Seneca Village: How racism and white supremacy led to the creation of New York City's iconic Central Park

Seneca Village: How racism and white supremacy led to the creation of New York City's iconic Central Park

Before the iconic Central Park was built in New York City, there was a small settlement that comprised mostly of African American people who bought land in the borough of Manhattan, at the current site of the park, in the 1820s.

The Seneca Village settlement was founded in 1825 following the liberation of black people after years of slavery. It was the first community of its kind in the city and was also inhabited by several other minority communities that included Irish and German immigrants. There were possibly some Native Americans as well.

This now-forgotten settlement was located on around five acres of land that was approximately bounded by 82nd and 89th Streets and Seventh and Eighth Avenues. At its peak, the community consisted of more than 220 people.

Central Park used to be the site of a large African American community called Seneca Village (Source: Trent Szmolnik/Unsplash)

Seneca Village, as it was called, was built by African Americans who were the first to settle in the area. The very first landowners were either members or, or affiliated with, the African Episcopal Methodist Zion Church, a prominent African American church in the Downtown area. The church had also bought plots of land for a burial ground.

Marie Warsh, a historian at the Central Park Conservancy, told MEA WorldWide (MEAWW) that African Americans started buying their own property in the area over a period of time. "Researchers believed that African Americans began settling in the area, which was then over three miles from the developed part of the city, in part to escape the racist climate and crowded and unhealthy conditions of Lower Manhattan," Warsh said.

She added that the opportunity for these marginalized people to buy their own property in the area was important because a state law from 1821 required that African American citizens own their own property valued at $250 in order to vote.


Irish immigrants who moved to the area did so in 1840 and by 1855, census records showed that there were approximately 225 people living in Seneca Village.

It was predominantly an African American community with one-third of the population being of Irish descent and a small number of German descent.

Seneca Village highlighted in black (Source: National Park Service)

"Seneca Village had approximately 50 homes, three churches, and one school. A local spring supplied fresh water and there is some evidence that residents had gardens and raised livestock. Approximately half of the African American population in Seneca Village owned their homes, making it the largest community of African American property owners in 19th century New York City," Warsh told MEAWW.


All this new progress after being freed from slavery would soon start turning sour for the residents of Seneca Village.

As the number of residents living in the area started to grow, journalists and supporters of a movement to build a park in the same area began to spread rumors about the land.

Journalists and park supporters described the entire area, which was so slated for the park, as a swampy wasteland that was inhabited by squatters. This degrading characterization is definitely reflected by the racist attitudes and the general bias towards the less fortunate.

Others, though, stepped up and said that Seneca Village was a "neat settlement" compared to the other areas of the park, particularly those inhabited by the Irish immigrants, who were pig farmers.

Dr. Angela Jones, associate professor of sociology at Farmingdale State College, told MEAWW: "The history of Seneca Village is a story about White supremacy—a story of racialized housing discrimination and gentrification."


African American people were able to "carve out an autonomous space" and were able to build a "thriving community".

Dr. Jones says that they did this to escape the racial violence and discrimination that they faced even after being freed from their shackles. It wasn't long before the dream community of African Americans was shattered when they "lost their community, as well as their homes, to White supremacist governmental policies," according to Dr. Jones. 

(Source: Hector Argüello Canals/Unsplash)

All of the people living in the area were forced to leave their properties for the purpose of building a park through the process of eminent domain.

Owners of all these properties were compensated, according to Warsh, but those who were renting out some of the properties were not.


She said: "Research has traced some residents to other parts of the city and even other states such as New Jersey. Research is currently underway to locate decedents."

The creation of what is now Central Park is what resulted in the dissolution of Seneca Village. According to Warsh, the New York State legislature authorized the use of eminent domain, which was a power that a government had to take private land for public use, after compensating the landowner. The historian said: "Ultimately all residents were forced to leave by the end of 1857 and dispersed."

Dr. Jones said that, when it came to exercising the eminent domain, political stakeholders at the time considered and weighed the "value" of the existing land along with that of the proposed project of the park. She said: "In this case, as is also the case with contemporary gentrification, communities consisting of people of color are not valued, are deemed expendable, and are displaced."

This was all done just so that affluent White Americans could have a park. Dr. Jones concluded: "The history of Seneca Village is only a microcosm of a much longer story about the entanglements of White supremacy and capitalism, and the harm these systems cause Black folks."


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