When people think of Central Park, the thought of African-Americans once owning the land is inconceivable. Yet, this was the case 150 years ago when there once thrived a place called Seneca Village.
The land known as Seneca Village was originally farmland owned by John and Elizabeth Whitehead. Andrew Williams, an African-American male, bought three lots of land from the Whiteheads in 1825. In addition, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church purchased six lots of land, which began the birth of the community. The Whiteheads eventually sold off their land between 82nd to 86th Streets. The majority of the buyers were African Americans. This became the first community for property-owning African Americans .
The Seneca Village community started small but grew when it combined with York Hill, a neighboring African-American settlement. The population increased from 100 people in the late 1830’s to 264 residents in 1864. The village became popular due to its affordability compared to downtown Manhattan. Seneca was more affordable than lower Manhattan in which it was nearly impossible to own property due to laws and the unwillingness to sell to African Americans. Working class African Americans populated Seneca as an escape from the poor housing that plagued lower Manhattan. The chance of being a part of an indigenous community appealed to most downtown African Americans.
The right to vote was important to the people in Seneca Village. Due to the requirements of land ownership, most African Americans were excluded from suffrage. Ten percent of all eligible African American voters came from Seneca.
African Americans were not the only residents of Seneca Village. European immigrants began to enter the neighborhood in the 1840’s. The potato famine in Ireland sent many Irish immigrants to New York. Thirty percent of the population of Seneca Village was mostly Irish and German. Records show that Europeans and African-Americans in the Village lived in harmony and attended church together and buried their dead in the same cemetery.
Spirituality was very important to the residents of Seneca Village. Three churches were built in the Village along with three cemeteries. Not much is known about the first church, the African Union Methodist Church, which is believed to be founded in 1837. It contained a school in its basement, which became the example for the schooling of African-Americans in New York City.
The second church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church Branch Militant, an affiliate branch of the AME Zion Church, planted the cornerstone for a church with the capacity to house 100 people. There were also plans to for a school in the basement.
The AME Zion Church had burial vaults in their churchyard located in lower Manhattan, but the City Council felt that the burial sites contributed to the rise in yellow fever. The Council granted temporary space in potter’s field but once it was...