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Course: For teachers > Unit 2

Lesson 3: Go deeper: oppression and resistance

Seneca Village: the lost history of African Americans in New York

Seneca Village was a vibrant African American and Irish community in the 1800s, now buried under Central Park. This forgotten village, discovered through artifacts and records, offers a glimpse into New York's early history, highlighting the city's deep ties with slavery and the struggle for African American rights. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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  • purple pi purple style avatar for user Residuum
    First off, thank you for informing me of something I've never even heard of. This is a depressing and lost piece of american history that more people should know about.
    Did the evicted people get any compensation from the government that evicted them? And was there any push back from the people living there? Or the people of the city? I can't imagine pushing at least 250 people into poverty went over well with everybody.
    (4 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user drszucker
      Money was paid to landowners though it should be noted that there were complaints that the payments were below actual value - the market may have been artificially low due to a banking crisis. If I remember correctly there were newspaper accounts that force was used to evict those residents who refused to leave.
      (7 votes)
  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user EvaLorae
    How come you never see the people who are taking on here .🤔🤔🤔
    (3 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      They are humble people, believing that the things they are sharing with us are more important than what they look like when they are sharing them. If you would like to see them, you can google them up by name. There's a wonderful video of Beth Harris and Stephen Zucker talking about starting Smarthistory. I recommend it highly. You'll see them as they are.
      (6 votes)
  • blobby blue style avatar for user lilhuddy
    The narrator says that the New Yorkers were thinking of a ‘greater good’ when the wanted to build their park and did so by putting thousands out on the street. I cannot see how they were thinking of any greater good, they wanted their city too look nice, the decided on a park, then they decided to get rid of a problem that had been troubling them for years (the Seneca Village). Kill two birds with one stone, build a park and get rid of the slaves who really shouldn’t have houses anyways. I don’t think that they were thinking of any good cause
    (5 votes)
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  • male robot hal style avatar for user Joey Simon
    Slavery is still happening today all of the time. It's just hushed up.
    (3 votes)
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  • leaf blue style avatar for user ozyo the unfunny
    what exactly is the definition of seneca? where does the word originate from?
    (1 vote)
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Video transcript

(happy jazz music) - [Dr.Zucker] We're in Central Park surrounded by beautiful old trees, by lawns, playgrounds, rock outcroppings of Manhattan's schist. A reminder of the glacier that once towered over this area. All landmarks that New Yorkers know well. What is less known is that just below our feet are the traces of Seneca Village. - [Dr.Wall] Seneca village was an African American and Irish community, that was founded in the mid 1820's and it continued to exist until the park was created in the 1850's everybody was evicted from their homes in Seneca Village in 1857. - [Dr.Zucker] Which is why very few people know about it's existence now in the 21st century. - [Dr.Wall] We've been working on a project to discover the history of Seneca Village and to give Seneca Village it's place in history, which has been almost forgotten. - [Dr.Zucker] Seneca Village is especially important when you consider the place of African Americans in New York's early history, going all the way back to the Dutch Settlement but also as the English took over and in the post Revolutionary era. - [Dr.Wall] I think a lot of us assume that the African American presence began with the great migration in the early 20th century, however the first African Americans arrived here in the mid 1620's with the Dutch colonists and African Americans have had a strong presence ever since. - [Dr.Zucker] Many people forget that there was slavery here, that much of New York was built with enslaved labor. - [Dr.Wall] We had slavery here in New York until 1827 when emancipation finally was completed. - [Dr.Zucker] In fact sadly slavery continued in New York until 1841. - [Dr.Wall] After 1827 when emancipation was completed for New Yorkers, it was still possible if you were a slave owner from out of state to bring your slaves as property into the state until 1841. - [Dr.Zucker] New York because it became the financial center of the United States, had important financial ties to the South and to slavery, so much of the wealth that came into New York was derived from slave labor. - [Dr.Wall] So many of the merchants in New York city depended on crops that were grown in the South, cotton in other words, to export to England for the mills. - [Dr.Zucker] Which makes it all the more important to retrieve the history of African Americans in New York City. - [Dr.Wall] To realize that it's something that is deeply embedded in the city's history. - [Dr.Zucker] But not that deeply embedded below our feet, the traces of Seneca Village, the traces of this African American settlement in what was then a rural area north of New York City, what is now Central Park, is just a few feet below the soil. This had been a farm that was parceled out soon after the Commissioners' plan, what is known as the Grid Plan of New York was laid out. Individual parcels for individual houses were set out for sale. - [Dr.Wall] Those parcels were sold in some cases to African Americans, there were a lot of land owners in the city who would not sell land to African Americans so this provided an enormous opportunity. - [Dr.Zucker] The purchase of land not only bought you a piece of property, one also was purchasing the right to vote. - [Dr.Wall] There was an amendment to the New York State Constitution, that said that if you were an African American male you would be able to vote if you owned $250 or more property and if you had resided in New York for more than three years. - [Dr.Zucker] And of course you had to be male. - [Dr.Wall] And we also think that it was a black middle class community. - [Dr.Zucker] We know for example that skilled tradesmen worked here, we've identified one of the inhabitants as a cooper, that is as a man who made barrels. - [Dr.Wall] To be a member of the American middle class one had to have a job which did not involve manual labor. That was not true for African Americans because African Americans were discriminated against to such an extent that they didn't have that possibility. - [Dr.Zucker] And so perhaps it was another value in having a village that was at some distance from the settled area lower on Manhattan Island. - [Dr.Wall] The village allowed the Seneca villagers to have a controlled peaceful community of their own away from that harassment. - [Dr.Zucker] And it wasn't just homes, there were numerous churches, there was at least one school and several graveyards, this was a true community. By the mid century, the increasing density of the urban population in lower Manhattan, had propelled this idea that New York in order to become one of the great cities of the world should have a public park. The problem was, there were people living in the area where the park was to be built, including Seneca Village, and so the state of New York used it's legal power. It's powers of eminent domain, to condemn the properties within the boundaries of the park and to evict the residents. - [Dr.Wall] And they did that with the idea of creating something for the greater good, but of course for the people who were evicted it was completely tragic and coincidentally at the time was a moment when there was a horrible economic depression in New York. It was a very hard time to lose your home and to have to start over again. - [Dr.Zucker] We know from census records that there were more than 250 people that lived in Seneca Village at it's height and this included not only African Americans but also European immigrants. - [Dr.wall] At the time that everybody had to move two thirds of the population was African American but one third of it was of European descent, mostly Irish. - [Dr.Zucker] And this makes sense because this is in the years immediately after the Potato Famine and the great wave of immigrants that left Ireland for the US. What I find most troubling is that the very memory of the village was virtually lost. - [Dr.Wall] Until the very late 1980's and early 1990's Seneca Village was gone from popular memory. - [Dr.Zucker] So it's only towards the end of the 20th century that the memory of Seneca Village is resurrected and thanks to the field work that you and your team undertook, we can much more accurately locate that history in place and with artifacts. - [Dr.Wall] The artifacts that we found are really important because we can imagine the people of Seneca Village having their meals, we can look at their dishes and see that they were similar in terms of their patterns to people of European descent and how they were different. - [Dr.Zucker] So by locating the foundations of the homes, of the churches, of the remains of the graveyards by locating some of the artifacts, these allow us to reinsert this important chapter of American history back into our cultural consciousness. - [Dr.Wall] To make African Americans part of the larger narrative of American history. (happy jazz music)