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by Elizabeth Ofosuah Johnson, at 05:00 pm, January 10, 2019, History

This once-thriving black community in NYC was destroyed to make way for Central Park

View of Seneca Accra

By the 18th century, as more and more blacks in the USA started to gain their freedom from slavery, many of them moved from the south to more urbanised areas to find work and start a new life. Many also escaped through the Underground Railway system to reach areas such as New York.

Despite escaping slavery, the newly freed African-Americans had to grow thicker skin to deal with racism and segregation and often had to live together in areas abandoned by the white population.

In 1825, wealthy shoe shiner (popularly called bootblacks) Andrew Williams and a labourer and trustee of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, Epiphany Davis, purchased land from John Whitehead who was a real estate protector.

According to an article on NY History, Andrew Williams purchased three lots of land at $125. Gotham Gazette also indicates that Epiphany Davis also bought 12 lots for $578.

Map of Seneca Village 

The two like-minded African Americans decided to donate the land to  African Americans in New York who wanted to settle in a community of their own. The community was established in September of 1825 and became known as Seneca Village.

The name of the community continues to remain a mystery as several theories have come up to explain its meaning. Some of the most popular theories say the community was named after a Roman Philosopher whose books the elite African Americans in the urban cities read a lot. Another theory explains that the name might have been a corrupted version of Senegal, a West African country where several of the African Americans believed they came from.

Seneca Village developed and flourished fast as more and more African Americans decided to settle in. It was also home to a few Irish and German immigrants who lived well with the African Americans.

Seneca Village was located between 82nd and 89th Streets at Seventh and Eighth Avenues in Manhattan (in what is known as the western edge of Central Park) and a few blocks above the American Natural History Museum.

Albro and Mary Joseph Lyons, prominent residents of Seneca Village.
Photo- 
New York Public Library

The village was small but became a highly influential community of black settlers who worked hard to become rich and self-reliant. By 1855, Seneca Village was home to several prominent African Americans such as Albro Lyons and his wife Mary Joseph Lyons who were runaway slaves who owned a sailors boarding house for as well as outfitting store that sold clothes.

The village also had three churches, two schools, two cemeteries and stores with various businesses. Landowners in Seneca Village made up the majority of the 91 Black New Yorkers who had the right to vote. Several of the African Americans were also rich enough to employ white midwives.

An idea for a centralized park in Manhattan started to develop in 1848 with the area of Seneca Village being eyed as number one option. By 1856, several white real estate developers and owners had convinced the government to embark on the park and the idea was put to plan.

Residents of Seneca Village were asked to leave their homes without any other place to go. The village was called the Nigger Village by several white people. The Gotham Gazette states that several African Americans living in Seneca Village were reluctant to leave the only place they could call home. A report by The New York Daily stated that “The policemen find it difficult to persuade them out of the idea which has possessed their simple minds, that the sole object of the authorities in making the Park is to procure their expulsion from the homes which they occupy.”

Photo – The Weekly Challenger 

With political power as a major tool, the inhabitants of Seneca Village were made to evacuate the area and some were lucky enough to gain a small amount of money in exchange for the lands. 

By 1870, every memory of Seneca Village had been wiped away and replaced with the $14 million dollars contracted Central Park. In 1998, The Seneca Village project was set up to help create more awareness of the once thriving African American community that opened its gates for non African Americans and lived in peace.

Several excavations have happened in parts of the area to provide more proof of the existence of the village. A small sign dedicated to the people who once called it home can be found in Central Park.

Seneca Village Sign in Central Park.

It is believed that like Tulsa, the Black Wall Street, Seneca Village was destroyed to abruptly end the rapid progress of the Black Community in urban areas.

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