Seneca Village may possibly have been Manhattan’s first stable community of African American property owners. Located from 81st to 89th Streets between Seventh and Eighth Avenues in what is now a section of Central Park, the village is important part of the history of New York City.
Although the reason for the name “Seneca Village” is unknown, recent historical and geophysical research has uncovered a great deal of information about this unique community and its inhabitants. Beginning in 1825 parcels of land were sold to individuals and to members of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church possibly the largest church of black people in the New York City. Within a few years the community developed into a stable settlement of over 250 working-class people, with African Americans owning more than half the households in the village – an unusually high percentage of property ownership for any New York community. The presence of an abundant natural spring near 82nd Street would have provided the fresh drinking water necessary for the maintenance and stability of a large community. Two African Methodist churches, the African Union Methodist and the AME Zion (today, known as Mother AME Zion) were constructed in the village near 85th Street. Their congregations were composed entirely of African Americans. Colored School No. 3, one of the few black schools in New York City, had been established in the 1840s and was housed in the basement of the African Union Methodist Church. All Angels’ Church, an affiliate of St. Michael’s on Broadway at 99th Street, was built in 1849. It had a racially integrated congregation of African Americans from Seneca Village and Irish and German parishioners living in the village and within a mile of the church.
By the 1850s, Seneca Village had also gained many Irish and German immigrant families. There were also several large cemeteries affiliated with churches. In 1853, the state legislature authorized the use of “eminent domain,” the taking of private property for public purposes. This public acquisition of private land to create a major public park in the City of New York began in 1856, and at the time encompassed the land from 59th to 106th Streets between Fifth and Eighth Avenues. Those owners living within the boundaries of the proposed park were compensated for their property, though many protests were filed in New York State Supreme Court, as is often the case with eminent domain, when owners contest the amount of settlement.
In total, approximately 1,600 people who owned, lived, or worked on the 843-acre tract of land had to move when the Park was created. The residents and institutions of Seneca Village did not reestablish their long-standing community in another location. A recent archeological dig by CUNY and Columbia University professors and their assistants revealed stone foundation walls and myriad artifacts, including what appeared to be an iron tea kettle, a roasting pan, a stoneware beer bottle fragments of Chinese export porcelain, and a small shoe with a leather sole and fabric upper.