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Central Park

Seneca Village

This text is part of Parks’ Historical Signs Project and can be found posted within the park.

Although the reason for the name Seneca Village is unknown, recent historical and geophysical research has uncovered a great deal of information about this unique community and its inhabitants. Seneca Village, which was located from 81st to 89th Streets between Seventh and Eighth Avenues in what is now a section of Central Park, is important to the history of New York City because it may possibly be Manhattan's first prominent community of African American property owners. Beginning in 1825, parcels of land were sold to individuals and to members of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, described as the "largest and wealthiest church of coloured people in this city, perhaps in this country." Within a few years the community developed into a stable settlement of over 250 working-class people, with African Americans owning more than half the households in the village — an unusually high percentage of property ownership for any New York community. The presence of an abundant natural spring near 82nd Street would have provided the fresh drinking water necessary for the maintenance and stability of a large community.

Religion played an enormous part in most communities in the nineteenth century, and Seneca Village was no exception. Two African Methodist churches, the African Union Methodist and the AME Zion (today known as Mother AME Zion) were constructed in the village near 85th Street. Their congregations were composed entirely of African Americans. Colored School No. 3, one of the few black schools in New York City, had been established in the 1840s and was housed in the basement of the African Union Methodist Church. All Angels' Church, an affiliate of St. Michael's on Broadway at 99th Street, was built in 1849. It had a racially integrated congregation of African Americans from Seneca Village and Irish and German parishioners living in the village and within a mile of the church. By the 1850s, Seneca Village had also gained many Irish and German immigrant families. There were also three or four large cemeteries affiliated with churches.

In 1853, the state legislature authorized the use of "eminent domain," the taking of private property for public purposes. This unprecedented public acquisition of private land to create a major public park in the City of New York began in 1856, and at the time encompassed the land from 59th to 106th Streets between Fifth and Eighth Avenues. In 1863, additional parkland was annexed to include the area between 106th and 110th Streets. Those owners living within the boundaries of the proposed park were compensated for their property, though many protests were filed in New York State Supreme Court, as is often the case with eminent domain, when owners contest the amount of settlement.

In total, approximately 1600 people who owned, lived and/or worked on the 843-acre tract of land had to move when the Park was created. The residents and institutions of Seneca Village did not reestablish their long-standing community in another location.

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