.

“It would be nice to package it all up and tie it in a bow. But that’s not history … history is messy,” says Cynthia. She remains hopeful about finding descendants of the villagers. “I believe they are out there.”

PSA: Anyone who has heard family stories or has other reasons to believe that he or she is a descendant of residents of Seneca Village should contact Cynthia Copeland (, Nan Rothschild ( or Diana Wall (

Daisy Alioto, formerly of NPR, is a news assistant at Law360.


The Protojournalist: Experimental storytelling for the LURVers – Listeners, Users, Readers, Viewers – of NPR. @NPRtpj





“The Conflict Gallery”–Before Central Park: The Life and Death of Seneca Village, an exhibition at The New-York Historical Society, Carol May and Tim Watkins, designers.


This website was created to introduce you to the fascinating and amazing subject of HISTORY through the discovery of primary sources.

At this site, you will have the opportunity to become a historical detective who will reconstruct the story of a nineteenth-century community based on clues recovered from the past.

In practicing the historian’s craft by conducting a research project, you will develop the skills needed to collect, analyze, and interpret data so that you can draw your own conclusions about a place and time period in New York City’s history.



This website was developed by the Institute for Learning Technologies at Teachers College, Columbia University, in collaboration with the Education Department of the New-York Historical Society and The New York Public Library, Office of Young Adult Services. It is based in large part on the book The Park and the People: A History of Central Park by Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar. The New-York Historical Society thanks the Bell Atlantic Foundation, the Heckscher Foundation for Children, and public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, a state agency. For more information, read About This Site. For questions and correspondence, send email to


Seneca Village Site

seneca village 

Seneca Village may possibly have been Manhattan’s first stable community of African American property owners. Located from 81st to 89th Streets between Seventh and Eighth Avenues in what is now a section of Central Park, the village is important part of the history of New York City.

Although the reason for the name “Seneca Village” is unknown, recent historical and geophysical research has uncovered a great deal of information about this unique community and its inhabitants. Beginning in 1825 parcels of land were sold to individuals and to members of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church possibly the largest church of black people in the New York City. Within a few years the community developed into a stable settlement of over 250 working-class people, with African Americans owning more than half the households in the village – an unusually high percentage of property ownership for any New York community. The presence of an abundant natural spring near 82nd Street would have provided the fresh drinking water necessary for the maintenance and stability of a large community. Two African Methodist churches, the African Union Methodist and the AME Zion (today, known as Mother AME Zion) were constructed in the village near 85th Street. Their congregations were composed entirely of African Americans. Colored School No. 3, one of the few black schools in New York City, had been established in the 1840s and was housed in the basement of the African Union Methodist Church. All Angels’ Church, an affiliate of St. Michael’s on Broadway at 99th Street, was built in 1849. It had a racially integrated congregation of African Americans from Seneca Village and Irish and German parishioners living in the village and within a mile of the church.

By the 1850s, Seneca Village had also gained many Irish and German immigrant families. There were also several large cemeteries affiliated with churches. In 1853, the state legislature authorized the use of “eminent domain,” the taking of private property for public purposes. This public acquisition of private land to create a major public park in the City of New York began in 1856, and at the time encompassed the land from 59th to 106th Streets between Fifth and Eighth Avenues. Those owners living within the boundaries of the proposed park were compensated for their property, though many protests were filed in New York State Supreme Court, as is often the case with eminent domain, when owners contest the amount of settlement.

In total, approximately 1,600 people who owned, lived, or worked on the 843-acre tract of land had to move when the Park was created. The residents and institutions of Seneca Village did not reestablish their long-standing community in another location. A recent archeological dig by CUNY and Columbia University professors and their assistants revealed stone foundation walls and myriad artifacts, including what appeared to be an iron tea kettle, a roasting pan, a stoneware beer bottle fragments of Chinese export porcelain, and a small shoe with a leather sole and fabric upper.


West Side between 81st and 89th Streets.

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