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New York in New York County, New York — The American Northeast (Mid-Atlantic)
 

Seneca Village Community

 
 
Seneca Village Community wayside image. Click for full size.
By Larry Gertner, June 17, 2020
1. Seneca Village Community wayside
Inscription.  
This kiosk marks the center of Seneca Village, a predominantly African-American community the existed from 1825-1857. The village originated when African Americans began buying property between 82nd and 83rd Streets and Seventh and Eighth Avenues. Among the earliest purchasers was an important African-American church, African Methodist Episcopal Zion, which initially acquired land for a burial ground. Members of the church purchased additional property and began to build houses. More African Americans joined the community in the 11830s, and in the following decade Irish immigrants also begam to settle the in village. In the 1850s, the city used eminent domain to acquire the land as part of Central Park; by 1857, residents were required to leave and all structures were razed.

Researchers believe that African Americans may have begun to settle in the area to create as autonomous community far from downtown. Although New York State abolished slavery in 1827, African Americans still faced discrimination and threats of violence, among other grave obstacles to freedom and citizenship. Some established their own institutions – schools,
Seneca Village Community waysite site image. Click for full size.
By Larry Gertner, June 17, 2020
2. Seneca Village Community waysite site
The main panel of a tryptic here.
Click or scan to see
this page online
churches, newspapers, and aid organizations – as well as separate neighborhoods where they could build a community. In a sparsely-settled area, about three miles from the developed part of Manhattan, Seneca Valley was a refuge from both the racist climate and the overcrowded and unhealthy conditions of the rapidly growing city.

Seneca Village was the moist densely settled part of the 776 acres slated for Central Park, land that was home to approximately 1,600 people. By 1855, roughly 225 individuals lived in Seneca Village, which consisted of fifty-two houses, three churches, at least one school, and several burial grounds. Roughly two-thirds of Seneca Village residents were African-American, about half of whom owned their homes.

The Significance of Seneca Village
The high rate of property ownership in Seneca Village made it an exceptional community for 19th-century New York. For African Americans, buying property was not only a source of economic security, it was also a path to suffrage. Beginning in 1821, New York State required African-American men to own at least $250 worth of property in order to vote, while European-American men were eligible to vote without having to own property. Some African Americans owned property in Seneca Village but did not actually live there, instead renting out land or holding it as an investment.

That many
Inset image. Click for full size.
By Larry Gertner, June 17, 2020
3. Inset
“This map of Seneca Village, prepared by engineer Egbert Viele in 1855 as part of the survey of the land slated for Central Park, shows the cluster of houses, churches, and gardens that made up the community.”
residents owned their homes and lived in the village for a long time defines the typical 19th-century depiction of the community as a shantytown inhabited by destitute squatters. Park advocates and journalists chronicling the construction of the park often presented Seneca Village – along with other settlements and residents of the area – in very disparaging terms, highlighting contemporary racist attitudes towards African Americans and disdain for the poor.

Seneca Village was far from a shantytown – while some residents were poor and did live in buildings described as shanties, most lived in two-story homes. Also in defiance of stereotypes, most African-American residents were gainfully employed, typically as unskilled laborers or service workers. Among the occupations listed in the census records are cook, waiter, domestic, sailor, cooper, grocer, preacher, and cartman. Records also indicate that many children living in the village attended school, suggesting that families prioritized education. All of these factors have led researchers to understand Seneca Village as a predominantly middle-class community, one that was more stable and prosperous than other African-American enclaves in the city at the time.

Seneca Village’s three churches were another marker of a stable community, anchoring not only religious but also political and social life
Inset image. Click for full size.
By Larry Gertner, June 17, 2020
4. Inset
“Some residents protested the city’s acquisition of land through right of eminent domain, while others wrote letters asserting that their property was undervalued. In this affidavit, Seneca Village resident Andrew Williams states that the value of his property, which consisted of three lots, was worth $4,000 – almost double the amount of $2,335 offered by the city.”
for African Americans. African Union Church (built around 1840) and African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (built 1853) were both satellite locations for churches based downtown. All Angels’ Church (built 1849) was established as a mission by St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, a congregation on the Upper West side, and was attended by both European Americans and African Americans.

What happened to Seneca Village?
When the city began planning for Central Park it acquired land through eminent domain – the right of governments to take private land for public use. Those who owned property were compensated for its value and residents were required to leave, a long process that ended in the fall of 1857. The construction of Central Park began in 1858 with the clearing of the land, including the demolition of buildings and removal of those interred in the burial grounds. Records show that some burials were relocated to a cemetery in Queens. Residents dispersed to other parts of the city and elsewhere. By the time this section of Central Park was completed in the early 1860s, no clear traces of Seneca Village remained.

Timeline
(juxtaposes Seneca Village events with city and national events)
1815 – Surveyor John Randall completes maps documenting farmland in Upper Manhattan. The area in the West 80s is largely undeveloped.
1817 – NY
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State passes the Gradual Emancipation law; enslaved African Americans born before July 4, 1799 will become free on July 4, 1827.
1821 - NY State requires the African-American men, in order to vote, must own property valued as $250 or more.
1824 – John and Elizabeth Whitehead purchased farmland in the West 80s.
1825 – African Americans purchase land form the Whiteheads. African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church purchases land for a cemetery.
1825 – Total population of NYC approximately 166,000, of which 8% are African American. Less than 100 are slaves.
1827 – Abolition of slavery in NY State on July 4. First African-American newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, published in new York City.
1830 – 60th Street and 8th Avenue are in use through the area.
1832 – Cholera outbreak in NYC. 3,500 die; 80,000 flee.
1833 – St. Michael’s Church establishes Sunday School in Seneca Village.
1834 – Anti-abolitionist riots in NYC destroy numerous homes and businesses of abolitionists and Afro-American laborers.
1836 – Maps shoe approximately 12 buildings in the village.
1838 – Planning begins for the Croton Aqueduct, NYC’s first water supply system.
1840 – First record of Irish immigrants settling in the area. African Union Church and School built.
1842 – Construction
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of receiving reservoir for croton Aqueduct largely complete. Located just north of Seneca Village.
1845 – Potato famine in Ireland leads to huge waves of Irish immigration.
1849 – St. Michael’s builds All Angels’ Church.
1850 – Total population of NYC approximately 550,500 of which 6% are African American. Fugitive Slave Act enables law enforcement to arrest suspected runaway slaves and denies them right to jury trial.
1853 – African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church lays cornerstone for a new church.
1855 – Land for the park surveyed, documenting 52 homes and approximately 225 residents in the village.
1857 – All residents forced to leave. Most buildings are removed.
1857 – In Dred Scott decision Supreme Court rules that African Americans are not and cannot be citizens.
1858 – Frederic Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux win the design competition for Central Park. First section of the park opens to the public.
1861 – The Civil War begins.
 
Erected 2020 by Central Park Conservancy.
 
Topics. This historical marker is listed in these topic lists: African AmericansParks & Recreational AreasSettlements & Settlers. A significant historical date for this entry is July 4, 1799.
 
Location. 40° 47.049′ N, 73° 58.109′ W. Marker is in New York, New York, in New York County. Marker can be reached from West 85th Street east of Central Park West. Touch for map. Marker is at or near this postal address: Central Park, New York NY 10024, United States of America. Touch for directions.
 
Other nearby markers. At least 8 other markers are within walking distance of this marker. Seneca Village Landscape (here, next to this marker); Searching for Seneca Village (a few steps from this marker); Seneca Village (a few steps from this marker); The Wilson House (a few steps from this marker); African Union Church (within shouting distance of this marker); All Angels’ Church (within shouting distance of this marker); AME Zion Church (within shouting distance of this marker); Geology (about 300 feet away, measured in a direct line). Touch for a list and map of all markers in New York.
 
Regarding Seneca Village Community. "African American" and "African-American" are used interchangeably in the text.
 
Also see . . .
1. Seneca Village. Wikipedia entry (Submitted on April 16, 2021, by Larry Gertner of New York, New York.) 

2. Seneca Village Site. Central Park Conservancy website entry:
Links to several related sub-topics (Submitted on April 16, 2021, by Larry Gertner of New York, New York.) 

3. Seneca Village, New York City. National Park Service entry (Submitted on April 16, 2021, by Larry Gertner of New York, New York.) 
 
 
Credits. This page was last revised on April 26, 2021. It was originally submitted on April 16, 2021, by Larry Gertner of New York, New York. This page has been viewed 38 times since then. Photos:   1, 2, 3, 4. submitted on April 16, 2021, by Larry Gertner of New York, New York.

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May. 14, 2021