When people think of Central Park, the thought of African-Americans once owning the land is inconceivable. Yet, this was the case 150 years ago when there once thrived a place called Seneca Village.
The land known as Seneca Village was originally farmland owned by John and Elizabeth Whitehead. Andrew Williams, an African-American male, bought three lots of land from the Whiteheads in 1825. In addition, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church purchased six lots of land, which began the birth of the community. The Whiteheads eventually sold off their land between 82nd to 86th Streets. The majority of the buyers were African Americans. This became the first community for property-owning African Americans .
The Seneca Village community started small but grew when it combined with York Hill, a neighboring African-American settlement. The population increased from 100 people in the late 1830’s to 264 residents in 1864. The village became popular due to its affordability compared to downtown Manhattan. Seneca was more affordable than lower Manhattan in which it was nearly impossible to own property due to laws and the unwillingness to sell to African Americans. Working class African Americans populated Seneca as an escape from the poor housing that plagued lower Manhattan. The chance of being a part of an indigenous community appealed to most downtown African Americans. The right to vote was important to the people in Seneca Village. Due to the requirements of land ownership, most African Americans were excluded from suffrage. Ten percent of all eligible African American voters came from Seneca.
African Americans were not the only residents of Seneca Village. European immigrants began to enter the neighborhood in the 1840’s. The potato famine in Ireland sent many Irish immigrants to New York. Thirty percent of the population of Seneca Village was mostly Irish and German. Records show that Europeans and African-Americans in the Village lived in harmony and attended church together and buried their dead in the same cemetery.
Spirituality was very important to the residents of Seneca Village. Three churches were built in the Village along with three cemeteries. Not much is known about the first church, the African Union Methodist Church, which is believed to be founded in 1837. It contained a school in its basement, which became the example for the schooling of African-Americans in New York City.
The second church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church Branch Militant, an affiliate branch of the AME Zion Church, planted the cornerstone for a church with the capacity to house 100 people. There were also plans to for a school in the basement.
The AME Zion Church had burial vaults in their churchyard located in lower Manhattan, but the City Council felt that the burial sites contributed to the rise in yellow fever. The Council granted temporary space in potter’s field but once it was filled to capacity, the church bought land in Seneca Village for burial use. The Church had at least two large burial sites located south of 86th Street. A new site in Brooklyn, the Cypress Hills Cemetery, was the new site for the church due to a new law that banned all burials below 86th Street.
The third church, the All Angels’ Church, was built on land donated by a couple of women. The membership of the church was approximately one-third European and the rest African-American. Records from the church
indicate that many people died of a cholera epidemic that occurred between 1848 and 1850. Once the law that limited burials south of 86thStreet was enacted, the congregation moved their burials to St. Michael’s cemetery in Astoria, Queens.
Acquiring additional burial sites for their deceased in other areas of New York was a barometer of the remarkable increase in landowners, as well as residents, of Seneca Village. Racial tension appeared to be non-existent. The Village was a peaceful community and provided a higher level of living with the churches and schools being their main foundations. However, this prosperous community was desecrated by the power brokers of New York in order to build Central Park.
Upon return from European grand tour, a wealthy merchant, Robert Minturn, brought back the idea of building a monumental park that would rival the parks of Europe. He had the support of many influential men; from senators to the powerful editor of the New York Evening Post. They agreed that the park would provide serenity to the workers of New York. In 1853, the middle of Manhattan was chosen. The City was given the authority to purchase or acquire this piece of land, which included Seneca Village.
Residents of Seneca Village did their best to hold on to their property. To say the least, it was a losing battle. Because the people of the Village were mainly Irish and African American, they were treated with disdain by the press and their fellow New Yorkers. The press slandered the Village residents as “squatters”, “nuisances”, and “insects”. The destruction of the property and the displacement of the residents were celebrated by the people New York City. New York City officials robbed them of their property by paying them less than the appraised value. Others who refused to move, were forcibly thrown off their property and did not receive any financial compensation. Records show that approximately 1600 people were affected the hostile theft of the land, which is now called Central Park.
When the remains of the deceased were unearthed in Central Park, we finally learned the morbid history of the creation of Central Park. In addition, there was much community support to keep the grave undisturbed and deem this area a historical site.
By the time of its destruction, Seneca was a thriving village of working class minorities living in harmony. The property value was nearly quadrupled, showing the progress made by the Seneca community. This progress was stopped in an attempt to capitalize on property owned by New York City elites. For example, the mayor’s property value skyrocketed 50 times higher than its original cost.
The significance of Seneca Village is not only that is was the first property owned by an African American community in New York City; it is also the predecessor of Harlem. In addition, Seneca Village demonstrated the progress made by African Americans in overcoming the obstacles that were presented to them by racist America. New York City’s government should remember the Village it destroyed not only as a historic landmark, but for something it still has yet to achieve–a society in which all members lived in harmony. The next time you walk through Central Park, imagine a diverse community of people coexisting in harmony. Knowing the accurate history of Central Park, we should continue to pay tribute to the lost community–Seneca Village.