Unearthing Black History in Central Park
In Seneca Village, artifacts from New York's first major group of African-American property owners.
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."
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."
The house once belonged to William Godfrey Wilson, who, as it turned out, was a porter and sexton at the racially integrated All Angels' Church, where immigrant Irish residents once intermingled with African Americans at weddings and baptisms. A hearth was discovered, and possibly rubble from a chimney, where Wilson might have gathered with his wife and eight children.