New Yorkers on the Significance of Seneca Village

Editor’s note: We’re excited to announce that Discover Seneca Village, the Conservancy’s exhibit of interpretive signs, has been extended through fall 2021. You can also now explore Seneca Village’s history from the ease of your phone via the Bloomberg Connects app.

Seneca Village, which existed between 1825 and 1857, was a predominantly African-American community that provided an escape from lower Manhattan’s racist climate and unhealthy conditions. It also offered opportunity for property ownership, and thus political power. As we learn more about how significant and unique Seneca Village was, the more its meaning and value expand.

We asked several New Yorkers—some of whom have been involved in the work to research and share Seneca Village’s stories—what this place and history means to them. Many commented on the importance of learning about Seneca Village in the Park, both as an experience and as a sign of growing commitment to uncovering and sharing Black history. Their responses reveal Seneca Village as a model for community and a symbol of resilience. They also show how Seneca Village serves as a powerful vehicle for reflecting on Black history and the ongoing struggle for racial justice.

An old map showing the location of Seneca Village

Before Central Park was created, the landscape along what is now the Park’s perimeter from West 82nd to West 89th Street was the site of Seneca Village.

Herbert Seignoret, member of the Institute for the Exploration of Seneca Village History: “The Seneca Village community offers a unique lens through which to explore the lives of African-Americans who lived in New York City during its capitalist and immigrant expansion in the 19th century. Study of this period has traditionally been dominated by analyses of the immigrant experience. As such, the lives of African Americans and their urban experience has been somewhat silenced. The research on Seneca Village gives a voice to the urban experience of African Americans who lived during this turbulent antebellum period.

I have been involved in the research pioneered by the Institute for the Exploration of Seneca Village History for over 20 years. This research provides a space to train students and the community on the use of historical archaeology in unearthing the complexity of the African American resistance to the forces of white supremacy. We can explore how New York City’s rapidly changing antebellum landscape impacted Seneca Village residents’ identity, racial consciousness, political participation, employment, and their sense of community. A major research question I am interested to explore is whether Seneca Village’s destruction was an early example of gentrification.”

Herbert Seignoret has been involved with the Seneca Village Project since the 1990s.

Jose Velasco, Central Park Guide at the Conservancy: “As an immigrant and a person of color, I’ve always had a lifelong interest in the endless diversity of narratives that make up the melting pot of New York City’s history. Now, as an official Central Park Conservancy tour guide, I’m grateful for the opportunity to interpret Seneca Village for the public. I had read about this multicultural community prior to working for the Conservancy, but I never thought I would one day immerse myself in it and tell its story to visitors from around the world. I only hope that my work does some justice to this once forgotten haven of Black and immigrant New York, and that the story of its residents will live on forever.”

A sign marks one of the locations of the Seneca Village site.

The site of Seneca Village resembles much of the surrounding Park, with rolling hills, rock outcrops, and playgrounds.

Mia-Michelle Russell, Resident Curator of Canaan Baptist Church of Christ: “Growing up in Harlem, I have witnessed major change. As I learned more about the origins and history of Harlem, I have realized that change is inevitable. The story of Seneca Village is another example of inevitable change. When the City began to expand, the haven of Seneca Village was dismantled to create Central Park, a park dedicated to providing an escape from the City. In doing this, the mostly middle-class community that resided in Seneca Village was destroyed. Change.

But I was able to find hope embedded in this tragic story. Greater awareness of Seneca Village is hopeful when the agenda has been to erase the magnitude of Black history. We can acknowledge and celebrate the hard work and lives of an African-American community that persevered and thrived. Another major take away from this story is that we can’t let history repeat itself. From those who were displaced through eminent domain to those who have been displaced through gentrification, we need to rewrite these stories. Seneca Village is a reminder to me to carry out the mission of rebuilding our community.”

Mia-Michelle Russell is involved in the Seneca Village Digital Project—an effort to make a website and app about this community.

Bodhi Brown, 12, Upper West Side Resident: “Seneca Village was one of the first places in New York City where free Black people owned property. I’ve been walking to school through Central Park every day for about seven years now, just north of the original site. I think Seneca Village is a great public spot in the City for teaching Black history, and I’m glad that Central Park is providing information for people to learn all about it.”

Karen Horry, Chair of the Parks and Recreation Committee, Manhattan Community Board 10: “Seneca Village represents for me the fortitude and resilience of the human will. A thriving, predominantly African-American community flourished despite racism and inequality within the United States. The destruction of this community in 1857 fits into a pattern which includes the losses of other Black communities, such as Rosewood, Florida (1847–1923), and the neighborhood of Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma (1906–1921), also known as “Black Wall Street." They were also robust and thriving communities of color.

These histories help me envision the monumental hardships that my ancestors faced in this country and how their sense of self-efficacy was constantly under attack. They cause me to reflect on how my great-grandmother, born in 1845, wife and mother of nine children, endured as she strove to nurture her family during such times. This climate of hardship persists today.

Though Seneca Village was born nearly 200 years ago and existed approximately three miles from where I grew up and lived in Central Harlem, it was not known to me until my late adulthood. Seneca Village holds for me a proud legacy of a resilient and courageous people who triumphed, even for a short period of time, over insurmountable odds. It is an obfuscated truth of American history now brought to the light.”

Karen Horry is the Chair of the Parks and Recreation Committee for Community Board 10 in Harlem, which created a Seneca Village Task Force to advocate for additional projects and commemoration related to the community in the Park.

Another example of signage associated with the Seneca Village outdoor exhibit

Discover Seneca Village, an outdoor exhibit of interpretive signage in Central Park, gives visitors a glimpse into pre-Park history and highlights decades of research about this extraordinary community.

Lakema Wilson, Groundskeeper at the Conservancy: “I work in an area of Central Park that includes the site of Seneca Village. I didn’t know about this history until I worked at the Conservancy, and I learned even more when I started working in this section. I was shocked. I get lots of questions from visitors about where Seneca Village was and its history. There has been a green NYC Parks sign that tells the story, but then the Conservancy added signs [in 2019] with more information. I read all the signs when they were installed. Visitors also read them from start to finish, and they’re surprised to learn about Seneca Village and that it was so large.”

Brent Staples, The New York Times Editorial Board: “The tale of Seneca Village shows how the story of race and racism in the United States is obscured by layer upon layer of willful forgetting—and how swiftly cultural amnesia takes hold. When the Village was erased to create Central Park in 1857, it was the epicenter of Black political and economic power in New York City, with a school, churches, cemeteries, and a vibrant civic life.

When coffins containing human remains were discovered in the area less than 15 years later, the newspaper that reported the event declared the dead a mystery. Multiply this story a thousand-fold, and you get a sense of why writing about African-American life in the United States requires Herculean effort and forensic determination.”

Brent Staples has written about Seneca Village for The New York Times.

A view of Summit Rock in the present day

At 142 feet above sea level, Summit Rock is the highest elevation in Central Park and was a prominent feature of Seneca Village's landscape.

John T. Reddick, Historian & Columbia University Community Scholar: “As an African-American and curious observer of New York’s history, Seneca Village resonates in a special way to me. The community’s existence and disappearance speak not only to our unique presence in the City, but also to our yearnings and navigation of the City’s rewards and challenges.

Although the Village’s churches, homes, and other properties are gone, I still find particular delight in knowing that when I visit the Seneca Village site I’m gazing in many ways upon the same landscape that caught the eye of a 25-year-old Andrew Williams, an African-American shoeshiner who, for $125 in 1825, bought the first three of 200 lots on sale by John and Elizabeth Whitehead.

Stand at the peak of Summit Rock, look west, and the Village’s proximity to the Hudson River and its bountiful riches are evident. Glance south and note how the landscape drops, then try to imagine how from here the densely populated City of the 1800s, with its rooflines and chimneys emanating smoke, would appear safely distant. Just below the rock, and in the clearing, a watery pool known as Tanner’s Spring offers evidence of Seneca Village’s water source. To a young Andrew Williams, all of this must have seemed like Eden.”

Stormy McNair, Fundraising Manager for the Women's Committee at the Conservancy: "For me, the story of Seneca Village is one of inclusion. The in-Park recognition uncovers the history of the Village and intrigues me, offering the exact location of where churches and other structures once stood. I enjoy sharing such a rich source of history with my children as they take it all in and find pride in its depiction. The Conservancy offers a space of recognition in this outdoor exhibit, and my family is empowered with every visit.”

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