Fact Check: Black Americans Once Owned Manhattan’s Central Park

Fact Check: Black Americans Once Owned Manhattan’s Central Park

Central Park

Fact Check: Black Americans Once Owned Manhattan’s Central Park Photo: New York's Central Park is seen from the air in winter, with Fifth Avenue at right, Central Park West opposite, and the Reservoir in the background near top, March 1968. The Hudson River can be seen at far left in the background. (AP Photo)

Central Park is among the most valuable real estate in New York City. In 2005, the 843 acres of land were estimated to be worth a whopping $528 billion and a large portion of the land was once owned by Black Americans.

In the 1820s, before there was a Central Park, part of the land was called Seneca Village, a vibrant community of free African Americans.

Seneca Village stretched from what is now West 83rd to 89th Streets in Manhattan. It had a population of 225 people and who built churches, a school and dozens of homes, NY1 reported.

The village wasn’t entirely Black. Historians believe about a third of the population was Irish. There was also a small number of individuals of German descent, the Central Park Conservancy reported.

Seneca Village began in 1825 when a wealthy white couple, John and Elizabeth Whitehead, subdivided their land and sold it as 200 lots. A 25-year-old African-American shoeshiner named Andrew Williams bought the first three lots for $125. Store Clerk Epiphany Davis purchased 12 lots for $578, and the AME Zion Church purchased another six lots. From there a community flourished.

Between 1825 and 1832, the Whiteheads sold about half of their land parcels to other African Americans. By the early 1830s, there were about 10 homes owned by Black people in the village. 

The residents of Seneca Village seem to have been more stable and prosperous than other African Americans living in New York. By 1855, approximately half of Seneca Village’s Black residents owned their own homes.

After just 32 years, Seneca Village ceased to exist. The city took over the land through eminent domain to create a park for its growing population. Eminent domain is the government giving itself permission to take over private property for public use, with payment of compensation. Eminent domain was used in the early 1920s in California to take an area of the now-affluent Manhattan Beach from a Black couple, Willa and Charles Bruce. They had operated a beachfront business that became known as Bruce’s Beach. Earlier this month, the state of California returned the property to their descendants.

The residents of Seneca Village were forced to leave their property by the end of 1857.

“It was not just the land that was lost, it was the community and the feeling of community,” Rev. Audrey Williamson of Mother AME Zion Church in Harlem told cable news TV channel NY1. Nearly two centuries ago, AME Zion Church was in Seneca Village. “To think that our ancestors were here, this was their ground, this was where maybe some children played, this is where they worshiped,” added Williamson. “To be able to connect here to where we are now and to what we’re doing now is just a gift.”

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The story of Seneca Village was all but lost until 1992 when history professors Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar resurrected it in their book “The Park and the People: A History of Central Park.” Soon after, a New York Historical Society exhibition on Seneca Village prompted the society to create a curriculum that brought the story into New York City classrooms, The New York Times reported.  

In 2011, archaeologists from Columbia University and the City University of New York conducted a site dig and uncovered artifacts from Seneca Village. Among the artifacts were such items as 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. These items helped piece together what life may have been like for the village’s residents.

“The destruction of Seneca Village foreshadowed the urban renewal craze of the 1960s when the country embraced an explicit policy of labeling vibrant working-class areas ‘slums’ to justify tearing them down,” The New York Times reported. “Historians who are trying to reconstruct the full story of New York City’s black utopia — and find descendants of the dispossessed — could yet tell us more about what the 19th-century city was really like.”