Seneca Village: Thriving Black Community Before Construction of “Central Park” in New York

Written by Jae Jones

Long before Central Park in New York stood where it is today; there was a small little village in the same borough of Manhattan, founded by freed black people. Seneca Village existed in the actual Central Park location from 1825 to 1857.

Seneca village was the first significant community of African American property owners in the city. Later, the area also became inhabited by several other minorities, including Irish and German immigrants. The village was located on about 5 acres between where 82nd and 89th Streets and Seventh and Eighth Avenues now intersect, an area now covered by Central Park. No one knows how the area became to be known as Seneca Village, and there were many theories as to how the area got its name.

The arrival of the first African Americans to the area came in 1825, when John Whitehead, a deliveryman, began selling off parcels of his farm. Andrew Williams purchased the first three lots for $125. By 1832, about 25 more lots were sold to other African Americans. Epiphany Davis, a laborer and trustee of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, bought 12 lots for $578 the same day. The church itself then bought six lots. Between 1825 and 1832, real estate records show, the Whiteheads sold at least 24 land parcels to black families. Seneca Village at this time was one of the top gathering places in history after slavery ended in New York State in 1827.

By the early part of the 19th century, Seneca village began to grow, and people of other ethnic backgrounds began moving into the area attracted many other ethnic groups for different reasons. Seneca Village grew in the 1830s when people from a community called York Hill were forced to move after a government-enforced eviction; the York Hill land was used to build a basin for the Croton Distributing Reservoir.

When the potato famine in Ireland hit, Irish residents began to move into the community as well. Both Blacks and Irish immigrants were facing discrimination throughout the city. However, regardless of how they were being treated the two groups remained to live nearby. The village is said to have had three churches, a school, and several cemeteries. The First African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church of Yorkville laid its cornerstone in Seneca Village in 1853. A box put into the base contained a Bible, a hymn book, the church’s rules, a letter with the names of its five trustees, and copies of the Tribune and The Sun newspapers.

It was not long before a campaign began to create Central Park. Advocates who wanted the park built began to refer to Seneca Village as a “shantytown” and all the residents living there were no more than “squatters” with nowhere else to go. Residents staying in the area were given $2,335 to move on from the area so that the construction of the park could be built. However, there were some African Americans who fought to keep their land, but in the end, these villagers were violently evicted in 1855.


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About the author

Jae Jones

Jae Jones has been writing professionally for over 10 years. She holds a degree in Business Administration, and enjoys writing on various topics.

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