Seneca Village – NYC African-American History

Settled in the 1820s by free blacks seeking to own property, the racially integrated village was razed in 1856 to make way for the creation of Manhattan’s Central Park.

For 30 years in the middle of the nineteenth century, Seneca Village was a small, thriving working-class and farming community that stretched from 82nd Street to 89th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues in what is now Central Park. From the top of Nanny Goat Hill, now called Summit Rock, residents looked north over the village and west to the fishing waters of the Hudson River about half a mile away.

The village was home to three churches, AME (African Methodist Episcopal) Zion, African Union Methodist and All Angels. All Angels served an integrated congregation of Irish and German immigrants and African Americans. The village school, Colored School No. 3, operated out of the basement of African Union Methodist.

The walled Croton reservoir, built in the 1830s on the site of today’s Great Lawn, served as the eastern border of the village. Water was piped miles south to serve the city, but not to Seneca Village, only yards away. Villagers continued to haul water from Tanner Spring, which still attracts birds and birdwatchers near 82nd Street.

Seneca Village Pioneers

Beginning in 1825, African American New Yorkers began to purchase parcels of land from Andrew and Elizabeth Whitehead, whose farmland stretched across the area that would become Seneca Village. Among the first buyers were a bootblack named Andrew Johnson and a number of trustees of the AME Zion Church, including a laborer named Epiphany Davis. By 1830 a cohesive community had taken root.

Growth of Seneca Village

In the 1830s, the construction of the Croton Reservoir displaced a neighboring African-American community. Many residents resettled in Seneca Village. By 1840, over 100 African-Americans were living in Seneca Village. By 1855, the village had swelled to 265 people, about two-thirds of whom were black. The remaining one-third were immigrants from Ireland and Germany.

A Multi-Ethnic Community

In the 1840s, in the wake of Ireland’s Great Famine, large numbers of Irish came to the United States in search of a better life. Met with virulent anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant discrimination and unable to find jobs or decent housing, many Irish immigrants landed in some of New York’s worst slums and shanty towns.

Others moved north of the crowded city and a few found their way to Seneca Village, where they rented from African American property owners. The village midwife attended black and white births alike, and church records document at least one inter-racial marriage.
The End of Seneca Village and the Birth of Central Park

Plans to create a major European-style park had been underway for years. In the mid-1850s, planners zeroed in on an 800-acre area north of 59th Street, and in 1856, residents were ordered to leave.

Newspaper reports assisted the park planners by describing the area as “a dreary wasteland” full of “dirty hovels.” Residents were referred to as thieves, tramps and squatters. A New York Times article in 1856 favorably compared Seneca Village to the Irish shanty towns, while calling it “Nigger Village,” and describing the “simple minds” of the inhabitants.

Seneca Village was razed and its residents scattered, leaving few clues for historians to follow.

Seneca Village Today

Today, the land that was Seneca Village is a small and lovely piece of Central Park. The Central Park Conservancy offers a fascinating walking tour of the area, ending at the historical plaque erected by the conservancy in 2001 to commemorate Seneca Village. The tour encompasses Summit Rock, Tanner Spring and the main site of the village. It also discusses recent archaeological research conducted at the site.

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