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African-American Community Thrived Where Central Park Stands

By Leslie Albrecht | July 28, 2011 10:12pm | Updated on July 29, 2011 10:09am
A historical map of Seneca Village.
A historical map of Seneca Village.
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Landmark West

UPPER WEST SIDE — On Thursday afternoon, picnickers and sunbathers basked in Central Park's greenery near West 85th Street, but 160 years ago, the spot was home to a thriving, predominantly African-American village that was torn down to make way for the park.

An eight-week archaeological dig this summer has shed new light on the community, Seneca Village, which existed from the 1820s to the 1850s and was home to close to 300 people at its height.

The village, thought to be the first community of African-American property owners in New York, spanned from West 81st to 89th street, between Seventh and Eighth avenues (now Central Park West).

Also home to Irish and German immigrant families, Seneca Village had three churches and a school, all of which were demolished in 1857 so the city could build Central Park.

Professors from Barnard College, City College of New York, Columbia University and NYU teamed up to lead a group of student archaeologists, who burrowed into the soil to recover artifacts from the village.

Researchers already had some information about Seneca Village, because surveyors mapped the area before the city razed it. A census and other records of the time showed the names and occupations of families who lived in the village.

The excavation unearthed more clues about their daily lives. Among the finds were a roasting pan that looked like something out of a modern-day kitchen, a beer bottle, a shoe that probably belonged to a small woman or child, and pieces of tobacco pipes.

Researchers also uncovered the stone foundation of a three-story house where William G. Wilson, the sexton from All Angels Church, lived with his wife Charlotte and eight children. All Angels was the missionary parish of St. Michael's Church, which still stands on West 99th Street and Columbus Avenue.

Some discoveries were intriguing, said Cynthia Copeland, an education professor at NYU and public historian who co-directed the dig. Archaeologists found large amounts of animal bones underneath households headed by women, which suggests that women were butchering their own meat, Copeland said.

The excavation officially ends Friday. On Thursday, intern Victor Luna scooped soil samples out of a pit in the hopes of finding seeds that would reveal what vegetables the villagers grew.

Luna, a 22-year-old anthropology major at City College who grew up in The Bronx, said the dig was an eye-opening experience.

"I'm from the city and I never imagined that people actually lived here," Luna said. "To me, it's always been a park. To find out that this was a successful, mostly African-American community was amazing. It's a part of history that's not really taught."

Some of the finds, such as candlesticks and delicate porcelain, suggest that the families of Seneca Village were solidly middle class, not working class, as many assumed, Copeland said.

"It all suggests that these were very resourceful people," Copeland said. "We've got proof now that this was a hearty group."

As the archaeological team dug into Central Park's soil this summer, curious joggers and bikers would sometimes stop to ask questions. Some were dimly aware of Seneca Village, but mistakenly assumed it was a slave village, shantytown or Native American settlement, Copeland said.

"They expected to hear about Irish or Germans," Copeland said. "But they were shocked to hear about African-Amercicans living here, let alone property owners who were free."