Seneca Village was a small village in the borough of Manhattan in New York City, founded by free blacks. Seneca Village existed from 1825 through 1857, when it was torn down for the construction of Central Park.
The village was the first significant community of African American property owners on Manhattan, and also came to be inhabited by several other minorities, including Irish and German immigrants. The village was located on about 5 acres (20,000 m2) between where 82nd and 89th Streets and Seventh and Eighth Avenues would now intersect, an area now covered by Central Park. A stone outcropping near the 85th Street entrace to Central Park is believed to be part of a foundation of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.
The origin of Seneca Village's name is not exactly known; however, a number of theories have been advanced.
- One theory suggests the word “Seneca” came from a Roman philosopher named Lucius Annaeus Seneca, whose book was often read by African American activists.
- Another theory is that the village was named after a group of Native Americans, the Seneca nation.
- Sara Cedar Miller, the Central Park Conservancy's historian suggests, "It must have been an ethnic slur," a way to simultaneously denigrate Indians and blacks.
- Some suggest it is a derivative of Senegal, a country in West Africa, where many of the people who lived in the village were from.
- Yet other theories suggest the name could also have been used as a code for the underground railroad.
Blacks first came to the area in 1825, when John Whitehead, a deliveryman, began selling off parcels of his farm. Andrew Williams first bought three lots for $125. By 1832, about 25 more lots were sold to 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 6 lots. Between 1825 and 1832, real estate records show, the Whiteheads sold at least 24 land parcels to black families. Seneca Village became a gathering place after one main historical event: slavery coming to an end in New York State on July 4, 1827.
In the early 19th century, Seneca village 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.
Later during the potato famine in Ireland many Irish residents came to live in Seneca Village. The village grew by 30 percent during this time. Both African Americans and Irish immigrants were marginalized and faced discrimination throughout the city. Remarkably, despite their social and racial conflicts elsewhere, the Irish and African-Americans in Seneca Village chose to live in close proximity to each other.
The village 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 cornerstone 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. Its sister church, known as Mother AME Zion, is in Harlem on 137th Street.
There was a school located in a church where 17-year-old Catherine Thompson taught the village's children.
In 1855, a New York State Census found that Seneca Village had 264 residents. At this time in New York City's history, most of the city's population lived below 14th Street, and the region above 59th Street was only sporadically developed and was semi-rural or rural in character. No one knows where the residents of Seneca Village resettled. To date, no living descendants of Seneca Villagers have been found.
As the campaign to create Central Park moved forward park advocates and the media began to describe Seneca Village and other communities in this area as "shantytowns" and the residents there as "squatters". The village was razed for park construction. Residents were offered $2,335 for their property. Members of the community fought to retain their land. For two years, residents resisted the police as they petitioned the courts to save their homes, churches, and schools. Some villagers were violently evicted in 1855. However, in the summer of 1856, Mayor Fernando Wood prevailed and residents of Seneca Village were given final notice. In 1857, the city government acquired all private property within Seneca Village through eminent domain. On October 1, 1857, city officials in New York reported that the last holdouts living on land that was to become Central Park had been removed.
A newspaper account at the time suggested that Seneca Village would “not be forgotten…[as] many a brilliant and stirring fight was had during the campaign. But the supremacy of the law was upheld by the policeman’s bludgeons.” There are few records of where residents went after their eviction and the community was destroyed.
After its destruction, public memory of Seneca Village disappeared for over a century.
Following a 1997 exhibition on the community at the New-York Historical Society, archaeologists Diana Wall and Nan Rothschild and educators Cynthia Copeland and Herbert Seignoret of Barnard College, New York University and the City College of New York decided to see if any archaeological traces of the village remained. They worked with local historians, churches and community groups to shape the direction of their research project on the site.
With student participation, the project conducted exhaustive archival research and preliminary remote sensing. Researchers used soil borings to identify promising areas with undisturbed soil. In 2005 the team performed ground-penetrating radar tests, successfully locating traces of Seneca Village. After extended discussions with the New York City Department of Parks and the Central Park Conservancy, officials granted permission for test excavations in the regions of the village most likely to contain intact archaeological deposits. Digs took place in 2004, August 2005, and summer 2011  the buried remains of the village were the subject of archaeological investigation.
The 2011 excavation uncovered the homestead of William Godfrey Wilson, a sexton for All Angels' Church, and another important deposit from the backyard of two other Seneca Village residents. Archeologists found over 250 bags of artifacts, including the bone handle of a toothbrush and the leather sole of a child’s shoe. The public location of the site in Central Park meant that excavators had to back-fill incomplete units each weekend and could not cut any root thicker than half an inch. Nighttime guards also monitored the site to ensure that it was undisturbed. Following the excavation, more than 300 people attended an open house at the project site.
The Seneca Village project, which formed in 1998, is dedicated raising awareness about of Seneca Village's significance as a free, middle-class black community in 19th century New York City. The project facilitates educational programs, which engage school children, teachers and the general public, and bring Seneca Village into public knowledge.
On Saturday, February 10, 2001, Parks Commissioner Henry Stern, State Senator David Paterson, Borough President C. Virginia Fields, and New York Historical Society Executive Director Betsy Gotbaum unveiled the Historical Sign commemorating the site where Seneca Village once stood.
- Martin, Douglas (January 31, 1997). "A Village Dies, A Park Is Born". The New York Times.
- Martin, Douglas (April 7, 1995). "Before Park, Black Village; Students Look Into a Community's History". The New York Times. Retrieved May 23, 2010.
- Williams, Jasmin K. (August 13, 2007). "The Village In The Park". New York Post.
- Wall, Diana; Diana Wall, Nan A. Rothschild, Cynthia Copeland (2008). "Seneca Village and Little Africa: Two African American Communities in Antebellum New York City". Historical Archaeology 42 (Living in Cities Revisited: Trends in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Urban Archaeology (2008)): 97–107.
- "Seneca Village". The New York Historical Society. Retrieved 2006-05-15.
- Shipp, E.R. (August 21, 2005). "The Price of Progress: Eminent domain can lead to pain as well as advancement". Daily News (New York).
- "William's Affidavit". The New York Historical Society. Retrieved 2006-05-15.
- "Seneca Villiage 2011". Columbia Univ., Media Center for Art History. Retrieved 2 September 2012.
- Foderaro, Lisa W. (2011-07-27). "Unearthing an African-American Village Displaced by Central Park". The New York Times.
- Killcoyne, Hope (author) and Majno, Mary Lee (illustrator). "The Lost Village of Central Park." New York: Silver Moon Press, 1999.
- Rosenzweig, Roy and Blackmar, Elizabeth. The Park and the People: A History of Central Park. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1992.
- Copy of the 1855 Census
- Central Park Condemnation Map, 1856
- Seneca Village Project History and Archaeology
- The Naturalist Podcast on Seneca Village, November 2011
- The Central Park Official Website, Seneca Village Webpage