Seneca Village Resistance

There is ongoing debate on the topic of resistance from Seneca Villagers when it came time to construct the Park. I argue that the residents actively resisted their removal, and here is proof.

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This is an affidavit of petition from Andrew William. Here he objects to the value of his lots, which he only got $2,335 per lot out of the government. He claimed that the value was anywhere from $3,500-$4,000, especially because he has property on the land.

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Analyzing Primary Sources- Newspaper Articles

Below are four different articles containing relevant information about Seneca Village.

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This article, from the New-York Herald, discusses the discovery of two coffins enclosed with dead residents of Seneca Village while uprooting trees for the Park.

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This article from the New-York Daily Tribune establishes the presence of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in the Village. They laid a corner stone, which shows the importance of the church to the community.

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This New-York Daily Times article discusses Seneca Village with a negative connotation, showing that there was resentment towards the population on a large scale. The author, who is unknown, refers to the building of Central Park and the resistance being put up by the Villagers, who think that the building of Central Park correlates to the local government wanting to destroy their community.

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This article, from the New York Daily Tribune offers insight on the general resistance being put up by the people who were being displaced for the construction of Central Park. This is relevant to Seneca Village, because although they are not directly referred to, it can be assumed that they were a part of the movement.

Collecting Data on the Residents of the Village

Central Park Book Map

Following a visit to the New York Historical Society, the research librarian presented this huge book of maps to me. In it is a collection of the land which was taken for Central Park, as well as the owners of the plots of land.

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This is one of the pages from Seneca Village, from 85th to 88th Street, between Eighth and 7th Avenue. Although written very tiny, it has the names of the people who owned plots of land.

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This is important for research on the Village, because it gives the names and locations of the residents. Furthermore, there is a lack of primary sources on the Village, which makes pieces like this even more valuable.

Was there Resistance from Seneca Village?

According to James Roman, who wrote Chronicles of Old New York: Exploring Manhattan’s Landmark Neighborhoods, “On October 1, 1857, the residents of Seneca Village scattered, quietly and without violence, enabling the construction of Central Park.”[1] On the other hand, Leslie Alexander uses her book African or American? Black Identity and Political Activism in New York City, 1784-1861 to recount opposition from the community. In her chapter on Seneca Village, Alexander notes that “for those remaining few who did not comply, the police violently removed them in the following month.”[2] Furthermore, she refers to an article published in the New York Daily Tribune in 1866, which states that “[the raid upon Seneca Village could] not be forgotten… many a brilliant and stirring fight was had during the campaign. But the supremacy of the law was upheld by the policeman’s bludgeons,” which implies that the Seneca Villagers were passionate about opposing the government.[3] This conflict in opinion is not uncommon for historical events, but it is quite interesting, because they completely oppose one another. Alexander argues vehemently that Blacks were politically active during the antebellum period, and throughout her book, uses her tone to push this idea forward. This means that her presentation of Seneca Village could be a little dramatic or enhanced to further push her thesis.

My research suggests that Alexander’s view is probably the most accurate. The New-York Daily Tribune published an article titled “City Items: Central Park Lands,” on May 28, 1856, which explores the “commotion among property-holders within the proposed limits.”[4] This article is key to understanding potential Seneca Village resistance, because there was a general mass of commotion from the people who were being kicked out to build Central Park. Although this article does not specifically state that Seneca Villagers were putting up resistance, it is important to understand that there would be a general sense of unity and anger, because Central Park would displace 800 acres worth of people.[5] This refusal to move, as referred to in this article, can be traced back to “the awards made to them not [being] equal to what, in justice, they are entitled.”[6] This is an issue which Seneca Villagers struggled with, meaning that this article could be alluding to resistance from Seneca Villagers.

According to another article published at the time from New-York Daily Times, dated July 9, 1856, Seneca Villagers “have been notified to remove by the first of August. The policemen find it difficult to persuade them out of the ideas which has possessed their simple minds that the sole object of the authorities making the Park is to procure their expulsion from the homes which they occupy.”[7] These two sentences are extremely powerful, and necessary to understanding Seneca Village and the way it was viewed by Whites. Firstly, the tone of this article is degrading and dismissive of the Seneca Villagers, and that is evident in the diction being used. The author, who is unknown, describes them as “simple minded,” as if their beliefs are outlandish. Secondly, this article was published in early July of 1856, which was the year that Seneca Village was taken by eminent domain. A few months to relocate is a very short time to give Seneca Villagers, who had to be out by August 1st, 1856. This shows a lack of respect for the members of the community, who were being forced out in such a short amount of time, in a racist city, where it is hard to make their way. Lastly, the article states that “the policemen find it difficult to persuade them out of the ideas which has possessed their minds,” suggesting that there was interaction between the community members and the police which did not go in favor of the police, because they were struggling with them. Based on this primary source, our best bet in understanding what happened when Seneca Villagers were being expelled is that they put up a fight. The sources do not touch upon the scale of the resistance, but it shows that there is a contradiction to Roman’s statement of the Seneca Villagers leaving quietly.

However, this brings up a bigger question of why there is no actual documentation of this resistance. Because Seneca Village was so significant to the community members, why haven’t letters or some other form of documentation of this resistance survived? Why are there no police documents, especially since according to the Tribune article from ten years later, they were the ones who shut it down?[8] Over and over again, the way that Whites have regarded and spoken of Seneca Village has been with a poor connotation, but even if historians had a biased account of the resistance, it would be better than just assuming what happened in terms of resistance from the community. Moreover, this is another reason why primary sources are vital for historical analysis, because now we may never know whether or not the Seneca Villagers actually resisted. They had a huge stake in the community; the fact that they were landowners gave them political power- once again, of the 13,000 Blacks in New York, 91 were qualified to vote, and 10 of those people were from Seneca Village, as of 1845. Based on this fact, a historian can assume that the case of resistance is the most plausible. Additionally, in Mario Maffi’s book, New York City: An Outsider’s Inside View, he references the New York Historical Society’s exhibit on Seneca Village, and says that “despite a wave of objections and protests, the village inhabitants were scattered,” which does not give the reader much insight on how the Villagers would have conducted this protest.[9] Also, the book does not provide any footnotes on the sources that would lead to this conclusion, which is problematic for historians, because he does not state if the exhibit suggested this, or it was an interpretive leap which led him to such a conclusion.

[1] James Roman, Chronicles of Old New York: Exploring Manhattan’s Landmark Neighborhoods (United States: Museyon, 2010), 96.

[2] Alexander, African or American?, 173.

[3] Alexander, African or American?, 173.

[4] “City Items: Central Park Lands,” New-York Daily Tribune (New York, NY), May 28, 1856.

[5] “The Present Look of Our Great Central Park,” New-York Daily Times (New York, NY), July 9, 1856.

[6] “City Items: Central Park Lands,” New-York Daily Tribune.

[7] “The Present Look of Our Great Central Park,” New-York Daily Times.

[8] New York Times (New York, NY), August 17, 1866.

[9] Mario Maffi, New York City: An Outsider’s Inside View (Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2004), 24.

Understanding Fernando Woods

It is significant to understand Wood’s views of Black people in the North, because it gives better insight on the theory that he intentionally wanted to raze Seneca Village. During his time in Congress as a member of the House of Representatives, 1841-1843, he advocated against the removal of the property qualifications from Black voting to make it more difficult for them to be politically engaged. He also supported the Dred Scott decision, and supported the extension of slavery into new territories of the United States. Wood strongly despised the Radical Republicans because they were promising “lazy, unfit blacks immediate suffrage, high pay and social superiority.”[1] All of these words and actions help to build up a conclusion that not only was Woods benefitting financially from the creation of Central Park, but he was using his power to get rid of Black people from New York City, specifically Seneca Village. The Village functioned as a community with politically active citizens, who owned land: these are all the traits that Wood despised seeing in Black people, so for him to decimate it in order to push his agenda is quite plausible. Furthermore, this shows how anti-Black sentiments fueled decisions like that of Wood, because he was blinded by his hate and greed.

[1] Alexander, African or American?, 169. Woods continued this discrimination against Black people, and stated that to make the United States a better country, they needed to “extinguish the followers of the anti-slavery fiend stalking the country.” He also believed in an armed rebellion against Blacks to annihilate them. Furthermore, Wood and his brother, who were publishers of the New York Daily News, have been blamed for instigating the 1863 draft riots, which resulted in riots, the destruction of Black institutions and the torture and death of hundreds of Blacks.

Further Complicating the Park

When the change in location was declared, one way that Manhattanites whose land was being take away for the construction of Central Park attempted to change the location of the Park was by collecting signatures on a petition, which gained thousands of people’s support. The petition was objecting the new, expanded location for the park. It stated that “the time to consummate this desirable object should be no longer delayed,” and that the Council should work as soon as possible on the land which is “so eligibly situated,” referring back to the original location at Jones Woods.[1] Consequently, something interesting came from this unity and resistance: a suspension of the plans for Central Park. This resulted in a subcommittee overturning the plans, and going back to the construction of a park at Jones Woods. For a moment, there was a sense of victory for those who would have been displaced.

Fernando Wood, the new Mayor, used his power to veto this resolution on March 23, 1955, and continued the plans for Central Park.[2] His decision was quite shocking, considering that he represented the people, yet made a decision that went against the thousands of people who signed the petition for the change in location for the Park. This suggests that there could have been a conspiracy to build Central Park in order to raise property value. The construction of the Park was funded federally and privately, and Wood was financially invested in Central Park. Wood owned property adjoining Seneca Village, and an examination of Wood’s tax records show that following the razing of Seneca Village, his land value increased from a few hundred dollars to over $10,000.[3] This shows that there was corruption in the support Wood gave for the construction of the Park, because he was looking to make financial benefits, as opposed to representing the residents who wanted to see a change in location.

[1] James W. Beekman Papers, Jones Woods Petitions, New York City, 1853. The land which is being referred to as “eligibly situated” is Jones Woods.

[2] Blackmar and Rosenzweig, The Park and the People, 56.

[3] Fernando Wood’s Tax Records, 1855-1860; Alexander, African or American?, 168.

The Beginning of Central Park

Talks of a centralized park in Manhattan became serious in 1848, with the publication of Andrew Downing’s “A Talk about Public Parks and Gardens.” Downing was a horticulturalist and landscape designer who believed that creating public space would advance urban environments. He went on to say that Manhattan was the ideal location for a public park, which would promote social freedom by providing a space for interaction between different classes.[1] When this push for a park continued, Mayor Kingsland partitioned Jones Woods, which was near the East River, to be used as a space for a public park.[2] Andrew Downing immediately opposed the location, because it was too small of a place which would not be effective in serving its purpose. He suggested that the Common Council use land above Thirty Ninth Street, because it was more spacious, and would provide “broad reaches of park and pleasure grounds, with a real feeling of the breadth and beauty of green fields, the perfumes and freshness of nature.”[3] Following the publication of Downing’s article, in July 1851, the Common Council actually took his advice and decided that they wanted “the piece of ground lying between Fifth and Eighth Avenues, Fifty-Ninth and One Hundred Sixth Streets, for the purpose indicated over that known as Jones Woods.”[4]

[1] Andrew Downing, “A Talk about Public Parks and Gardens,” Horticulturalist, and Journal of Rural Art and Rural Taste 3, no. 4 (October 1848): 155. Although the idea of Central Park is typically credited to Andrew Downing, it is important to note that William Cullen Bryant issued an appeal for a public park in 1844, four years prior to Downing. Nevertheless, Downing’s articles have been referred to as the birth of the idea of a Central Park.

[2] Board of Commissioners of Central Park, First Annual Report on the Improvement of the Central Park, New York (New York: Charles Baker, Printer, 1857), 6.

[3] Downing, “A Talk about Public Parks and Gardens,” 346-47.

[4] Board of Commissioners of Central Park, First Annual Report, 6.

Socioeconomic Conditions

Seneca Village functioned with a community of working class people, with only three residents being considered middle class: German grocer Henry Meyers, black grocer William Pease, and New York born innkeeper John Haff.[1] This is interesting, because although the community consisted mostly of unskilled laborers and service traders, they were able to build a sustainable, functioning community. Economic activity in the community was reflective of the rest of New York City, with women and children supplementing the earnings of the men. Black women “worked as domestics and laundresses….and wives contributed to the household economy through housework: sewing, economizing on meal preparation, and especially scavenging for food, clothing, and fuel,” showing that their labor force was similar to the rest of New York City.[2] Establishing this labor force and economic balance is important to note, because one of the Park’s first engineers described that Seneca Villagers were “living off the refuse of the city,” and “denuding the park’s forests for firewood,” thus attempting to degrade the community and financial security that Seneca Villagers were able to develop.[3]

[1] Blackmar and Rosenzweig, The Park and the People, 68.

[2] Blackmar and Rosenzweig, The Park and the People, 69.

[3] Blackmar and Rosenzweig, The Park and the People, 69.

Political Engagement in the Village

Of the 13,000 Black New York residents, 91 were qualified to vote, and 10 lived in Seneca Village (which only spanned about eight blocks up, and two blocks across). The purchase of land by Blacks came to play out significantly in their political engagement. Blacks in Seneca Village were extremely politically engaged in proportion to the rest of New York. Of the 13,000 Black New Yorkers, 91 were qualified to vote; this meant that “a $250 freehold estate and three years of residency in the state were required” for voting rights.[1] This is incredible, and shows that Seneca Villagers were more likely to be politically engaged than their Black counterparts in other neighborhoods, which would serve as a substantial reason to keep their community established.

[1] Elizabeth Blackmar and Roy Rosenzweig, The Park and the People: A History of Central Park (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1992), 72.

What was Seneca Village?

Seneca Village, a free Black community in Manhattan, was established in 1825 when white land-owners sold off their plots at affordable rates to black New Yorkers. Over the course of its existence, from 1825 to 1861, the community became a thriving place for Black people, eventually containing three churches, two schools, two cemeteries, and upwards of 200 houses.[1]

Seneca Village served as a jewel for Black New Yorkers. Unlike other Black neighborhoods in New York, Black people in Seneca Village owned land. In fact, “about 50% of Seneca Village residents owned land, which was five times higher than the average ownership rate for all New Yorkers.”[2] John Whitehead, a white cart man, was selling off plots of land in the Upper West Side during 1825. There is no information on how Whitehead had obtained so much land or why he was choosing to sell it off. Andrew Williams, a young black man, bought three lots from Whitehead, and then Epiphany Davis bought twelve lots in the area. Within a week, African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church purchased six lots as well. Davis’ purchase really put a stake in the area, because he was a trustee of AME Zion, and over the course of three years, three or four other church leaders purchased plots. Williams and Davis went on to be the founding fathers of the Village, because between 1825 and 1832, Whitehead sold off the remainder of his fifty plots to black families.[3]

[1] Leslie Alexander, African or American? Black Identity and Political Activism in New York City, 1784-1861 (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2008), 157.

[1] Leslie M. Harris, In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626-1863 (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2003), 74-75.

[1] Elizabeth Blackmar and Roy Rosenzweig, The Park and the People: A History of Central Park (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1992), 70.