In honor of Black History Month, each week, PIX11 is featuring a local NYC landmark that honors the stories of African-Americans whose contributions to the five boroughs date back hundreds of years.
While Central Park is one of the most popular spots in New York City, many don’t realize that the area near Central Park’s West 85th Street entrance has a pivotal history.
During the first half of the 19th century, it was home to Seneca Village — a community of African-Americans, many of whom owned property at a time when it was not common.
Q: When did this landmark come to be? What do you think it means to New Yorkers?
Central Park Conservancy: Seneca Village began in 1825, when landowners in the area, John and Elizabeth Whitehead, subdivided their land and sold it as 200 lots. Andrew Williams, a 25-year-old African-American shoe shiner, bought the first three lots for $125. Epiphany Davis, a store clerk, bought 12 lots for $578, and the AME Zion Church purchased another six lots.
From there, a community was born. By the early 1830s, there were approximately 10 homes in what would be known as Seneca Village.
Compared to other African-Americans living in New York, residents of Seneca Village seemed to have been more stable and prosperous. By 1855, approximately half of them owned their own homes.
With property ownership, came other rights not commonly held by African-Americans in the city — namely, the right to vote.
In 1821, New York State required African-American men to own at least $250 in property and hold residency for at least three years to be able to vote. Of the 100 black New Yorkers eligible to vote in 1845, 10 lived in Seneca Village.
Q: What’s one thing about this landmark that most people do not know?
Central Park Conservancy: The site of Seneca Village contains some of the area’s most impressive land forms, including a massive outcrop now known as Summit Rock, the highest point in the Park.
This rock, virtually impossible for Park builders to remove, is a defining feature of the area and would have been quite prominent in the landscape of Seneca Village.
Nearby is a natural spring, called Tanner’s Spring, believed to have been a principal water source for the Village in the 1800s.
Q: How does this landmark tie into Black History Month?
Central Park Conservancy: For African-Americans, Seneca Village offered the opportunity to live in an autonomous community far from the densely populated downtown.
Despite New York State’s abolition of slavery in 1827, discrimination was still prevalent throughout New York City, and severely limited the lives of African-Americans.
Seneca Village’s remote location likely provided a refuge from this climate. It also would have provided an escape from the unhealthy and crowded conditions of NYC.
For more information about the history of the Seneca Village: https://www.centralparknyc.org/articles/how-to-engage-with-the-history-of-seneca-village