Seneca Village: Integration in the 1800’s

By ELIZABETH MOLLOY

Central Park is an American icon however the history of the park is not widely known. (ELIZABETH MOLLOY/Ethic News Photo)

When thinking about Central Park, one of the last things that come to mind is what was there before the park. The area where Central park is located was very rural considering most people lived in what is now lower Manhattan. 

With slavery ending in New York and European immigrants flocking to the city, there was a feud between free African-Americans and immigrants concerning jobs and housing. With a need for jobs for free people and a need for immigrants to get jobs, Lower Manhattan became violent. There were fights over jobs and homes so people decided to move upwards to start fresh. In the 1820s land started going up for sale in what was Seneca village. Andrew Williams, a shoe shiner,  bought three lots of land. After Williams bought the lots, other free people began to buy land and a community developed. According to www.centralparknyc.org  the land was being sold by John and Elizabeth Whitehead who owned all 200 lots of Seneca Village.  Moving out of lower Manhattan into the Village provided black families an affordable safe place. This was also the beginning of equal rights between people. In New York in the 1800s African-Americans could only vote if they owned land and by buying the affordable land in Seneca Village, they could vote. According to www.ny1.com, when Irish and German immigrants started to move uptown as well, they moved into the village. Seneca village was one of the first integrated communities with African-Americans and White people living together. The African Methodist Episcopal Zion church then bought several more lots and the church was founded then in 1821.

Over 30 years, the population in NYC quadrupled and the white “elite” believed that the island would be swallowed by development. In 1853 they called for a city park to be lungs for the booming city. Since most of the so-called elite were from Europe seeing the Champs Elysees, Kensington Park, and other such parks, they believed NYC should have the same.  750 acres were set aside to build this park and unfortunately, that included the community of Seneca Village. About 1,600 lost their homes since they lived among those 750 acres of land. The people who proposed the idea of a central park sugarcoated how people in Seneca village really lived, and not in a good way. They described the residents of Seneca village as living in “shanties & shacks”. They were calling it no man’s land, squatters village, and used other very derogatory terms. Although integration was starting, racism was still very much an issue. Seneca Village residents did what they could to salvage their land but nothing helped. 

The idea Seneca Village was a poor ‘shack’ village was just not true. In 2011, a team of archaeologists excavated the area where the village was located between 82nd-89th street. They had 250 bags of objects to analyze, the bags are now located in NYC’s Archaeological Repository.  By analyzing the objects, it was found that Seneca Village was more wealthy than it was assumed to be. Comparing artifacts from Seneca Village and Greenwich Village, which was an upper-middle-class neighborhood, it was found they had many similarities. Ironstone plates, porcelain, a comb, a smoking pipe, a roasting pan, and part of what used to be a toothbrush were found. The toothbrush was not common among the middle class until the 1920s. From records, it was found there was a high level of education in the village.

Seneca Village was not filled with poor people living in shacks, it was an upper-middle-class neighborhood and an educated integrated community. But to the elite, it was nothing to save. Residents filed objections against the forced removal but that didn’t help. Seneca Village residents as well as the other 1,344 people that lived on that land, had their homes seized. The neighborhoods were destroyed and pathways, bridges, arches, and thousands of trees replaced them. Central Park was finally done and Seneca village was no longer.

New York is finally acknowledging this history. A temporary exhibition with plaques of information was set up in the park. “Land, property ownership…that’s how you get wealth and you pass wealth on from generation to generation…but when a new highway needs to be built the bulldozer comes in, Seneca Village was no different,” says Cynthia Copeland, a public historian. 

The key takeaway is although Central Park is an American icon and NYC wouldn’t be the same without it, we still need to recognize the history and what was there before the park. Although the park is a beautiful piece of nature tucked away in one of the largest cities in the world, the way it was created was not. People lost homes, jobs, and their safe places to create this park. This history needs to be recognized, or else history repeats itself. Because it’s not African-American history or integration history, it’s American history.

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