The time was 1825, and the place was a New York farmland located between 83rd to 89th Streets and Seventh and Eighth Avenues, and what is now known as the Upper West Side. John and Elizabeth Whitehead (go figure) decided to put their property of five (very long) blocks and two avenues long farmland on the market for sale.
The first person to buy a lot (actually three lots) of the property for a house was a 25-year-old boot polisher who purchased the three lots for $125.00. His name was Andrew Williams, the first African-American landowner in New York of what would be later called Seneca Village. Not even a day later 12 lots was purchased by an African-American man for $578.00, and in just over a week six lots were purchased by the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.
Thus began the creation of Seneca Village, a community of free black slave middle class home and land owners, that the press in New York at that time (The New York Tribune & The Sun) in the 1800’s called “Nigger Village” despite that the fact that some white Irish and German immigrants settled there as well. German and Irish immigrants at the time was frowned down on and treated little better than freed blacks. While the village was mostly black, the few white residents lived in harmony with the free slaves of Seneca and they shared all of their resources with each other; which included a church, an Irish midwife that delivered babies for the whole town, and Colored School #3 that was in the basement of the church.
By 1855 according to the census, Seneca Village was home to over 250 people with a total of 70 houses. Owning a house in Seneca Village meant more to African-American men when New York State in 1821 mandated that black men would be eligible to vote only if they lived in New York for three years, and own at least $250.00 in property. In 1855 there was 2,000 African-Americans in New York and only 100 out of them was eligible to vote, of those 100 only 10 lived in Seneca Village. 50% of African Americans living in Seneca Village owned their own land, which was 5 times the average ownership rate of the whole of New York residents.
This thriving African-American village created the first middle class of black New Yorker’s, but after only some 32 years it became doomed as New York legislature used eminent domain to take over 800 acres to build Central Park and by 1857 Seneca Village and over 1,600 other people was evicted and the Village destroyed.
The Tragedy of this historic and important community was forgotten for over a century, until a book in 1992 published by Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar: “The Park and the People”: A History of Central Park, and in 1997 The New York Historical Society opened an exhibition of the history of the village for Black History month in 2001, while the city erected a plaque as a memorial to the tragic village on 85th Street and Central Park West by the entrance of Mariners Gate.
All of this led to the creation of the “The Seneca Village Project” which led to an excavation of the village in 2011 where artifacts of the former village were dug up. Forgotten no more in 1998 The Institute for the Exploration of Seneca Village History was created led by archaeologists and scholars has resurrected the memory of this once great African-American middle class community!
Imagine if that great village was allowed to exist to the present day! Would the Upper West Side be much different from it is now? You bet! Think of an affluent black neighborhood between 85th and 89th Street on seventh and Eighth Avenues!
Let us never forget Seneca village!