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The Resurrection of Seneca Village

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In 1857, Seneca Village, an African-American community in Manhattan was erased from history. About a century later in the 1950s, a Parks Department gardener found a graveyard around 85th Street. The New Yorker magazine reported it was "filled with the bones of tramps and squatters." Today, the village and its former inhabitants are being resurrected by a team of archaeologists from Barnard College-Columbia University and City College (CUNY).

Seneca Village was a pre-Civil War African-American community located between 82nd and 89th Streets and Seventh and Eighth Avenues in Manhattan. The village existed from 1825 to 1857 when it was destroyed to make way for Central Park. The origin of the village's name remains unclear. According to the New-York Historical Society, it could have been named for the Seneca tribe of Native Americans, or a distortion of the word "Senegal" in Africa. Many streets and towns in New York State bear Roman names so it might refer to a Roman philosopher named Seneca remembered for his writings about morals. During the 1850s, local newspapers, including what would become the New York Times, derisively described the settlement as "Nigger Village" (July 9, 1856. p. 3).

In 1825, parcels of land were sold to members of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. They included a former bootblack named Andrew Williams, who purchased six lots of land for $125 and laborer named Epiphany Davis who bought twelve lots for $578. Land in Seneca Village was considerably less expensive than in the main downtown areas of the city. It was important for African-American males to be landowners because under the New York State Constitution of 1821, property ownership valued at $250 entitled men to vote.

The New York State Census of 1855 reported that 264 people, largely African-Americans but also Irish and German immigrants, lived in Seneca Village. There were three churches, Colored School No. 3 was located in the basement of the African Union Methodist Church, and several cemeteries. All Angels' Church, built in 1849, had a racially integrated congregation of African-American, Irish, and German parishioners. The congregation is currently an affiliate of St. Michael's Episcopal Church on Broadway at 99th Street.

On August 24, the Institute for the Exploration of Seneca Village exhibited its findings about the village on a hillside in Central Park where the original All Angel's Episcopal Church was located. "I don't think it was a ghetto, I think it was a refuge," said Professor Nan Rothschild of Barnard, a co-director of the project with Professor Diana diZerega Wall of City College and Cynthia R. Copeland, a public historian affiliated with New York University.

In 1853, the New York state legislature set aside land for the construction of Central Park and authorized the use of "eminent domain" to confiscate private property between 59th and 106th Streets (later extended to 110th Street) for public purposes. The residents of Seneca Village received final eviction notices during the summer of 1856. Although property holders were compensated, many protested in the courts. An article in the New York Times reported, "The policemen find it difficult to persuade them out of the idea which has possessed their simple minds, that the sole object of the authorities in making the Park is to procure their expulsion from the homes which they occupy." After eviction, the community was never reestablished.

Presenters with poster board displays included nine college interns from local universities. Their work on the archeological dig was funded by a National Endowment for the Humanities grant and supervised by local archeologists Jenna Coplin and Meredith Linn. The students were in the field from May 31 through August 26.

Madeline Landry (Barnard) examined the language used by the local press to justify eminent domain and expulsion of Seneca Village residents from their homes and reported that it was remarkably similar to language used to justify the demolition of homes and businesses in the recent Atlantic Yards controversy in Brooklyn. Andrea Lee Torres (CCNY), Randy Henry (CCNY) Ariane Dandeneau (NYU), Julianne Maeda (Barnard), and Ashton Dorminvil (CCNY) studied the material culture of the village based on what they found buried in the earth -- broken pottery, including pieces imported from Asia, clay pipes, broken glass bottles, including a large piece from the Liebmann Brewery in Brooklyn, hand- and machine-made nails, and bones of butchered animals that gave a sense of the income and diet of villagers. Victor Luna focused on an 1855 New York State census. He discovered that 87.5% of the households in the village were headed by men, 37% of the adults could read, and that 60% of the daughters and 66% of the sons over the age of sixteen were reported as employed.

A major focus of the dig was the house of William Godfrey Wilson, a sexton at the All Angel's church. John Anderton (Fordham) found out that while newspaper accounts at the time described the homes in the village as shacks, city and court records showed that the Wilson family lived in a three-story timber home. Its stone foundation, which the team uncovered, was 19 feet by 21 feet.

Cynthia Copeland, one of the co-directors, is hoping to find a permanent home for the exhibit and artifacts at one of the local museums and a way to involve local school children in the project. The American Museum of Natural History and the New-York Historical Society are both five minutes away from the site.