The first African American community in New York wasn’t located in Harlem or Crown Heights, Brooklyn. No, in the early 19th century, a section of what we now know as Central Park hosted a settlement of about 260 people, two-thirds of whom were African American. The rest were European immigrants, mainly Irish.
They called this area Seneca Village, and it existed on the west side of the park between 81st and 89th streets from 1825 through 1857. You can find the spot in Central Park if you are conscious, since no sign marks the historical settlement, nor do the rolling hills of green-brown, winter-bare trees, playgrounds and giant boulders give any indication that people lived there.
Not only did they have houses, they worshiped in three separate churches, went to school and were buried in that location. Now, the remnants of the past have been unearthed and are slowly becoming available for public consumption.
“Now we are doing lab work and analyzing the artifacts,” said Nan Rothschild, the excavation leader from Columbia University. “We will figure out what it all means.”
The team behind the exploration is the Institute for the Exploration of Seneca Village History, which includes Rothschild, Cynthia Copeland from New York University, Diana Wall from the City University of New York and about 10 college interns. They focused on two known residential sites in the park, the yard of Nancy Moore and the home of William G. Wilson, a caretaker for the All Angels’ Episcopal Church who had a wife and eight children.
During an eight-week dig last summer, they unearthed the stone foundation of Wilson’s house and found a lot of ceramic pieces, smoking pipes, animal bones, glass and some distinctive things like buttons, a toothbrush handle and a small leather shoe.
But just because they have finished fishing the pieces of Seneca Village out of the dirt doesn’t mean the project is close to done. Now the artifacts mainly reside at Barnard College, where archeologists have cleaned them. Next, said Rothschild, they will catalog, dissect, analyze and put into context what the findings insinuate about life in this community.
“We are tying to find out what it meant to be a middle-class African American community in New York during this time,” she said.
It only took two years for the city of New York to demolish the village after an order of eminent domain took the land from its owners. True, it gave us the marvelous park we enjoy today, but, in an effort to reconnect and tell the history of Seneca Village and the people who called it home, researchers have worked for decades to discover the roots and lifestyles of those people. The initial investigation of Seneca Village started in 1999, but the excavation of the site didn’t commence until 2010 and it finished July 2011.
Though the Seneca Village project won’t change the park, it does give visitors an invite to a life far beyond the glitz and glamor of the Upper West Side.
“In its maintenance and restoration of Central Park, the conservancy wants visitors to get to know and explore the park in as many ways as possible,” said Doug Blonsky, Central Park Conservancy president and Central Park administrator. “Unearthing an important part of both it and New York’s history lets visitors see Central Park from an entirely new angle from before its creation.”
With their research, the team has paid homage to Seneca Village not only in their consideration of the area but by giving lectures and information to anyone interested, including tours of where the community resided.
Seneca Village Events
Seneca Village Tour
Sat. Feb. 18, 2:30 p.m.; free.
Inside Central Park at the West 85th Street entrance.
Unearthing Seneca Village:
New York’s Forgotten History
Feb. 28–March 30; free.
The Tunnel Gallery in Barnard College in the basement of Altschul Hall, 3009 Broadway, 212-854-5262.
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