Weekend History: Seneca Village Brought Back to Life


An image from Ariel Aberg-Riger’s illustrated history of Seneca Village.

When city leaders were advocating to build a park in the center of Manhattan in the 1850’s, there was one neighborhood that was in the way of their plans.

That neighborhood, now called Seneca Village, was a mostly-black working class village filled with more than 250 people. The city forced them out to make way for the park.

For most of the past 160 years, their story has remained untold. But a recent illustrated article by Ariel Aberg-Riger in The Atlantic brings the village to life — and highlights how much we still don’t know.

Read the whole thing here.

To read other entries in our weekend history series, click here.

HISTORY | 11 comments | permalink
    1. ScooterStan says:

      Re: “Seneca Village, was a mostly-black working class village…250 people. The city forced them out to make way for the park.

      UH-OHhhh! You’ve revealed a bad secret!

      Just wait till the “Revisionist Historians Kvetching About Racism And More” (RHKARAM)crowd becomes aware of this!

      They’ll probably demand that Central Park be closed and that the names Olmsted and Vaux be forever erased from the history books.

      And, of course, they’ll also call for mass demonstrations to guarantee that Eye Witless News covers their toddler temper tantrums.

      Some skeletons are best left in the closet.

      • EricaC says:

        Speaking of temper tantrums …

        Btw, any moderately educated person already knew about this. This is just providing more information about the people who were displaced. It is a welcome article.

      • Bruce Bernstein says:

        Merriam-Webster defines “kvetching” as “to complain habitually, gripe.”

        so the HISTORY of what happened in Seneca Village to working class people, particularly African-Americans, is now “griping” and “revisionist history.”

        this is an excellent graphic article about OUR history: all working class people. And it would be nice if there was some sort of monument in Central Park on on CPW to Seneca Village, if it does not already exist.

    2. Marcia Newfield says:

      Wonderful text and illustrations

    3. lynn says:

      I didn’t expect to read,’and no one knows where the families ended up.’ Very intriguing article!

    4. B.B. says:

      To be clear names of many Seneca Village residents/settlers is known. This comes from either US census, tax and other records including marriage, death and birth.

      What is missing largely is an oral history from those whose ancestors lived in SV, and or were part of those forced out.

      Though brutal and perhaps racist with a trace of elitism (poor white German and Irish immigrants were thought of by many then as no better than the African Americans who also lived in SV), the process of eminent domain did provide compensation to those whose land was taken.

      Though only several hundred to a few thousand dollars, that was still a huge amount of money then. Most likely those who lost their property at SV went on to purchase something elsewhere.

      Am guessing a good genealogist with free time could start tracing families from SV by going through tax and other records.

      There have been strong and persistent rumors that not all bodies were removed from cemeteries located in SV and reburied elsewhere as was the standard practice. At least once in 1871 Central Park workers dug up two coffins containing remains. Thus like Washington Square Park, Madison Square Park among others there might still very well be graves remaining in CP.

      Whether this is true or not, and or more detailed information about SV we shall never know. While NYC and the Central Park Conservancy did grant permission for the one (rather limited and restricted)archaeological dig, IIRC all future requests for another more extensive undertaking have been rebuffed by the CPC.

      When CP was being “created” while much of SV would have been flattened, all the city mainly did was cover everything over with soil and plantings. Time and nature have taken over the rest.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seneca_Village#Rediscovery

      http://www.nytimes.com/1997/01/31/arts/a-village-dies-a-park-is-born.html

    5. Megan says:

      Thank you, Ariel. Maybe others were aware of this piece of history, but I was not, and I’m grateful for your report.

    6. CB says:

      Some years back there was an excellent exhibition about Seneca Village at the New-York Historical Society. Don’t know if they’ve got anything about it online …

    7. Bruce Bernstein says:

      B.B’s comment above is a whitewash of what happened to the inhabitants of Seneca Village, pun at least partially intended, and is wrong or misleading on a variety of points.

      The destruction of Seneca Village is a good case study of what happened to African-Americans, even in the north, in the 19th and first half of the 20th century.

      But first, Scooter Stan says:

      “Some skeletons are best left in the closet.”

      Really? it’s bad to know actual history, because someone might come along and use the history in a way that makes you uncomfortable, or that you disagree with?

      where have i heard this argument before?

      on to BB. BB said:

      “What is missing largely is an oral history from those whose ancestors lived in SV, and or were part of those forced out.”

      you don’t mean “oral history.” You mean… history. According to the NY Times article and the Ariel Aberg-Riger graphic story, we don’t know at all about what happened to the former residents after they were evicted.

      B.B. said:

      “Though brutal and perhaps racist with a trace of elitism (poor white German and Irish immigrants were thought of by many then as no better than the African Americans who also lived in SV), the process of eminent domain did provide compensation to those whose land was taken.”

      “Though only several hundred to a few thousand dollars, that was still a huge amount of money then. Most likely those who lost their property at SV went on to purchase something elsewhere.”

      So very many things are wrong in these two paragraphs, it is hard to know where to start.

      “perhaps” racist? the campaign to call them squatters, the media calling Seneca Village “n***er village”, and other evidence should remove any doubt about the racism inherent in the actions.

      BB said:

      “poor white German and Irish immigrants were thought of by many then as no better than the African Americans who also lived in SV”

      this is a favorite right wing canard — “poor whites were treated as badly as Blacks.”

      of course white immigrants were oppressed throughout American history. but the oppression of African Americans both before and after slavery was a whole different matter.

      Let’s start by noting that slavery of African Americans was not outlawed in NY State until 1827.

      In 1857, when the police forcibly evicted the residents of Seneca Village, the Fugitive Slave Law was in effect. Blacks in the north, even Blacks who were formerly free, were routinely rounded up by “slave catchers” who returned them to their “masters” in the South. they had no grounds for appeal in Southern courts. no whites were rounded up.

      Property conditions on white males voting in NY State were ended in the 1820s. They continued for Black residents, and as Aberg-Riger notes, only 91 Blacks could pass the restrictions to be eligible to vote in the 1850s — 7/10ths of 1%. Blacks for all practical purposes had no voting rights in NY State til the passage of the 15th amendment in 1870.

      these were only a few of the many special oppressions against African-Americans. In 1863, for example, mass racist “draft riots” in NYC, mainly carried out by Irish American immigrants, killed over 100 African Americans and injured 2,000 more. Black residents fled Manhattan: this was an American pogrom.

      Finally, B.B. has no evidence to show that the evicted residents of Seneca Village were compensated fairly. He says:

      “Though only several hundred to a few thousand dollars, that was still a huge amount of money then. Most likely those who lost their property at SV went on to purchase something elsewhere.”

      As noted in the Aberg-Riger piece, only 10 residents had property worth more than $250 at the time. that comes out to $6,536 today. hardly a huge amount of money. and the vast majority received less.

      https://westegg.com/inflation/

      B..B has no idea whether the residents went on to “purchase somewhere else.” and as Aberg-Riger notes, there were few places where African Americans could safely and legally purchase.

      Central Park was a visionary idea. But let’s not forget that the vision went hand in hand with terrible injustice, with the case of Seneca Village being a prime case in point.

      • B.B. says:

        Do I have concrete proof? No, obviously not, but human behavior tells us that persons who once owned property even if forced to move usually do so again. The concept is almost alien in Manhattan at least because so many persons rent instead of own.

        Perhaps unlike yourself have known about and studied SV long before the WSR piece.

        African American or not New York State laws regarding eminent domain are clear as is the USC. Those whose property was “taken” were entitled to and did receive compensation. Nearly half SV residents were landowners. What do you think they did with that money? Stuffed it under a mattress?

        Then as today there were quibbles over how said land was valued, but that does not change fact you had African Americans who got several hundred to a few thousand dollars for their SV land.

        Late as 1857 or early 1860’s there were still vast areas of NYC including much of Manhattan north of what is now 57th Street and certainly 125th Street) that was still either undeveloped or underdeveloped land including farms and so forth. Then you had Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and Bronx.

        What SV residents lost was their collective community. African Americans wouldn’t get another place to call “their own” until Harlem, Bedford Stuyvesant, and perhaps San Juan Hill (before it was demolished).

        As one stated all this is easily studied by looking at census, tax/property records, voting and birth/death records and other data from the years post 1857. To date no such study IIRC has been done but would easily likely show where at least the property owners of SV went within New York.

    8. Rita Callahan says:

      Tours of Seneca Village are available through the Central Park Conservancy.