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 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.
Elizabeth and Diana Harding, most likely a mother and daughter, respectively, also purchased land in 1825, and Elizabeth even managed to keep the property in her own name after her marriage to Obadiah McCollin, a cook who owned two lots of his own in Seneca Village.
In all, some 24 lots were sold to black families during this period, and by 1855 the community (described as "Nigger Village" in the press) had at least 264 residents. Rosenzweig and Blackmar found evidence of adoptions of children among neighboring families, and depict a tightly woven, deeply reverent group: "One of the pillars of New York's antebellum black community."
And by 1857, with the opening of Central Park (which first became available for public use in 1859), they were gone.
Part of a Pattern of Displacement
"It's part of a pattern on the island of Manhattan," says Harris, who also served as principal adviser to the Slavery in New York exhibit at the New-York Historical Society in 2005. "As property values increase, even having a deed doesn't protect African Americans from being forced [out]. So the arrival at Harlem is a great achievement. But it is also the push out of formerly integrated spaces and into segregated ones."
In order to displace black residents, there had to be a concerted effort to demonize the community, Harris says, to paint it as morally decrepit or unworthy of full citizenship. Park planners "mischaracterized" Seneca Village, she says, "in order to justify destroying it … saying it was seedy, immoral and full of impoverished people."
It should be said that most landowners were well-compensated financially for their losses, as Rosenzweig and Blackmar note, and even saw a profit. Still, residents resisted.
"They must have known it was coming," says Rothschild. "But it might have taken several years. Maybe some even thought it wouldn't happen."
"The Ebon inhabitants," read a New York Daily Times report on July 9, 1856, " … have been notified to remove by the first of August. The policemen find it difficult to persuade them out of the idea which has possessed their simple minds, that the sole object of the authorities in making the Park is to procure their expulsion from the homes which they occupy."
"People love Central Park," says Copeland. "We can't imagine the city without it. But it has a history that needs to be told. What happened before matters."
A public open house at the Seneca Village site — entering the park at Central Park West and 85th Street, near the playgrounds — will take place Aug. 24 (rain date is Aug. 25).
Kristal Brent Zook is the author of Black Women's Lives: Stories of Power and Pain. She is an associate professor and director of the Master of Arts in Journalism program at Hofstra University.