5 Questions with Cal Jones, Manhattan Borough Historian Emeritus

Celedonia (Cal) Jones, born and raised in central Harlem, has a robust lifetime of accomplishments, honors, and public service—and a plethora of stories to tell. Cal served as the Manhattan Borough Historian for almost a decade, and today he continues to build his wealth of knowledge about our City and its diverse communities as Manhattan Borough Historian Emeritus.

Central Park has been a constant in Cal’s life. A student of genealogy with an avid interest in the history of the City, Cal discovered four generations of descendants of a resident of Seneca Village and has been closely involved in the unveiling of a wide range of history related to the community ever since. In celebration of Cal's work and its impact on our understanding of Central Park, we sat down to learn more about his life's journey and what new research he's most excited about.

Seneca Village Cal Jones

In his role as Manhattan Borough Historian, Cal Jones helped uncover many stories of Seneca Village, the community of predominantly African-Americans—many of whom owned property—that existed before Central Park’s creation.

Jessica Sain-Baird: Will you tell me a little about your childhood in New York City?

Cal Jones: I was born in 1930 right at the edge of the grid—155th Street and Eighth Avenue. I had two older sisters, an older brother, and a younger brother. I grew up primarily in central Harlem, though we lived briefly in Brooklyn. My father was uneducated and had a hard time getting work. He was always looking for what we called a “day’s work.” That was a common phrase I heard around the house, and it became very meaningful to me. I have a vivid image of what it means; in doing research of [Seneca Village descendant] Andrew Williams, I constantly think of him doing the same.

We lived all over Harlem. One reason we always moved was because we were avoiding dispossession. In those days, they’d put your furniture out on the sidewalk. That was my mother’s worst nightmare. When we were behind on rent and the landlord would threaten to move us out, my mother would find an agent and get us a new place. I can remember every address we ever had. The first time I ever realized I was poor was when we lived at 143rd Street between Seventh and Lenox Avenues. It was a densely populated block—one of the first play streets.

My English teacher in middle school was the poet Countee Cullen. It was an all-boys school. He was so mild-mannered, never raised his voice, and taught us to behave. Once I got a 75% on a paper. I asked for a higher grade, and he told me, “If you had done a little more research on the history, you could have gotten a 90.” I told him history doesn’t interest me. He got a stern look and told me, “When you become more interested in yourself, you’ll become more interested in history.”

How did you then get more interested in history and eventually become the Manhattan Borough Historian?

In 1989, after my kids were grown, I started volunteering for the Museum of the City of New York. They had an exhibit on the World’s Fair, and I noticed something was inaccurate due to my time as an auditor for the World‘s Fair earlier in my career. I also started being a resource for the Museum for any content related to Harlem. They continued to consult me on exhibits.

Robert Macdonald, the Museum of the City of New York’s Director at the time, got wind of my help. He told me that Ruth Messinger, the Manhattan Borough President, was looking for a Historian. Robert gave Ruth my name, but I didn’t think I was interested. Ruth told me the job was “whatever you make it.” I told her I wasn’t interested in history because history didn’t do right by my people. She challenged me: “You said you were written out of history, so why don’t you write yourself back in?” I took the job in 1997, and that's exactly what I intended to do. I put together an organizational structure with a community historian for every community board in Manhattan. These community historians did research on the people who lived in their communities and ensured we have up-to-date information on them.

My wife and I were also interested in getting our kids to study our family history, and you can’t do family history without looking into the history of the time. Our family came to Manhattan early on. Knowing where you came from and how you got there is so important. That helps you chart where you want to go and how you can get there.

When did you first get involved in researching the history of Seneca Village?

After I was appointed the Manhattan Borough Historian, I met the directors of the Institute for the Exploration of Seneca Village. I went to one of their archaeological digs, and they told me they wanted to do another dig with the Conservancy. We brought members of the Institute and the Conservancy together to discuss. If not for the cooperation, help, and patience of the Conservancy, it wouldn’t have been possible to unearth this history. The Institute for the Exploration of Seneca Village uncovered all kinds of artifacts, including everyday household items such as pottery. Archaeological digs are important because they show how the residents lived.

After we finished that, people wanted to know more about the people who lived there. I took on a lot of research. We got the 1855 State Census and were able to identify some of the families—the Williams and Wilson families were the two we were most interested in. The Williams family left what we call a better “audit trail”—we found all the members of the family and got in touch with one of them.

What are you researching now about Seneca Village?

I'm looking now at Albro Lyons, who had property in Seneca Village but didn’t live there. I’m studying the Williams and Lyons families as two contrasting households that struggled in New York. This is what I like about New York history—it gives you a solid diverse picture of how African-Americans lived. That’s why I’ve gotten so enthusiastic about this research. Central Park is a fantastic vehicle. You can walk through the Park and read about its history.

Has Central Park always been a part of your life?

I’ve used Central Park all my life. When I was a kid, we’d play there. The Boathouse was originally at 110th Street. We’d pay 10 cents and chip in and get in a boat—this was back in 1940. As an auditor for the City in the ‘60s, I used to audit the various properties in Central Park. My office was in the Arsenal. My nieces and nephews would meet me in the Park and we’d go to the Zoo. I must have taken about three sets of family friends to see Balto.

My wife always said to me, “You know what I liked about dating you? We did simple things like walk to the Park.” That's because I didn’t have money! [Laughs] The Park was a great way to get to know somebody without spending money.

New York fits me like a glove—it entertains me. This is my town and my Park and my City.