There was a supremely wonderful moment in my life when I lived on 86th Street and Central Park West in New York City. With one of the world’s most famous parks thirty steps from my door, I never felt the pain of life without a backyard: the holy grail of apartment amenities in an urban setting. On sunny days, I escaped my tiny, shoebox-like apartment and sat under my favorite tree in the park, located on a hill near 85th Street. It was paradise.
Little did I know that my rump sat firmly on undiscovered history. After thirteen years of jumping through red tape, three universities recently received permission to excavate on that very spot in Central Park, where historians and anthropologists have confirmed the existence of an early 19th century African American community, settled just a few years before slavery was abolished in New York. Rarely does an excavation yield objects that tell such a specific story of our recent social history.
The families that settled Seneca Village were New York’s first major group of African American property owners. “To ensure that they were worthy of suffrage, black men could only vote if they owned $250 in real estate,” says Leslie Harris, associate professor of history and African-American studies at Emory University. “[L]and was critical for full citizenship.” Historians initially assumed that Seneca Village was a mostly poverty-stricken squatter camp. Yet when the initial finds of the excavation revealed the walls of a three-story home that once belonged to porter and sexton William Godfrey Wilson, they knew Seneca was an organized community.
“[Seneca Village] was laid out in a grid pattern and had three churches and a school,” anthropology professor Nan A. Rothschild told The New York Times. The settlement was filled with large families and skilled workers, among them a teacher, grocer, midwife, sailor and a porter. Because Seneca was far removed from the filthy, overcrowded, and crime-ridden slums of lower Manhattan, German and Irish immigrants were also attracted to the settlement. “Black and white worshiped together at the All Angels’ Church and were buried together in its cemetery,” according to The History Blog. “The one village midwife, Margaret Geery, delivered African American babies and Irish and German babies alike.”
In the 1840s, New York City had become so crowded that people held picnics in the local cemeteries. Several prominent figures successfully argued for the construction of a public park. By the time Central Park opened in 1857, Seneca Village had vanished. Claiming eminent domain, New York City forced the African American community to abandon their property, making room for the construction of Central Park. A report from the New York Daily Times on July 9, 1856 further explains: “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.”
The Seneca Village Project excavation site yielded enough artifacts for a lifetime of study. Buttons, cookware, a toothbrush, and pottery shards are among the fragments collected by the team of professors and their students. Each discovery provided a small window into the lives of the displaced community, a process that affected many of the archeologists. For student Madeline Landry, an unearthed shoe added to the intimacy of the moment, saying, “That shoe fit someone who walked around here.” For New York University professor Cynthia R. Copeland, finding a few marbles was a profound moment. “They reminded me that children were there,” she said. “These material objects bring the community back and allow them the dignity that they probably didn’t have when they left.”
As a respite from urban chaos, Central Park has been important to the lives of many New Yorkers. With the discovery of these abandoned belongings, the park has now become a testament to an entire culture, granting a sense of legitimacy to the history of African Americans in early New York. As student Madeleine Landry commented, “It’s been a unique privilege to be part of the effort to set the record straight.”