Remnants of an African-American Past Found Beneath Central Park

Researchers are working to reconstruct the lives of black residents who were pushed out by developers in the mid-19th century.

By Jamilah King Jul 29, 2011

Today marks the end of an important excavation of New York City’s Central Park to uncover the remnants of Seneca Village, an African-American community founded in the 19th century. Researchers from the Institute for the Exploration of Seneca Village History have been digging for weeks to find clues about the village, which was founded in the 1820’s and destroyed by the construction of New York’s iconic park in the 1850s. From the New York Times:

While the borings of the past produced just a few artifacts, the dig, which will end on Friday, generated 250 bags of material that should keep the scholars busy for months, if not years. The work on Wednesday alone yielded a toothbrush handle fashioned of bone and the lid of a stoneware jar.

About two-thirds of the residents of Seneca Village were African-American, while the rest were of European descent, mostly Irish. The community was settled in the 1820s, a few years before slavery was abolished in New York. Despite old news reports that the village was a squatter camp, it was, in fact, made up of working- and middle-class property owners.

The digging focused primarily on properties once owned by two black residents: Nancy Moore, and William G. Wilson. Researchers found all sorts of artifacts, including an iron tea kettle, roasting pan, and a small shoe that possibly belonged to a child. "It’s just such an intimate thing," Madeline Landry, a junior anthropology major at Barnard College, who found herself choked up by the discovery, told the Times. "That shoe fit someone who walked around here."

A much fuller picture of the village will likely come into focus as researchers study the newly uncovered artifacts.  But it’s yet another historical example of the often sad story of displacement faced by black residents in New York City.