Unearthing Black History in Central Park

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

Posted:
 
seneca_1_photo400
Courtesy of Herbert Seignoret

The William Godfrey Wilson home site. Wilson lived here with his wife and eight children. Bricks line the footprint of the stone foundation, and Madeline Landry provides scale inside one of the test cuts.

Artifacts excavated from the house of William Godfrey Wilson (clockwise from top left): a bone toothbrush handle, a piece of a glass candlestick or lamp, two pieces of a yellow ware pitcher, the base of a glass bottle, part of a large blue-and-white Chinese export porcelain vessel, a ceramic top to a jar. (Photo: Meredith B. Linn)

A shoe with a leather sole and a fabric upper excavated from the house of William Godfrey Wilson, perhaps once belonging to his wife, Charlotte, or to one of their eight children. (Photo: Meredith B. Linn)

***

A roasting pan. Buttons. A kettle. Fish vertebrae. Hammering nails. The animal-bone handle of a toothbrush. All are evidence of a long-forgotten community of African Americans who, until the early 1990s, were a mere footnote in historical accounts of New York City.

Before Central Park ever existed, they lived in the area from 82nd to 89th streets, between Seventh and Eighth avenues. They had three churches, a school (Colored School No. 3) and five cemeteries. A teacher lived there, as did a grocer, a porter, a midwife, a domestic worker, a cobbler and a sailor. Some of the children went to school, while others stayed behind working the farms, or perhaps running errands down at the docks. Some residents may have been street vendors, selling fruit, pie and hot corn.

They were, in fact, New York's first significant group of African-American property owners.

"To ensure that they were worthy of suffrage, black men [unlike white men] could only vote if they owned $250 in real estate," says Leslie Harris, associate professor of history and African-American studies at Emory University. "[So] land was critical for full citizenship."