Seneca Village: the lost history of African Americans in New York

The long forgotten residents of Seneca Village were evicted to make way for Central Park.

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]

A Smarthistory ARCHES video

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:06] We’re in Central Park, surrounded by beautiful old trees, by lawns, playgrounds, rock outcroppings of Manhattan schist — a reminder of the glacier that once towered over this area — all landmarks that New Yorkers know well. What is less known is that just below our feet are the traces of Seneca Village.

Dr. Diana Wall: [0:27] Seneca Village was an African American and Irish community that was founded in the mid 1820s, and it continued to exist until the park was created in the 1850s. Everybody was evicted from their homes in Seneca Village in 1857.

Dr. Zucker: [0:42] Which is why very few people know about its existence now in the 21st century.

Dr. Wall: [0:48] We’ve been working on a project to discover the history of Seneca Village and to give Seneca Village its place in history, which has been almost forgotten.

Dr. Zucker: [0:58] Seneca Village is especially important when you consider the place of African Americans in New York’s early history, going all the way back to the Dutch settlement but also as the English took over and in the post-revolutionary era.

Dr. Wall: [1:10] I think a lot of us assume that the African American presence began with the Great Migration in the early 20th century. However, the first African Americans arrived here in the mid-1620s with the Dutch colonists. African Americans have had a strong presence ever since.

Dr. Zucker: [1:26] Many people forget that there was slavery here, that much of New York was built with enslaved labor.

Dr. Wall: [1:32] We had slavery here in New York until 1827, when emancipation finally was completed.

Dr. Zucker: [1:38] In fact, sadly, slavery continued in New York until 1841.

Dr. Wall: [1:43] After 1827, when emancipation was completed for New Yorkers, it was still possible — if you were a slave owner from out of state — to bring your slaves as property into the state until 1841.

Dr. Zucker: [1:56] New York, because it became the financial center of the United States, had important financial ties to the South and to slavery. Much of the wealth that came into New York was derived from slave labor.

Dr. Wall: [2:07] Many of the merchants in New York City depended on crops that were grown in the South — cotton, in other words — to export to England for the mills.

Dr. Zucker: [2:15] Which makes it all the more important to retrieve the history of African Americans in New York City.

Dr. Wall: [2:20] To realize that it’s something that’s deeply embedded in the city’s history.

Dr. Zucker: [2:24] But not that deeply embedded below our feet. The traces of Seneca Village, the traces of this African American settlement in what was then a rural area north of New York City, what is now Central Park, is just a few feet below the soil.

[2:39] This had been a farm that was parceled out soon after the Commissioners’ Plan, what is known as the grid plan of New York, was laid out. Individual parcels for individual houses were set out for sale.

Dr. Wall: [2:50] Those parcels were sold, in some cases, to African Americans. There were a lot of landowners in the city who would not sell land to African Americans, so this provided an enormous opportunity.

Dr. Zucker: [3:02] The purchase of land not only bought you a piece of property, one also was purchasing the right to vote.

Dr. Wall: [3:07] There was an amendment to the New York State Constitution that said that if you were an African American male, you would be able to vote if you owned $250 or more property and if you had resided in New York for more than three years.

Dr. Zucker: [3:22] Of course, you had to be male.

Dr. Wall: [3:24] We also think that it was a Black, middle-class community.

Dr. Zucker: [3:27] We know for example that skilled tradesmen worked here. We’ve identified one of the inhabitants as a cooper, that is, as a man who made barrels.

Dr. Wall: [3:35] To be a member of the Euro-American middle class, one had to have a job which should not involve manual labor. That was not true for African Americans because African Americans were discriminated against to such an extent that they didn’t have that possibility.

Dr. Zucker: [3:49] So perhaps there was another value in having a village that was at some distance from the settled area, lower on Manhattan Island.

Dr. Wall: [3:56] The village allowed the Seneca villagers to have a controlled, peaceful community of their own away from that harassment.

Dr. Zucker: [4:03] It wasn’t just homes. There were numerous churches. There was at least one school and several graveyards. This was a true community. By the mid-century, the increasing density of the urban population in lower Manhattan had propelled this idea that New York, in order to become one of the great cities of the world, should have a public park.

[4:22] The problem was there were people living in the area where the park was to be built, including Seneca Village, and so the State of New York used its legal power, its powers of eminent domain, to condemn the properties within the boundaries of the park and to evict the residents.

Dr. Wall: [4:37] They did that with the idea of creating something for the greater good, but of course for the people who were evicted, it was completely tragic, and coincidentally at the time was a moment when there was a horrible economic depression in New York. It was a very hard time to lose your home and to have to start over again.

Dr. Zucker: [4:53] We know from census records that there were more than 250 people that lived in Seneca Village at its height, and this included not only African Americans, but also European immigrants.

Dr. Wall: [5:03] At the time that everybody had to move, two-thirds of the population was African American but one-third of it was of European descent, mostly Irish.

Dr. Zucker: [5:12] This makes sense because this was in the years immediately after the Potato Famine and the great wave of immigrants that left Ireland for the US. What I find most troubling is that the very memory of the village was virtually lost.

Dr. Wall: [5:24] Until the very late 1980s and early 1990s, Seneca Village was gone from popular memory.

Dr. Zucker: [5:30] It’s only towards the end of the 20th century that the memory of Seneca Village is resurrected. Thanks to the field work that you and your team undertook, we can much more accurately locate that history in place and with artifacts.

Dr. Wall: [5:44] The artifacts that we found are really important because we can imagine the people of Seneca Village having their meals. We can look at their dishes and see that they were similar in terms of their patterns to people of European descent and how they were different.

Dr. Zucker: [5:56] By locating the foundations of the homes, of the churches, of the remains of the graveyards, by locating some of the artifacts, these allow us to reinsert this important chapter of American history back into our cultural consciousness.

Dr. Wall: [6:10] To make African Americans part of the larger narrative of American history.

[6:14] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Diana diZerega Wall and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Seneca Village: the lost history of African Americans in New York," in Smarthistory, January 12, 2018, accessed July 23, 2024,