The Forgotten Ones: The Inhabitants of Seneca Village

By: Don Courter and Chelsie Riche

Introduction

We do not know much about Seneca Village, a community destroyed when Central Park was built. Not much is known of the first-hand accounts about the people who occupied the community, except for a few news stories that were written throughout the mid-1850s and early 1900s. A few news articles tell us something about Seneca Village and the People who lived there, but contemporary reports portrayed Seneca Village in a negative light, and characterized the village as a “wasteland” and its inhabitants as “squatters” “shanties” “insects” and “bloodsuckers.”1 Seneca Village was portrayed as a place of disease, crimes, and poverty. It is within this context that many believed the establishment of Central Park was necessary.

Figure 1

 

Figure 2

Class Formations in Seneca Village

In comparison with other African American communities in NYC, Seneca Village represented a more well-off section of the black community. Most of Seneca Village’s residents could be defined as “middle class” because “the people of Seneca Village…had deeper roots in the state of New York.”4 Seneca Village differed from other African American communities, such as Little Africa, in that these other communities primarily served as first stop locations for blacks fleeing the Jim Crow south to New York. While the income disparity between Seneca Village and communities like Little Africa seem to suggest that residents of Seneca Village had better jobs, records suggest that “the men of Seneca Village appear[ed] no more likely to work in skilled jobs than their counterparts in Little Africa.”5 In fact, most people from Seneca Village worked unskilled labor-intensive jobs while people from Little Africa worked primarily service-based jobs because “the men of Little Africa, unlike those of Seneca Village, lived close to the homes of the wealthy families that could employ them.”6 The combination of these socio economic characteristics in Seneca Village resulted in the formation of a black middle class in New York City.

African American Struggles and the Salvation of Seneca Village

The African American struggle for equal opportunities and political representation spans over the entirety of American history. Amidst the innumerable societal disadvantages that black Americans faced emerged an enclave of relative success in New York City — Seneca Village. Before the emancipation of New York City slaves in 1827, “no part of the colonial North relied more heavily on slavery than Manhattan.”7 Although African Americans built New York City, they continued to face political, economic, and social discrimination after emancipation. Most significant were the differing voter qualifications for blacks of equal socio economic status to whites. African Americans in New York City most commonly worked in service based jobs meaning they were “dependent on the master of the house for political protection and unable to vote.”8 However, Seneca Village contained blacks primarily employed in manual labor — exempting them from service worker discrimination. African Americans, unlike whites of the same social class, also had to struggle with “more stringent property and residency requirements for voting” which required property ownership amounting to $250 in value.9 Fortunately for African Americans living in Seneca Village, “over half of the 22 heads of African American households who lived in the village in 1850 owned real estate…forming one-fifth of the population of 71 African American property owners who were listed in the census that year for the entire city.”10 Due to Seneca Village’s high concentration of property owners and day laborers, African Americans residing there formed a middle class in the heart of New York City and triumphed over much structural discrimination aimed at oppressing them.

Portrayal of Seneca Village in the Media

Seneca Villlage (picture)

Figure 3: Illustration, sketched by D.E. Wyand, Harper’s Weekly (1869)

What then became of the people of Seneca Village when Central Park was being constructed? What became of their stories? Most of the news stories relating to Seneca Village during the 1850s and early 1920’s, portrayed Seneca Village and its people as low lives. As reported by the New York Daily Times, “within the limits of the Central Park, lies a neat little settlement, known as ‘Nigger Village.’ the Ebon inhabitants, after whom the village is called, present a pleasing contrast in their habits and the appearance of their dwellings to the Celtics occupants, in common with hogs and goats, of the shanties in the lower part of the Park.”11 By comparing African Americans to animals such as “hogs and goats” and calling them “Niggers” and “shanties” shows how African Americans were dehumanized as lesser than.

It can be argued that the media presented Seneca Village in a negative light because they wanted to justify the removal of the people in order to create the park. The fear of poverty, crime, and diseases created quite the controversy, and many news outlets used that to further their agenda to gain support. For instance, in 1856, New York Daily Times, a very melodramatic article entitled “The Present Look at Our Central Park,” in which it states (relating to those who live in Seneca Village) that “If some of the hogs, goats, and other inmates of the shanties in this vicinity do not die of the yellow fever this Summer, it will only be because Death himself hesitates to enter such dirty hovels.”12  This exaggerated description of Seneca Village as “dirty hovels” was quite common in news outlets that supported the destruction of homes for the creation of the park.

Resistance in Seneca Village

As removal began to occur in the late 1850s and early 1860s, the people who occupied the village tried to fight but failed. It was reported by the New York Times that “there was much opposition and even hand-to-hand conflict with the police.”13 “The squatters were enrages, and gangs of them would waylay the officers of the law and pelt them with stones and other crude weapons.”14  New York Daily Times reported tension continued as “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.”15 During the autumn of 1857, three hundred dwellings were removed or demolished, by the Commissioners of Central Park, together with several factories, and numerous swill-milk and hog-feeding establishments.16 Some people were paid to vacate their homes, while others were simply pushed out of Seneca Village. However, “Some complian that the awards made them are not equal to what, in justice they are entitled.”17 Thus, with the creation of Central Park, those that worked hard to create their own community, eventually became voiceless, and were forced out of their communities. 

Conclusion

We have learned that Seneca Village was once a place occupied by African Americans who sought to make a life for themselves in creating their own community. Unfortunately, there are not any first-hand accounts from the people who occupied the village; we do not know how they spent their everyday lives, or what their occupations were, and what type of people inhabited the area. Nonetheless, what we do know are the news stories that represented Seneca Village and its inhabitants in a negative light in order to justify the destruction of the community. We know that building the park meant destroying Seneca Village. There are signs about it now, but it’s hard to imagine a thriving community in the middle of the place that is now Central Park. These people were left voiceless in making a choice (of whether they wanted to sell their land for the creation of Central Park or keep their legacy), and hence, they became the forgotten ones.

Discussion Questions

1. How did the media play an integral role in the destruction of Seneca Village?

2. What happened to the people after their homes were destroyed? Where did they go?

3. Why do you think that the people of Seneca Village are not mentioned or talked about in History?


Primary Sources

1. N-YHS Education Department, “A Teacher’s Guide to Using Primary Sources in the Classroom: Seneca Village,” (New York: New York History Society, 2010) 4.

2. “The Present Look at Our Central Park,” New York Daily Times, July 9, 1856

3. “The Present Look at Our Central Park,” New York Daily Times, July 9, 1856

4. Diana DiZerega Wall, Nan A. Rothschild and Cynthia Copeland, “Seneca Village and Little Africa: Two African American Communities in Antebellum New York City,” (Historical Archaeology) 2008. 99.

5. “Seneca Village and Little Africa: Two African Communities in Antebellum New York City.” 100.

6. “Seneca Village and Little Africa: Two African Communities in Antebellum New York City.” 101.

7. Leslie M. Harris, “Slavery, Emancipation, and Class Formation in Colonial and Early National New York City.” (Journal of Urban History. 2004) 339.

8. “Slavery, Emancipation, and Class Formation in Colonial and Early National New York City.” 349.

9. “Seneca Village and Little Africa: Two African Communities in Antebellum New York City.” 97.

10. “Seneca Village and Little Africa: Two African Communities in Antebellum New York City.” 99.

11. “The Present Look at Our Central Park,” New York Daily Times (July 9, 1856)

12.“The Present Look at Our Central Park,” New York Daily Times, (July 9, 1856)

13. “Central Park ‘Squatter Days,'” New York Times, (May 6, 1928)

14. “Central Park ‘Squatter Days,'” New York Times, (May 6, 1928)

15. “The Present Look at Our Central Park,” New York Daily Times, (July 9, 1856)

16. “Second Annual Report of the Board of Commissioners of the Central Park” (New York: WM.C. Bryant & Co, 1859) 60.

17. “City Items: Central Park Lands,” “New York Daily Tribune, (May 28, 1856)

fig. 1 -“Shanty” at Fifth Avenue and 94th Street, 1888. Collection of the New-York Historical Society.

fig. 2 – “Irish Road Construction Crew” Harper’s Weekly. http://www.ashp.cuny.edu/video/ffive-6.html