When Reverend Christopher Rush laid the cornerstone of the First African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in 1853, he placed in it a time capsule, a box that contained a bible, a hymn book, and copies of two New York papers, The Tribune and The Sun. These were mementos for future New Yorkers.
Rush, who escaped slavery and became the second ordained bishop of the AME Zion Church, also delivered the church’s first sermon. He read in part from the First Epistle of Peter, an address to the oppressed and persecuted, assuring the congregation that “although now for a little while you may have to suffer through various trials,” salvation would reward those who kept the faith.
But even as he counseled hope, the church was doomed. What Rush didn’t know was that the land where the Church would stand, part of a thriving African American community, had been condemned two weeks before as part of the plan to create New York’s Central Park.
The community, called Seneca Village, began in 1825 and eventually spanned from 82nd Street to 89th Street along what is now the western edge of Central Park. By the time it was finally razed in 1857, it had become a refuge for African Americans. Though most were nominally free (the last slave wasn’t emancipated until 1827) life was far from pleasant. The population of African Americans living in New York City tripled between abolition and complete emancipation and the migrants were derided in the press. Mordecai Noah, founder of TheNew York Enquirer, was especially well-known for his attacks on African Americans, fuming at one point that “the free negroes of this city are a nuisance incomparably greater than a million slaves.”
Most landowners at the time refused to sell to African Americans. A white couple who lived in what was then a distant northern outpost of Manhattan was an exception, subdividing and selling off their land first to Epiphany Davis and Andrew Williams, two prominent members of the The New York African Society for Mutual Relief, and then to the AME Zion Church. More members of the African Society, whose purpose was in part to build black communities, followed suit and purchased land too. Slowly, houses were built. Some of them were rather grand, two-story affairs, with barns and stables, and some were modest shacks. The area was eventually anchored by three churches and a school.
Seneca Village ran along the west side of what would become Central Park between 82nd and 89th streets. (NY Historical Society)
Owning land in Seneca Village meant more than finding a refuge from the slums and violence of Manhattan proper. Buying property meant voting rights (at least for men), as laws in New York at the time required that all voters own at least $250 worth of real estate. Seneca Village probably had a more radical purpose, too, as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Prominent abolitionists such as Albro Lyons, later recognized as a conductor on the railroad, owned land and lived there. In fact, the African Society so instrumental in founding the village was reputed to have a hidden basement for hiding runaway slaves. And the name of the village itself may have come from a philosophy tract called Seneca’s Morals, a book that was popular with abolitionist activists.
As Seneca Village was building up, however, support for Central Park grew, driven by some of the same pressures that created the African American enclave. The tip of the island of Manhattan was overflowing with people. The slums were spilling over as more and more immigrants arrived, especially after the Irish potato famine started in 1845. None of these conditions appealed to well-off New Yorkers, who had already started migrating further uptown, or out of town, by the 1840s. Already, the Lennox family and other wealthy New York names owned swaths of land in the vicinity of the proposed park. Real estate developers easily foresaw the demand for an exclusive neighborhood bordering parklands.
More than three-fourths of the children who lived in Seneca Village attended Colored School №3 in the church basement. Half of the African Americans who lived there owned their own property, a rate five times higher than the city average. And while the village remained mostly black, immigrant whites had started to live in the area as well. They shared resources ranging from a church (All Angels Episcopal), to a midwife (an Irish immigrant who served the entire town).
But in 1857, it was all torn down.
Even as the church was being built on 86th street, then painstakingly painted white, the original settlers fought for their lands in court. Andrew Williams was paid nearly what his land was worth, after filing an affidavit with the state Supreme Court. Epiphany Davis was not as fortunate, losing hundred of dollars.
By 1871, Seneca Village had largely been forgotten. That year, The New York Herald reported that laborers creating a new entrance to the park at 85th Street and 8th Avenue had discovered a coffin, “enclosing the body of a Negro, decomposed beyond recognition.” The discovery was a mystery, the paper reported, because “these lands were dug up five years ago, when the trees were planted there, and no such coffins were there at the time.” That’s unlikely, as the site was the graveyard of the AME Zion church.
Researchers from Columbia, CUNY, and the New York Historical Society have been working on excavating the site of Seneca Village since the early 2000s. The work has been slow, with excavation starting in 2011.
The only official artifact that remains intact on the site is a commemorative plaque, dedicated in 2001 to the lost village.
A previous version of this story misstated the name of Christopher Rush’s church.