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The Story of Seneca Village

Before Central Park was created, the landscape along the Park’s perimeter from West 83rd to West 89th Street was home to Seneca Village, the largest community of free African-American property owners in New York before the Civil War. With more than 200 African-American, German, and Irish residents from 1825 to 1857, this community enabled many of its residents to own property, vote, and establish a community they could call their own.

Nearly 200 years ago, Central Park’s landscape near the West 85th Street entrance was home to Seneca Village, a community of predominately free African-American property owners

As the first significant community of African-American property owners, Seneca Village provided residential stability. With property ownership came other rights not commonly held by African-Americans in the City — namely, the right to vote. At the time when Seneca Village was formed, New York State required African-American men to own at least $250 in property and hold residency for at least three years to be able to vote. Of the 100 black New Yorkers eligible to vote in 1845, 10 lived in Seneca Village.

The formation of Seneca Village

Seneca Village began when John and Elizabeth Whitehead subdivided their land and sold it as 200 lots, beginning in September 1825. Andrew Williams, a 25-year-old African-American shoeshiner, bought the first three lots for $125. Epiphany Davis, a store clerk, bought 12 lots for $578, and the AME Zion Church purchased another six lots. From here a community was born. From 1825 to 1832, the Whiteheads sold about half of their land parcels to African-Americans, who would ultimately make up two-thirds of the village’s residents. Several Seneca Village property owners, such as Albro Lyons and Mary Joseph Lyons, were prominent in the Abolitionist movement.

Detail of map of the pre-Central Park landscape showing the area of Seneca Village. Courtesy of New York City Municipal Archives

There is some evidence of farming in Seneca Village, and the nearby Hudson River was a likely source of fishing for the community. A spring nearby, known as Tanner’s Spring, likely provided a water source. By the mid-1850s, Seneca Village featured 55 homes and three churches, as well as burial grounds, and a school for black students. We do not have photos or illustrations of any of the housing, but we know from maps that there were several 1- to 3-story houses, shanties, and farm buildings. The origin of the village’s name is unknown.

The creation of Central Park

Around this time, the City began planning for a grand municipal park like those in Europe. In 1853, the New York State Legislature enacted a law that set aside 775 acres of land in Manhattan — from 59th to 106th Streets, between Fifth and Eighth Avenues — to create the country’s first major landscaped public park.

In 1856, the City began clearing the land through eminent domain, which had also been used to build Manhattan’s grid system decades earlier. There were roughly 1,600 inhabitants displaced throughout the area. Those who owned land were compensated; many petitioned to keep their land. It’s unclear where Seneca Village residents relocated. Some may have gone to other African-American communities in the region, such as Sandy Ground in Staten Island and Skunk Hollow in New Jersey.

Seneca Village extended as far east as Seventh Avenue, and would have bordered the present-day Arthur Ross Pinetum (Mid-Park between 84th and 86th Streets)

Discovering more about Seneca Village

Although we have limited knowledge of what life was life in Seneca Village, there has been ongoing work to learn more about its residents and their lives. In 2011, archeologists from Columbia University and The City University of New York conducted a 2011 archeological dig of the site. They uncovered artifacts such as an iron tea kettle, a roasting pan, a stoneware beer bottle, fragments of Chinese export porcelain, and a small shoe with a leather sole and fabric upper. These items have helped us piece together what life was like for the village’s residents. The Seneca Village Project continues to study the history of this important community.

Despite its short history of only 32 years, Seneca Village is understood as a tight-knit community that served as a stabilizing and empowering force in uncertain times. Learn more about the history of Seneca Village, its property owners, and what New York City was like at this time by taking our Seneca Village Tour.