How America’s ‘First Black Middle Class Village’ Was Destroyed to Make Way For Central Park

 

  • Seneca Village was a predominantly African American village spanning 82nd to 87th Streets along what is now the western edge of Central Park
  • Created in 1825, the village was flattened and people were forced to move to make way for the creation of Central Park in 1857
  • By the 1850s Black people in Seneca Village were 39 times more likely to own property than their counterparts throughout the city 
  • About 30 percent of the population were Irish and German immigrants who lived harmoniously with their Black neighbors
  • The community was said to have had connections to the Underground Railroad with abolitionist Albro Lyons owning property and living in the village
  • An excavation of the site  in Central Park was conducted in 2011 by the Seneca Village Project and the group hopes to find descendants of settlement
Seneca Village, New York, was an interracial community of African American homeowners and Irish and German immigrants that spanned from 82nd to 87th Streets created in 1825 (pictured). The community was destroyed to make way for Central Park in 1857

Seneca Village, New York, was an interracial community of African American homeowners and Irish and German immigrants that spanned from 82nd to 87th Streets created in 1825 (pictured). The community was destroyed to make way for Central Park in 1857

Andrew Williams owned three blocks of land with a home valued at $4,000 ($113,000 in today’s money) between 85th and 86th streets Seventh and Eighth Avenues.

An African American man, he lived in what would be the Upper West Side of Manhattan for more than 30 years but now – in 1855 – he was being forced to move.

The Government had enacted eminent domain to take his land and after supposedly offering him $3,500 ($99,000), Williams was now being forced to take $2,335 ($66,600) and leave immediately.

Williams, along with close to 300 people were forced off their property by New York so that the city could embark on one of its most recognizable attractions – the creation of Central Park.

Seneca Village, New York, was an interracial community of property owning African Americans and Irish and German immigrants that spanned from 82nd to 87th Streets along what is now known as the western edge of Central Park and a few blocks above the American Natural History Museum.

‘Most people don’t associate African Americans and New York City before the 20th century and before the Great Migration,’ said Diana Wall, a member of the Seneca Village Project and Professor Emeritus of City College of New York that has been excavating the site in Central Park since 2011.

‘We tend to think of African Americans as poor but they were middle class and education of their children was very important. A lot of them owned their own homes.

‘We think of them on plantations in the South. Up here they were living a different kind of life in New York City.’

And the Seneca Village Project has since been looking for the descendants of the 264 residents of the community, unable to pinpoint what exactly happened to these families after they were forced to move.

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