5 Questions with Nadine Bryce, CUNY Professor, on Seneca Village

Before Central Park's construction in 1858, Seneca Village occupied the area along the perimeter from West 82nd to West 89th Street. The City acquired the land for the Park through eminent domain, displacing the predominantly African-American residents and all but erasing them from history.

Seneca Village’s historic presence in Central Park provides a unique opportunity to honor the people who lived in what is now one of the most celebrated public spaces in the world. For nearly 30 years, the Central Park Conservancy, in partnership with other NYC cultural institutions, has worked to uncover this vibrant community and unearth its history, engaging historians, descendants of village residents, and Park users. The present Seneca Village landscape is ripe with opportunities to engage with its past, and community members like CUNY professor Nadine Bryce and her students are finding creative ways to bring learning outside of the classroom and into the Park.

John Reddick, the Conservancy's Director of Community Engagement Projects, sat down with Dr. Bryce to talk about Seneca Village, which has served as an educational keystone in the curriculum for a range of her classes. After years serving as a teacher and reading specialist in public and private New York City schools, Dr. Bryce is now an Associate Professor of Literacy at Hunter College’s School of Education, where she is educating the next generation of teachers. Her body of school-based research and scholarly writing is focused on literary pedagogy, arts integration, teacher identity, and more.

Dr. Bryce takes a hands-on approach to teaching and learning. Through a guided tour of Seneca Village that’s built into her curriculum, students deepen their understanding of both the physical landscape and its complex history. They are better able to connect theory with practical experience. An excerpt of her conversation with John reveals how she uses her understanding of the history of Seneca Village via the physical landscape as a pedagogical tool of resistance.

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Dr. Nadine Bryce, left, and John Reddick, right

Can you tell us a little about your interest in education and history?

I’ve been a teacher all my adult career. I’ve always wanted to teach; I knew it from a young age.

I made the commitment to become the kind of teacher who would seek the truth. So, I’m using my education platform to unearth the truth and to disrupt, what I believe is, systemic racism through the curriculum. The omission of something like Seneca Village is a travesty. And in my class, where I’m talking about literacies within history and science and math, it’s the perfect place to talk about Seneca Village, so that’s why I’m centering it in my course.

I teach teachers about interpreting historical texts or texts that are nonfiction, informational, timelines, biographies, images, maps. Those are the types of texts that historians use to construct meaning. And then we use different disciplinary lenses to understand more about the community and see history through the eyes of the people who experienced it.

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John Reddick led a tour of Seneca Village for Dr. Bryce and her students in February 2024.

Why is it important to unearth the history of Seneca Village and include it in curriculums?

I’m using my teaching as a site for resistance: resisting the perpetual undermining of truth and resisting stereotypes of Black people as poor unfortunates, housing insecure, doped up, sad, depressed, struggling, violent—whatever the stereotypes are—to look at them as healthy and living whole, self-determined lives. Seneca Village residents created their own economy, organized their community. They were interested in being politically empowered, so they owned land, and they rented it to other people. It was a healthy, vibrant, well-developed community that was undermined because of social and political reasons, economic reasons, and many other reasons.

Part of the reason why I teach it in my class is because I need better and more positive images of what being Black means in America. And so, I’m teaching teachers how to think and how to use Seneca Village as a template for discovering other local histories in their neighborhoods, and then making sure that the kids in their schools know about where they live, and who was there before.

How aware of Seneca Village were you before teaching this course? What about your students?

My students didn't know much about Seneca Village, and I didn’t know much, so we were all learners together. And it was an act of discovery. We traced whatever we could find, looked at the Conservancy’s website to prepare. We entered the Park on 85th Street and Central Park West, and we walked slowly around the landscape, got lost a little, had to go around another way. Then we explored the signage.

My students were really surprised. They had no idea that this place was occupied before. They had no idea that the people were Black homeowners, and that they rented to Irish, Germans, and they couldn’t believe that the City of New York would conspire to remove their homes and erase the history. And they’re just so shocked that they never heard about it before graduate school.

Seneca Village site photo

Discover Seneca Village is an outdoor exhibit of interpretive signage that gives visitors a glimpse into pre-Park history and highlights decades of research about Seneca Village. To view the exhibit, enter the Park at Central Park West and West 85th Street. Maps will guide you to the locations of the signs.

How did visiting the physical landscape help you and your students better understand Seneca Village?

We felt that hard rock under our feet, and we wondered why people would build their community on this terrain. We tried to imagine it from the perspective of the people who were here at that time. And we talked about where the churches were located, and the sounds and the songs that would have been prevalent at the time. We don’t have enough of that tangible exploration of a space to understand a historic moment or people or community, so I’m building that into my class. We’re not in a building; we’re out in the world.

Being in the physical landscape also humanizes these experiences for my students. These were real people, and these were real lives.

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On June 3, 2023, the Conservancy and the New-York Historical Society held a Community Conversation to share initiatives related to Seneca Village and get input from the community. The program also included a series of lectures and free tours of Seneca Village led by Conservancy guides, which included an opportunity for attendees to explore the in-Park interpretive signage.

You attended the Conservancy’s Seneca Village Community Conversation last June at which the Conservancy gathered with members of the public to discuss current initiatives to amplify the lost community’s story. What was that experience like, and how did it inform your understanding of this history?

It was robust, I loved it. The illustration of Summit Rock, the house on top, and the street below—it was helpful to see all of that and hear the history behind it. One comment that I thought was really impactful for me was wanting to explore more about the social impact of environmental policies and decisions, and Seneca Village’s destruction and silencing is one of those social impacts. And that’s what I talk about and want to learn more about with my students.

At a time when state legislatures are signing laws to ban the teaching of accurate history and concepts discussing racism and sexism in schools, teachers can study Seneca Village as a way to reclaim the freedom to learn the truth. Black Americans developed a thriving, free, and inclusive community 200 years ago, right here in New York City. Black women and women of color owned homes and property.

Learning about the history of Seneca Village gives me hope because it is a tangible way to increase teachers’ funds of historical knowledge and promote a more accurate view of our humanity.