New York’s Central Park is one of the city’s most precious gems, attracting visitors year-round from all over the world. What both visitors and residents often do not realize, however, is that their stroll in the park is actually walk on sacred ground.
The land atop which Central Park now rests has a unique story — with particular significance to the African-American community. From 1825 to 1857, Manhattan’s first known community of African-American property owners inhabited some of the very land that Central Park stands on today. The community bore the name, Seneca Village, and was located between 82nd and 89th Streets at Seventh and Eighth Avenues.
While many white New York landowners refused to sell to African-Americans even after emancipation, John and Elizabeth Whitehead were an exception to the rule. Though the land was a far walk from the city’s metropolitan area, it allowed buyers to build their own houses in a safe area and escape the overcrowded and crime-ridden slums that most African-Americans were relegated to at the time. The first purchasers of the Whitehead’s property were members of the New York African Society for Mutual Relief, a society with a shared mission to build Black communities. A young boot-polisher, Andrew Williams, was the first to purchase three lots of land for $125, making him the first official resident of Seneca Village.
According to the 1855 census, Seneca Village was comprised of 264 residents and was home to three churches, two schools, and three cemeteries. Though the majority of the town’s inhabitants were laborers, they were considered a rising middle-class based on their levels of education and homeowner status. The cost of land in Seneca Village was relatively inexpensive at the time, and African-Americans were nearly five times more likely to be property owners there than in other parts of the city. By owning property, African-Americans could then participate in civic life: any man who owned at least $250 in property was permitted to vote.
The downfall of Seneca Village came in the summer of 1856 when residents were given their final warning to evacuate their home to make way for park construction. Through eminent domain, the New York government took authority over private lands to eradicate Seneca Village’s residents. While landowners were compensated, their entire way of life, homes, and right to vote were stripped away. The newspapers praised the destruction of what they called “N—-er Village” — referring to its residents as “squatters” and “insects” living in “shanties.”
The history of Seneca Village is not widely discussed. With the exception of a memorial plaque that wasn’t erected until 2001, little has been done to preserve the legacy of this legendary community. The names and faces of those displaced do not appear anywhere in a museum or history book — they have simply been erased. And while many people could not imagine New York City without Central Park, we must not forget the price paid by those who were forced out of their homes to make way for its development.