By Rachel Walman
Since 1859, millions of people have enjoyed the natural beauty of Central Park. What do you know about the origins of Central Park? Did you know that before the park existed, the land it lies on was home to about 1,600 residents? One neighborhood that once lay within the boundaries of the park was called “Seneca Village” (although residents may not have called it that.) The Reading into History family book club is now reading a wonderful work of historical fiction about this place called Home is With Our Family. On Wednesday, June 19th, we will host a book wrap here at the museum were visitors can discuss the book, skype with its author, and take a tour of where this community used to be to try and piece it together.
No photographs of Seneca Village survive, and no personal papers or living descendants of its residents have yet been found. So how do we know anything about it, what do we know, and why should anyone care? An important story about this place emerges from newspaper articles, maps, census data, and other records of the day. Seneca Village deserves our attention as one of the first communities of free, African American property owners and immigrants in pre-Civil War New York.
Here is what we know: Seneca Village existed between 1825 and 1857. The boundaries of Seneca village were roughly 82nd street to 89th street between 7th and 8th avenues. In this land survey from 1856, you can see a birds-eye-view of it.
The land was hilly and rocky and may have looked something like this.
Initially, John and Elizabeth Whitehead, a white couple, bought the land the made up Seneca Village. They soon subdivided and sold it to Andrew Young, Epiphany Davis (both African American) and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. In the 1840s, Irish and German immigrants began moving in. All of these groups may have enjoyed being far away from the dirty, crowded slums of downtown Manhattan, where most Irish, German and African American people lived. The 1855 census reported 264 residents of Seneca Village. The census was handwritten, but take a look at this typed page of it that is easier to read.
According to this data, this community was comprised of mostly working class people and some rising middle class folks; however, prejudice against African Americans and the Irish sometimes caused newspapers to report otherwise. One newspaper article compared African Americans in Seneca village and Irish residents of a lower part of the park. It states that Seneca Village is “a neat little settlement…[that] present[s] a pleasing contrast in their habits and the appearance of their dwellings to the Celtic [Irish] occupants…in the lower part of the park…if some of the hogs, goats, and other inmates of the shanties in this vicinity do not die of the yellow fever this summer, it will only be because Death himself hesitates to enter such dirty hovels. (New York Daily Times, July 9, 1856).
Other articles refer to the residents of Seneca Village as “squatters,” as though they were living illegally on public lands while they still owned them.
In 1853, the city government approved a plan to use something called “eminent domain” to take over all land in what is now Central Park. Eminent domain is the state’s power to take over private lands for public use. The government offered to pay owners what it claimed was the fair value of their land. They offered nothing to families who rented property in Seneca Village. Many of the land owners believed the government was not valuing the land highly enough.
African American land owners had more to lose than just their property with the destruction of Seneca Village. At this time, African Americans could vote if they owned at least $250 worth of property. Losing their homes meant losing the right to vote, a right that would not be protected by the US constitution until the passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870 (and that was still not protected in practice for the next century).
Seneca Village still holds many mysteries. What we do know tells us a lot about the lives of African Americans and immigrants at this time, and the battles they fought to win a place in this bustling city and the nation. Join us on Wednesday to explore Seneca Village more through the fictionalized Peters family in Home is with Our Family. It will also be the book club’s first birthday and Juneteenth! See you then!