Unearthing Black History in Central Park

In Seneca Village, artifacts from New York's first major group of African-American property owners.

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This summer, after a 13-year campaign appealing to New York City's Department of Parks and Recreation for digging rights, archaeologists and 10 student researchers from Barnard and other local colleges completed eight weeks of excavation at the site of Seneca Village, once home to hundreds of black Americans displaced by the creation of Central Park. The result: some 250 zip-close bags of artifacts and architectural evidence.

Tangible Evidence of Black Lives

"The first few days, we dug in an area and found these walls," says Nan Rothschild, an anthropology professor at Barnard College and Columbia University and one of three co-directors of the Institute for the Exploration of Seneca Village History. "At first we thought it might be part of All Angels' Church. But then we realized that these were the walls of a three-story home. That to me was very exciting."

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The expedition unearthed a treasure trove of artifacts: a variety of ceramics made of porcelain, stoneware and pearl; the stem of a clay tobacco pipe; marbles.

"The marbles really touched me," says Cynthia Copeland, a co-director of the institute. "Because they reminded me that children were there ... The leather shoe was another important moment," she adds, describing it as "small and narrow," found "embedded in the subterranean walls, covered in dirt, and strands of root.

"These material objects bring the community back," says Copeland, "and allow them the dignity that they probably didn't have when they left."

"With slavery," says Leslie Harris, an advisory board member for the institute, "we're so often looking at whips and chains, and so we're kind of starved for these very mundane objects [that] serve as tangible evidence of emotional ties and everyday life."

Documenting Details Once Ignored

Seneca Village, whose name suggests a Native American influence, arose when free, emancipated and escaped blacks bought property in the area from 1825-1857. It was a mere footnote in historical accounts but was brought to light in The Park and the People, by Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar.