A lost history of African Americans in NYC

Seneca Village: a thriving community of African Americans and immigrants

A conversation between Dr. Diana Wall and Dr. Steven Zucker in Central Park about Seneca Village. If you are a descendant of a Seneca Village resident, or know someone who is, please contact the Seneca Village Project at: diana.diz.wall[at]gmail.com. A Smarthistory ARCHES video

Key points

  • Seneca Village was an African-American and Irish community founded in the mid-1820s that existed until Central Park’s creation in 1857. African Americans had been present the history of New York City from its Dutch colonial beginnings, although early on most were enslaved. It was not until 1827 that slavery was abolished in New York, and much of the city had been built with enslaved labor.
  • The land had been a farm north of the city that was broken up for development. Since many landowners in New York City wouldn’t sell to African Americans, this provided a unique opportunity. Purchase of a plot of land also brought the right to vote for men.
  • At its height over 250 people lived in Seneca Village, not just African Americans but also European immigrants. At the time of eviction one-third of the population was of European descent, mostly Irish who had emigrated in the years immediately following the Great Potato Famine.
  • By the mid-19th century idea formed that in order to become one of the great cities of the world, New York City should have a public park. In 1856 the State of New York used its powers of eminent domain to condemn the properties within the boundaries of the park and to evict the residents, including Seneca Village.

Go deeper

Seneca Village Project (Columbia University)

Seneca Village Site (Central Park Conservancy)

Before Central Park there was Seneca Village | Secrets of the Dead | PBS

Diana diZerega Wall, Nan A. Rothschild and Cynthia Copeland, “Living in Cities Revisited: Trends in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Urban Archaeology,”  Historical Archaeology, vol. 42, no. 1,  (2008), pp. 97-107.

More to think about

The destruction of Seneca Village was made in the name of “the greater good,” but it dispossessed groups that were historically disadvantaged and discriminated against. Compare the situation of Seneca Village to the destruction of the mostly African-American Tenderloin neighborhood to make room for  Pennsylvania Station. This link has more about African-Americans and racial tension in the Tenderloin district of New York City.

Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.