Remembering Cal Jones, Manhattan Borough Historian Emeritus & Friend of the Central Park Conservancy

New York, Harlem, and Central Park lost one of their most ardent supporters with the passing of Celedonia (Cal) Jones (1930–2023) this month.

Cal had a robust lifetime of accomplishments, honors, and public service. He served as the Manhattan Borough Historian for almost a decade and continued to build his wealth of knowledge about our City and its diverse communities as Manhattan Borough Historian Emeritus since 2005, particularly around exploring and uncovering the lost history of Seneca Village.

In an interview with the Central Park Conservancy in 2020, he told us: “New York fits me like a glove. This is my town and my Park and my City.” Indeed, Cal was a New Yorker through and through, and Central Park was integral to his life from the start. Born and raised in central Harlem, he spent his childhood playing in the Park, which also figured prominently in his early professional career and budding interest in history. In the 1960s as an auditor for the City, he became familiar with the various properties in Central Park. Later, as a volunteer and docent at the Museum of the City of New York, he would commute through the Park on a regular basis, getting to know its landscapes and the communities that relied on them.

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From left to right: Cal Jones; John Reddick, Director of Community Engagement Projects at the Central Park Conservancy; and Mayor Eric Adams at the Conservancy’s inaugural Juneteenth in Seneca Village Celebration. The event offered attendees the opportunity to explore six Seneca Village sites of historical significance through a range of artistic expression including dance, music, spoken word, storytelling, sculpture, and activities.

Cal’s love for Central Park and its history propelled much of his later research. In his role as Manhattan Borough Historian, he helped uncover many stories of Seneca Village, the African-American enclave that existed from 1825 to 1857 in the area that is now the Park’s perimeter from West 82nd to West 89th Street. Before the City acquired the land through eminent domain to build Central Park, the Village provided its residents an escape from unhealthy conditions and the pervasive racism experienced in downtown Manhattan. Once the Park was built, the residents of Seneca Village were displaced and forgotten. Cal spent thousands of hours researching these individuals, investigating where they ended up, and discovering their descendants—one of whom he connected with and brought to the Conservancy’s inaugural Juneteenth in Seneca Village event.

In the course of his research, Cal Jones discovered Ariel Williams, the great-great-great-great granddaughter of a Seneca Village resident. Together they connected many missing pieces and traced her entire family back to Seneca Village.

His enthusiasm for the Park and its history was indispensable to the Conservancy and Institute for the Exploration of Seneca Village in their joint effort to bring these stories to light. Not only did Cal discover four generations of descendants of a Seneca Village resident, but he was closely involved in the unveiling of a wide range of history related to the community.

He responded simply but poignantly when asked why history matters: “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.” For Cal, historical research was a form of activism. He gave voice to those who were silenced and ensured they were rewritten into a history from which they were previously erased.

Park visitors reading signage at the Seneca Village site.

Cal was integral to the Conservancy’s research of Seneca Village and how it shares its history within the physical landscape of the Park. When approached by then-Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger to fill the role of Borough Historian, Cal initially passed on the offer because he saw how his people were written out of NYC history. But she challenged him with an argument that would stay with him: “You said you were written out of history, so why don’t you write yourself back in?” He continued to accomplish exactly that for the African-American community over the course of his career.

Cal’s unflagging dedication to the history of New York has given us a greater understanding of Central Park, and his efforts to bring African-American history front and center has had an immeasurable impact on our work and on our City.