View from the Park

How to Engage with the History of Seneca Village

This year’s Juneteenth commemoration has been amplified by the current movement for racial justice, which includes elevating Black history and culture and bringing new stories to light. During these discussions, there’s also been a renewed interest in Seneca Village—a community of predominantly African-Americans, many of whom owned property, that existed before the creation of Central Park.

The Central Park Conservancy honors Seneca Village and the lives of its residents through years of research and an outdoor exhibit that launched in the fall. This community, which New York Times writer Brent Staples calls "the Black utopia," has gained greater recognition and is now better understood—through the work of historians, archaeologists, genealogists, artists, and others who have been focused on resurrecting this extraordinary community.

Much of the research on Seneca Village has been compiled into several resources that provide a variety of ways to explore the community’s history, both physically in Central Park and from home. We’ve compiled these resources so you can better understand the significance and meaning of Seneca Village and its important place in New York’s history.

Discover Seneca Village

If you can safely visit Central Park, an ideal way to explore the history of Seneca Village is in the Park itself. Last fall, the Conservancy installed a temporary exhibit of interpretive signs about Seneca Village, marking sites such as churches, homes, and natural features. These signs integrate many years of research, conducted by the Institute for the Exploration of Seneca Village History, the Conservancy, and others. We know that many people cannot get to the Park right now, so the signs are available for download.

Discover Seneca Village sign

Discover Seneca Village is an outdoor exhibit of interpretive signage that gives visitors a glimpse into pre-Park history.

The goal of these signs is to build knowledge and awareness about the history and significance of Seneca Village. It was important to the Conservancy, as caretakers of the Park and stewards of its history, to encourage the public to explore this history in the place where people lived. The exhibit provides a definitive resource of what we know to this point, but also a foundation for future research that still needs to be done. We also hope that a deeper understanding of Seneca Village will help spark discussion about a permanent way to commemorate it, a plan we are currently exploring.

Archeology

One of the main reasons we know so much about Seneca Village is because of a major archeological excavation project that was conducted in 2011 and completed last year. Organized by the Institute for the Exploration of Seneca Village History, the project uncovered thousands of artifacts, analysis of which has contributed to our understanding of Seneca Village as a predominately middle-class community, one that was exceptional in 19th-century New York. We interviewed two of the archeologists about this project last year.

As part of the completion of the project, the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which oversees all archeology projects in public parks and safeguards all the artifacts, created a digital exhibit featuring 300 artifacts discovered in Seneca Village.

Seneca Village artifacts 2011

In 2011, an archaeological excavation of the site of Seneca Village uncovered significant artifacts.

Descendants

What happened to the residents of Seneca Village after they were forced to leave is an important question that has not been easy to answer. It involves serious detective work, wading through property records and census records, and trying to trace people who did not leave much of a trace—many of whom had very common names. But historian Celedonia Jones (Manhattan Borough Historian Emeritus) was able to trace the family of Seneca Village resident Andrew Williams to the present day. The Conservancy produced a short video that tells a piece of this family’s story and Jones’s comprehensive research.

Ariel Williams Seneca Village

Ariel Williams, descendent of Andrew Williams, with members of the Institute for the Exploration of Seneca Village History. Seated, from left: Ariel Williams, Celedonia Jones. Standing, from left: Diana Wall, Herbert Seignoret, Meredith Linn, Nan Rothschild, Cynthia Copeland, Sharon Wilkins, and Paul Johnson. Courtesy of Herbert Seignoret

For educators

In addition to the resources on Seneca Village history and archeology mentioned above, for educators, we recommend a guide produced by the New-York Historical Society. It focuses on how to use primary sources such as newspapers, historic photographs, and maps, and provides insight into the process and challenge of researching historic Black communities. (Note that some of the information about Seneca Village has been updated since it was published in 2011.)

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Detail of map from 1856 showing Seneca Village. Courtesy of the New York City Municipal Archives

The Conservancy receives lot of requests for information on Seneca Village, ranging from more general inquiries about who lived there to more specific questions such as to whether Seneca Village was a stop on the Underground Railroad. We compiled some of these questions with brief answers and recommendations for further research in this resource guide.

Seneca Village and art

Seneca Village has been a source of inspiration for many artists. In the absence of visual documentation of Seneca Village and the voice of its residents, some have sought to visualize it, to bring the place and its residents to life. In her 2015 collection of poems, My Seneca Village, Marilyn Nelson begins with the history of the community and the names of the people who lived there, known from census records, and from there creates characters stories, and imagined lives. She describes the result as “a collection of individual portraits that converge to form a communal portrait."

Other artists have created new connections between Seneca Village and other examples of displacement and gentrification that have adversely impacted people of color. In her multimedia works, artist Tomashi Jackson links the story of Seneca Village’s dissolution to the scandal surrounding the Third-Party Transfer program in 2019, which involved New York City unlawfully seizing properties owned by Black and Brown homeowners in Brooklyn. As part of her involvement in the 2019 Whitney Biennial, Jackson convened a panel discussion that brought together many of the people who contributed to the investigative process behind her work, including myself and the archeologists involved in the Seneca Village excavation, for an interdisciplinary conversation.

Tomashi Jackson Press and Curl

Tomashi Jackson, Press and Curl (Black and Brown People's Mortgage Free Homes), 2019. Silkscreen on mylar on canvas. 60 1/2 x 85 x 24 inches. Image courtesy of the artist and Tilton Gallery, New York

Black history in New York City

For those interested in digging deeper into the history of other Black communities in New York City, here are more resources.

For her book Black Gotham: A Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth-Century New York City, the scholar Carla Peterson researched her own family history and discovered the previously unknown world of Black elites in downtown New York, a tight-knit group that made major contributions to the economic, religious, and cultural life of the City.

Weeksville in Brooklyn, another 19th-century Black community that formed in the 1830s, is a significant parallel to Seneca Village. Its larger population and longer life are part of why it left more traces, though like Seneca Village, it had been forgotten for a long period of time. In Brooklyn’s Promised Land: The Free Black Community of Weeksville, New York, scholar Judith Wellman traces the history, resurrection, and preservation of what was once one of the largest free Black communities in the U.S. during the 19th century.

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Some original houses from Weeksville, another 19th-century Black community that formed in the 1830s, still remain and can be visited as part of the Weeksville Heritage Center.

This interactive map produced by the Landmark Preservation Commission earlier this year complements more focused research into specific Black communities. Titled “New York City and the Path to Freedom,” the map features City landmarks associated with abolitionist and Underground Railroad history, demonstrating how much Black history—and specifically the struggle for freedom—is interwoven into the fabric of the City.

That protestors are currently marching through the City, sometimes passing these historic sites, is another clear indication that there is a lot more work to be done. History can be a foundation and a guide for moving forward. Research into Seneca Village is ongoing, with the goal to uncover more about this exceptional community.