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Seneca Village: New York’s First Black Property Owning Community

Whose perspectives represent a city’s story? Who gets to shape the public perception and legacy of a city’s communities? Which voices are left out when land, architecture, and public space are changed by the government?

In 1824, the odds were stacked against the formation of free black communities in New York City. New York finally abolished slavery in 1827 (one of the last northern states to do so) but free black New Yorkers would still face systemic barriers that made social advancement nearly impossible. 

Even after free black men could get jobs and own property here, they were barred from most skill-based trades. They couldn’t vote unless they had over $250 worth of property, which very few did. Black institutions were attacked constantly, and fugitive slaves were vulnerable to capture. Most of New York City’s population was settled downtown. 

Meanwhile, a white couple named Elizabeth and John Whitehead purchased farmland way uptown. Their plan was to sell it in plots. On September 27, 1825, a young black man, Andrew Williams, purchased 3 lots for $125. Then, an AME Zion church purchased 6 lots to use as a cemetery, as people of color were prohibited from being buried in most public cemeteries. One of the church’s trustees then bought 12 lots for $578. Thus, between 83rd and 89th Streets near 8th Avenue (now Central Park West), Seneca Village was born.

For the next 33 years, Seneca Village would remain New York’s first and largest community of black property owners. By 1855, Seneca Village residents constituted 1% of the city’s black population, but 20% of its black property owners.

Roughly 300 people lived in Seneca Village. The residents built three churches (AME Zion, African Union Methodist, and All Angels), a school, and several burial grounds. In the summer of 1834, black New Yorkers in downtown Manhattan suffered three brutal days of violence and racial terrorism when a white mob ravaged the city. They burned down black churches, housing, and white institutions that showed sympathy for free blacks. The residents of Seneca Village remained uptown in their enclave, not directly impacted by the violence.         

Mary Joseph Lyons and Albro Lyons, two Seneca village residents who will soon be highlighted in an historical monument in Central Park, were members of the free black elite in New York. Albro graduated the African Free School (among his fellow alumni is James McCune Smith!) and, with Mary, became a conductor on the Underground Railroad. As black activists in New York, they’d want to stay away from Lower Manhattan; racial terrorism in New York may have been one of their incentives in buying property uptown. Other black activists at the time (ex. Arthur and Lewis Tappan) were constantly victims of violent crime downtown. Many were forced to move to Brooklyn, or further uptown, to avoid it. 

The Lyons’ family’s Boarding-House for black sailors (the cover operation for their Underground Railroad station) was central to the network of people and safe houses that helped enslaved people escape to their freedom in, and through, New York.

         And Seneca Village was a thriving community for decades. Residents of the village had an idea of different races living, worshiping, dying, and being buried together. Irish immigrants and other white New Yorkers were welcomed to attend church in Seneca Village, and there was a sense of mutual respect amongst the entire community. But in 1853, New York City announced a “Public Place” being built between 59th and 106th Streets, between 5th and 8th avenues; Seneca Village was being seized by eminent domain. 

1,600 people were evicted and displaced, among them: the residents of Seneca Village. James Baldwin would later call this eviction “Negro removal” in a discussion of the way the city and its newspapers shifted the public perception of Seneca Village in order to maintain support for the Central Park project. Often when a city clears land through eminent domain, the impacted area is represented as a slum, or something needing improvement. Similarly, Seneca Village was popularly defamed as a “shantytown” and misrepresented in the historical accounts that do exist of this flourishing, self-sustaining community. 

As Mayor de Blasio and the Central Park Conservancy rethink the monuments for the park, they have taken the opportunity to amplify the story of Seneca Village through several plaques and statues commemorating the Lyons. Is this an act of revising history? Who is responsible? How might other cities critically questions the stories they elevate, and who gets to tell them?