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Uncovering the historical past of Seneca Village in New York Metropolis


Most individuals who stroll by way of Central Park, from vacationers to lifelong New Yorkers, don’t know of the historical past beneath their ft. 

In 1825, a 25-year-old African American shoe shiner named Andrew Williams purchased land in the course of Manhattan, two years earlier than slavery was abolished in New York. Extra free Black Individuals adopted, fleeing the illness and discrimination of downtown, and collectively they created a bustling settlement of their very own, often known as Seneca Village.

“Seneca Village was a spot of alternative. It was a response to racism,” stated Cynthia Copeland, president of the Institute for the Exploration of Seneca Village Historical past. She has spent a long time uncovering its story.

Correspondent Religion Salie requested, “There’s an opportunity that Seneca Village was a part of the Underground Railroad?”

“There’s, and it is speculative, however extremely possible,” Copeland replied.

“Why do you assume the historical past has been untold and unknown till comparatively lately?”

“The victorious are those who get to write down the tales,” stated Copeland. “These have been individuals who have been forgotten. And it’s unlucky that the story was hidden for thus lengthy. Nevertheless it’s nice that the story has emerged.”

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A nineteenth century map displaying the settlement of Seneca Village, on Manhattan’s West Aspect within the 80s, earlier than the development of Central Park wiped it away.

CBS Information


A lot of the story is an everlasting thriller, however an archaeological dig unearthed a whole lot of artifacts from the villagers’ middle-class lives.

“We discovered plenty of stunning bottles, [and] a shoe that was in all probability the scale that was utilized by one of many youngsters,” stated Copeland. “And one of many college students simply began to cry.”

Seneca Village was house to the biggest variety of African-American property homeowners in New York earlier than the Civil Conflict, and since these Black males possessed property, they’d the power to vote. Irish and German immigrants moved in, too, and White and Black villagers attended church side-by-side.

However when New York Metropolis elites needed to create a park that rivaled these of Europe, they have been drawn to the center of Manhattan.

Copeland stated, “There was a smear marketing campaign that was created within the media: ‘We have gotta do away with all these people who dwell within the park that should not be there. They’re tramps, squatters, and thieves.’ That is the type of language that they used.”

In 1853 the town used eminent area to take management of the land. In all, about 1,600 residents have been displaced, together with almost 300 from Seneca Village. “Individuals weren’t blissful, they usually put up a struggle,” Copeland stated. “

However to no avail.

Seneca Village lasted solely 32 years. Central Park was created, and the remaining is historical past – however an incomplete historical past, till lately. A monument to a outstanding Seneca Village household is underway, and the Central Park Conservancy put in an out of doors exhibit.

Marie Warsh, a historian for the Conservancy who offers excursions of the panorama, instructed Salie, “It looks as if Central Park has at all times existed. So, I believe individuals are actually amazed that there have been folks residing right here.”

seneca-village-landmark-1920.jpg

CBS Information


Cal Jones, Manhattan Borough Historian Emeritus, has spent 1000’s of hours researching the residents, taking up the job of looking for out the place the villagers went, and who’re their descendants.

Take Andrew Williams, the shoe shiner, whom he described as a visionary: “I appeared on the Andrew Williams, Seneca Village, as sorta like a puzzle. Now let me put the items of this puzzle collectively to see this stunning image.”

And final yr, that image turned lots clearer, when somebody with a well-known title heard about his quest, and reached out. “It virtually felt like I discovered a treasure,” stated Andrew Thomas Williams IV, the great-great-great grandson of Andrew Williams. He and his spouse, Mareia, did not notice the connection to Seneca Village till a researcher messaged them on Fb.

And all of a sudden, the historical past of Seneca Village turned the historical past of their household. “My great-grandfather had a music faculty the place he taught music,” Andrew stated. “It made the entire Andrew Thomas Williams line so significantly better. I actually really now get that connection. It is not only a title,”

Salie requested Mareia Williams, “How did that really feel to you?”

“It gave me a way of being and a way of delight,” she replied. “So, I stroll a little bit taller, and I really feel lots stronger.”

Once they toured Seneca Village, they only had to share the information: “I keep in mind the tour information saying, “We’ve not been capable of find any descendants,'” Andrew laughed.

“And so then, I stated, ‘Descendants proper right here!'” stated Mareia.

“Oh, they began clapping, they was excited,” stated Andrew.

“All we are able to do is honor the previous,” Mareia stated. “Nothing lined can ever get healed.”

Someday, Andrew Thomas Williams IV stated, he’ll go alongside a household heirloom to his oldest son: a hoop with an A that belonged to his great-grandfather – a valuable reminder to maintain telling the story.

As Mareia famous, there are different descendants on the market.

“Sure, the story simply must be put out,” stated Andrew. “And I believe then we’ll be taught an entire lot greater than the little that we all know now. And understanding the entire story, man, wow, that is gotta be wonderful when that comes out.”

      
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Story produced by Robbyn McFadden. Editor: Mike Levine. 



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