The Destruction of a Black New York Community

Tianne Johnson

Before there was Central Park, there was Seneca Village — Manhattan’s first prominent community of African-American property owners. Located between Seventh and Eighth Avenue, from 81st to 89th Streets, this was a community of approximately 264 people — mostly African Americans. However, this town was razed and rightful citizens were wrongly forced out of their community and into a state of unresolved quandary.

In 1851, due to a push to introduce open park spaces in New York City, Mayor Ambrose Kingsland ruled to have a park implemented in the huge stretch of land between what is now 59th Street and 106th Street. This chunk of land was home to many settlements of African-American landowners — the most distinguished being Seneca Village. Under the law of eminent domain, the power of the government to take private land for public purposes, Kingsland managed to carry out this plan to build Central Park by 1854. Prior to this undertaking, many blacks purchased land in Seneca Village because, at the time, land ownership provided political advantages such as allowing black men who owned at least $250 worth of property to vote. Many notable abolitionists owned land in Seneca Village, such as Albro Lyons and Levin Smith. Seneca Village was their megaphone: their way of ensuring their voices were heard.

Despite a majority of the Seneca Village population having ownership of the land they lived on, they were labeled with microaggressions such as “squatters,” and their community as “n***er village.” After protests, about 250 residents of Seneca Village were forced to evict their homes with little to no compensation. With issues such as hikes in property value, segregation in schools, lack of voting rights and the absence of their once structured community, these people struggled to regain the property and middle class status they once had. The community was torn apart. The act of uprooting communities and dividing them into circumstances of uncertainty is a moral flaw acted by communities’ majorities. Sadly, this process of revoking land through eminent domain is still happening today such as Mount Pleasant’s acquisition of 2,900 acres of local land in Wisconsin.

Until the formation of a group called the Seneca Village Project in the late ’90s, there were no efforts to maintain the legacy of Seneca Village. In 2001, with a lot of pressure on the city, this group managed to get a small plaque installed in the park to commemorate and pay homage to the souls of Seneca Village who, over time, have endured great erasure. We should take inspiration from the Seneca Village Project. We must not merely seek to appreciate various cultures but also strive to reach a deeper level of cultural consciousness regarding the hardships those cultures faced. By prioritizing black history and allowing the truths of those who came before us to become a focal point in political conversations, we can reshape the broken parameter of society and create a push toward justice and equality.

Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them. A version of this appeared in the Monday, February 12 print edition. 

Email Tianne Johnson at [email protected]

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