Unearthing Black History in Central Park

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

Courtesy of Herbert Seignoret

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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. 

The Seneca Village find echoes other discoveries of a rich, full existence of early black American life and helps to fill in details that were often ignored as unimportant to documenting American history. In the early 1990s, remains of an African Burial Ground were discovered in lower Manhattan, evidence that as many as 20,000 bodies had been interred in a region east of Chambers Street in the early 18th century.

After much controversy surrounding construction of a federal building on the land, the remains were eventually excavated and reinterred. The site, at Broadway and Reade Street, was declared a national historic landmark in 1993. More recently, in 2010 the National Park Service conducted an archaeological dig at the site of L’Hermitage Plantation in Frederick County, Md., where foundations of slave cabins still sit under shallow ground.

Seneca Village boasted a propertied and moneyed set. One of its first known property owners was Andrew Williams, an African-American “bootblack” who, at 25, bought three lots of land for $125 in 1825, according to The Park and the People.