Magazine

Before Juneteenth: The Story of Seneca Village and Central Park

Map of Seneca Village

Juneteenth is now recognized as an official public holiday in New York State. It is a day that marks the end of slavery, celebrates Black culture and accomplishments, and acknowledges the systemic injustices people of color continue to face. This year’s commemoration, amplified by the ongoing movement for racial justice, offers an opportunity to not only consider the origins and meaning of this day, but to reflect on Seneca Village, the predominately African-American community that existed before New York City created Central Park and long before we celebrated Juneteenth.

As the country now moves toward acknowledging Juneteenth nationally, it is important to understand its origins. On June 19, 1865, when the news of the end of slavery reached Texas via orders from Union Army General Gordon Granger, Texas became the last state to announce that enslaved African-Americans were freed—over two years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

It’s also important to note that beyond the proclamation of freedom was Granger’s guarantee of “equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves” and with it, a promise that the victorious Union forces were going to implement these rights. Property ownership would prove to be incredibly vital to African-Americans in their fight for equality. But as the process of emancipation in New York reveals, this right would remain elusive.

Emancipation in New York

In New York, a state which had reigned as a center of American slavery for more than two centuries, emancipation for its African-Americans would come before 1865, though reform was complicated by debate and delay. Efforts were initiated in 1799, but it was not until 1817 that New York set July 4, 1827, as the date of final emancipation, making it the first state in America to totally abolish legal slavery.

As New York began the process of emancipation for African-Americans, it would also revise its constitution. The constitution of 1777 only granted rights of suffrage to males who owned property of a certain value. In 1821, as the state moved toward its date of final emancipation, it removed this requirement—but only for white men. The result: New York’s polls remained closed to most African-Americans and effectively delayed universal voting rights for African-American men in the state until the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1870.

The painting shows a bustling intersection of late 18th-century New York.

Tontine Coffee House by Francis Guy, ca. 1797. This painting depicts bustling downtown Manhattan just a couple of years before the process of emancipation began. The building known as the Tontine Coffee House was a popular meeting place and center for business whose functions included stock trading and as well as the registration of slave ships and cargo. In the foreground, some African-Americans are depicted at work, possibly unloading cargo from a ship. They could have been free or enslaved as both were in New York at the time. This is one of the earliest depictions of African-Americans in New York.

During this time, free African-Americans in New York continued to face hostility and discrimination, limiting their sense of freedom and mobility. To counteract this, African-American church leaders, many of whom were involved in abolitionism, also sought ways to create a sense of community and stability.

The Significance of Seneca Village

It was during this tumultuous period of moving toward full emancipation that African-Americans began to buy property and relocate to a remote tract of land in upper Manhattan. Andrew Williams, a 25-year-old African-American shoe-shiner, purchased lots, as did Epiphany Davis, a store clerk. Both were members of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, which also purchased property in the area that is now the west side of Central Park between 82nd and 89th Streets. And so the community known as Seneca Village was born, offering its residents an escape from the crowded quarters and racist climate of lower Manhattan.

As a community consisting of many property owners, Seneca Village came to represent the promise of emancipation. In the election of 1826, during the early days of the Village’s founding, only 16 African-Americans voted in all of New York City. At the community’s peak in 1855, the Village had approximately 150 African-American residents, over half of whom owned property, and 10 of them were franchised to vote.  

During this time, the five acres of land that made up Seneca Village had over 50 houses and three churches—African Union Church, AME Zion Church, and All Angels’ Church. These institutions anchored the religious, political, and social life of the Village, and one included a school for the community’s children. Most of the Village residents were employed, working as laborers and in service jobs, the leading opportunities for African-Americans at the time. 

The community likely benefitted from the open space and its remoteness from the growing city. Residents were able to make gardens to grow their own food and some raised livestock. They also took advantage of the various natural resources in the area, including the nearby Hudson River, as well as a natural spring that provided a water source for drinking and one of the highest points in the region, now known as Summit Rock.

A small pool of water nestled in schist under leafy boughs

The original water source for Seneca Village still exists in the Park. This natural, underground spring, now called Tanner’s Spring, currently creates a small pool of water.

Acknowledging Juneteenth

In my work—as a historian, on public projects with the City, and as Director of Community Engagement at the Central Park Conservancy—it has always been helpful and informative to explore the nuances of African-American history in the context of current public discussion and personal experiences. My thoughts about Seneca Village and emancipation were informed by a conversation hosted by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History with the author Annette Gordon-Reed discussing her new book, On Juneteenth. I was struck by her pride in the fact that Juneteenth and its celebration were rooted in her home state of Texas. Her book details how her family's history was intertwined with the pronouncement of emancipation and how living in what would henceforth be a "former" Confederate territory shaped their lives. Gordon-Reed reflected on her ancestors and their struggles during southern reconstruction and the later challenges and rewards of the 20th century's civil rights movement and desegregation, portraying how their endurance and strength was fortified by her family's land ownership.

The illustration is divided into 3 tableaus, one on either side of a circular center.

Thomas Nast’s cartoon, published in Harper’s Weekly in January 1863 to celebrate the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. It contrasts scenes of slavery (on the left) with optimistic scenes of emancipated life (center and right).

As a fellow African-American, I had to pause and juxtapose her story to my own experience growing up in Pennsylvania where, to my recollection, there was a total lack of celebration or even knowledge of Juneteenth. In fact, because of my state's large Quaker influence and their long-established anti-slavery stance, the fact that enslavement ever even existed in the north was never discussed.  

The difference between learning about emancipation in history books and personally experiencing its delayed and cascading effects made me realize that every national step toward full African-American enfranchisement, or the celebration of it, comes with a regional footnote—a notation of some extenuating condition, or the ever-rolling calendar date before final official implementation.

The Legacy of Seneca Village

Seneca Village, while representing the promise of emancipation in its time, also highlights some of the obstacles in the wake of the urbanization of New York. The Village existed until 1858, when all residents were required to leave because of the creation of Central Park. The process of eminent domain—which allows governments to take private land for public use with compensation paid to the landowner—displaced the roughly 1,600 people living on the land slated for the Park.

The contemporary map is yellow with age.

“Greensward Plan,” the preliminary design for Central Park by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. Originally published in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 1858. The area of Seneca Village is indicated by the red rectangle.

The dissolution of this exceptional community is a devastating end to its promising story. Seneca Village’s legacy leaves many questions. While we know what happened to some of its residents, where did everyone else go? Were the residents able to retain the benefits of land ownership—and voting rights—after they left? What would have happened to Seneca Village if Central Park had not been built? The concentrated African-American community that might have grown and developed into a Reconstruction-era “Harlem” for emancipated people vanished because of a civic desire for a large public park to benefit the borough’s burgeoning population.

But even if the Park hadn’t been built, would other forms of urban development in the ever-changing and -growing City have overtaken the community? One wonders, too, how Seneca Village’s free African-American residents marked and celebrated the full emancipation of New York’s last remaining enslaved population in 1827.  

This curiosity about how Seneca Villagers celebrated emancipation also led me to research how it has been celebrated in New York more generally. We do know that the Mother AME Zion Church, an early and motivating force in the settlement of Seneca Village, eventually moved north to Harlem, retaining its legacy as a historic African-American religious institution, alongside St. Philip’s Episcopal and Abyssinian Baptist Churches. These and other religious institutions have long held annual New Year’s Eve “Watch Night” services, which can be traced back to gatherings that occurred on December 31, 1862, the night before Lincoln’s pledge of emancipation. Whether or not these events were directly focused on the promise of the Emancipation Proclamation, they have provided a communal forum that allows for personal reflection and consideration of our remaining struggles in the “pursuit of happiness.”

Emancipation celebrations seemed to have taken many forms and even occurred on other dates, depending on the region. In my search for such events in New York, I found a variety of references to the "Colored Celebration of Emancipation Day" in newspapers throughout the 1870s and '80s. An article from Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper on August 9, 1884, documented one Brooklyn celebration:

“August 1st is the day set apart by the colored for the joint celebration of the liberation of the slaves in the West Indies in 1832, and President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. On Friday last the occasion was honored by the negroes of New York and Brooklyn, who organized a picnic on a grand scale at Myrtle Avenue Park, in the latter city. There was a reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, speaking, an evening promenade and concert, tableaux and fireworks.”

The illustrations in the yellowed image are hand-drawn and typical of the time.

Brooklyn Celebration Emancipation, 1889 (John Reddick, newspaper image.) “Reading the Emancipation Proclamation,” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, August 9, 1884. This mainstream paper depicted both an aged and a contemporary African-American woman and compared their style of dress, while also noting the “playful” attitude of the police and a posted notice, “No Disorderly Conduct Allowed,” all of which bracket a central image of well-appointed African-Americans listening to an oration of the Emancipation Proclamation.

For all Americans of African descent, particularly those who arrived and settled in New York City—having either endured the middle passage, the travails of migrating from the south or treacherous immigration to its shore—the metropolis has always presented unique challenges and opportunities. Whenever I gaze upon the landscape of Seneca Village, I contemplate my ancestors looking upon it as well, taking its natural beauty and appreciating its buffer from the harsher realities of New York life.

Gently rolling landscape features an outcrop of schist and spring-green trees.

The Seneca Village site in Central Park today.

As I've learned more about the community's history, I've also come to comprehend its citizens' collective aspirations and appreciate their sense of loss at being forced to move, even as some of its institutions and residents went on to flourish in other communities. Mixed with that is also a sense of pride, knowing that in what is perhaps the City's most exalted landscape and one of the most important public spaces in the world, there's a unique African-American story embodied at the very summit of its terrain.

Learn more about the Conservancy’s rediscovery and research of Seneca Village.

John Reddick is the Conservancy’s Director of Community Engagement Projects.

Main illustration: Detail of Egbert Viele, Map of the lands included in the Central Park, 1856. Courtesy of NYC Municipal Archives.