This year, for Black History Month we’ll be putting up a series of blog posts. This week’s blog is by Rafi Ahmed.
Seneca Village: The Forgotten Victim of Central Park’s Racial Past
Everyone knows Central Park at New York City – a sprawling beautiful green space with walkways, ecosystems and sculptures at the heart of Manhattan. However, very little know about how Central Park was previously a majority-black community named Seneca Village. What happened to Seneca Village and why is it an important period of black history?
Read along to find out!
How was Seneca Village established?
In the early 19th century Upper Manhattan was mainly a countryside while Lower Manhattan was a dense and crowded urban area with white, blacks and immigrants. From 1800 to 1830, the number of black slaves decreased from 21000 to just 75. Hence, more and more freed black men and women joined the workforce. This created racial tensions between whites and blacks as whites felt that black people were stealing their jobs. Racial tensions led to racial violence that made lower Manhattan too dangerous to live in.
That’s when a solution arose. In 1825 plots of land started going up for sale in the area now known as Central Park. Andrew Williams, a 25-year-old African-American shoe-shiner, bought the first three lots for $125. Word spread around the black community and more plots were sold to black households and churches. By the mid-1850s, Seneca Village comprised 50 homes and three churches, as well as burial grounds, and a school for African-American students. Thus, between 82nd and 89th street that the community of Seneca village was born.
(Courtesy of NYC Municipal Archives)
Why was Central Park made?
Over the next three decades after Seneca Village was established, the population of Lower Manhattan nearly quadrupled in size. The city’s white elite feared that New York would turn into a concrete jungle. They wished that the city had a park that could serve as both the lungs and a sight of beauty for the city similar to the Kensington Park or the Champ Elysees in Europe.
Hence, in 1853, the New York State Legislature enacted a law that set aside approximately 750-800 acres of land in Manhattan – from 59th to 106th Streets, between Fifth and Eighth Avenues – to create the country’s first major landscaped park: The Central Park.
Unfortunately, some of the area allotted to the Central Park belonged to Seneca Village. The village was destroyed so that Central Park could be built.
(Courtesy of MYC Municipal Archives)
Why was Seneca Village destroyed?
Urban re-development projects are designed by demolishing old buildings to create space for new ones. We see it everywhere, across time and geography. However, Seneca Village is not just another example of a strategic re-development project. The plight of Seneca Village speaks to racial injustice in modern America. It speaks to the reductive ways white America viewed racial communities and weaponized race to justify their actions and words.
In order to facilitate the park’s development, the city’s newspapers started to downplay who really lived there. They described the residents as living in miserable broken-down shanties. From their perspective, poor people of debased cultures lived in these ‘No Man’s Land’ infested with dogs and rats. These stereotypes were commonly used to describe people of colour and immigrants, as a way of showing the superiority of the white elite in America. The stereotypes were used to explain how unsightly these communities were compared to a potentially beautiful park.
However, the descriptions were simply not true. In 2011, Cynthia and a team of archaeologists excavated in the former Seneca Village. They came away with 250 bags of objects to analyse. These objects suggest that Seneca village was wealthier than one assumed. For instance, a commonly found object was a toothbrush that was not common amongst working- and middle-class people till the 1920s. Compared to other African-Americans living in New York, residents of Seneca Village seem to have been more stable and prosperous — by 1855, approximately half of them owned their own homes. While some residents lived in shanties and in crowded conditions, most lived in two-story homes. Census records show that residents were employed, with African-Americans typically employed as laborers and in-service jobs, the main options for them at the time. Records also show that most children who lived in Seneca Village attended school.
But to the white NY elite it was not worth saving. A July 1956 article referred to it with a slur calling it the ‘N**** village’. They were notified to leave by early August. Many residents fought to keep their land by filing objections to their forced removal only to be met by failure…
Why is learning about Seneca Village important?
Seneca Village is a testament of Black excellence. It was a community of well-educated, prosperous black men, women and children in a world not willing, at the time, to grant wealth or education to people of colour. The village was also a representation of black political capital. In 1821, New York State required African-American men to own at least $250 in property and hold residency for at least three years to be able to vote. Fast forward to 1845, of the 100 black New Yorkers eligible to vote, 10 lived in Seneca Village. Lastly, Seneca Village was a symbol of inclusive America. 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.
The demolition of Seneca Village was an attack on racial minority and immigrant power, excellence and integration. Eviction of families from their own homes meant cutting down the intergenerational passage of wealth in the form of property and education. The attack was motivated by racial prejudice to make way for the luxuries of the white elite. While Central Park is certainly an important architectural and environmental feat, it could be built including – not excluding – Seneca Village.
Seneca Village is important because, in principle, it is relatable for all of us who have been looked down upon for our race, sex, religion or skin colour. We need to know, write and speak about Seneca Village because truth is power and black lives matter.