Prior to the Civil War, a predominantly black community flourished in the village of Seneca, on the land that is now Central Park.
On Sunday, as part of a commemoration of Juneteenth, a federal holiday that recognizes the end of slavery in the United States, black storytellers, dancers and musicians performed in the park to tell the story of life in this village. It is one of the earliest examples of what life after slavery was like for some black people in New York State.
“It’s really important for everyone to know that this land wasn’t always Central Park. It actually belonged to our own people at one time,” said Andrew Thomas Williams V, 30, a descendant of Andrew Williams, a shoe shiner who, at age 25, became one of the first black people to buy land in what would become Seneca Village.
Census records and maps show about 1,600 people lived on the land that would become Central Park, said Marie Warsh, a historian at the Central Park Conservancy, which organized the event. About 225 of those people lived in the village of Seneca, a thriving African-American community.
“It’s certainly the most densely populated and organized settlement in the territory that became Central Park,” Ms Warsh said.
New York City officials used eminent domain to seize the land in 1857 to build Central Park and offered compensation to the people who lived there. A number of people protested, arguing that what they were being offered was not enough. Among them was Mr Williams, who asked for $4,000 but was offered $2,335, according to a video produced by the Conservancy.
New York City Mayor Eric Adams, who attended Sunday’s celebration, noted how that upheaval resonates today, likening the relocation of Seneca Village to gentrification that is now forcing black residents out of neighborhoods in New York.
“When this village was torn apart to build this park, we moved the energy from the village of Seneca,” Mr. Adams said from where the community’s first church, the African Union Church, would have been located.
“He never came back,” he said of Seneca Village. “Starting over and over again, and we wonder why we see some of the crises that we face in black and brown communities.”
He said the black families who lived in Seneca Village provided a foundation. “Black communities in the area have been forced to relocate and rebuild in other neighborhoods, like Harlem, Downtown Brooklyn and Bedford Stuyvesant,” Mr. Adams said, adding, “And now what happens? he now? We move them again.
The settlement of Seneca Village dates back to the end of slavery in New York State. In 1817, the New York Legislature passed a law abolishing slavery and setting July 4, 1827 as the effective date of the law, nearly 36 years before President Abraham Lincoln signed into law the proclamation of emancipation.
Black people who lived in Lower Manhattan began moving north in the 1820s. Ms Warsh said they wanted to escape Lower Manhattan’s “racist climate”.
“Even though emancipation began around 1827, African Americans living in the inner city still faced many challenges,” she said. “There was a desire to get away from that and create a self-contained community where there was just more opportunity.”
German and Irish immigrants also lived on the land that would become Central Park, but Seneca Village had not only houses but gardens, churches and a school, Ms Warsh said. Many people owned land and had the right to vote.
Isheeka Edwards, 37, watched the commemoration on Sunday with her two children, Lesedi, 8, and Kopano, 3, as Gha’il Rhodes Benjamin, a spoken word poet, led the crowd in singing “This Little Light of Mine ” West. side of the park near 85th Street, the former location of the colorful No. 3 School in Seneca Village.
Ms Edwards, who said she lived in a 1.6 per cent black community in the west, said she had specifically traveled to the city to celebrate June 19. “Anything specifically African American or just seeing black people on a regular basis is pretty limited there,” she said.
She wanted her children “to be aware of this side of America, this history, their own culture,” she said.
Natasha Mast, 42, who attended the event with her husband and two sons, aged 7 and 11, said she was grappling with what should happen next. “Should it be returned somehow? she asked. “It’s definitely something I think about, and I’m not sure what the right move is at this point in the story.”
In the meantime, she planned to continue educating herself and her children about Seneca Village and Juneteenth.
“I’m from Canada but didn’t know about Juneteenth until recently, and I don’t want my kids to grow up unaware of this important date and what it means, so I’m here to my own upbringing but also for them as well,” Ms. Mast said.
Priscilla Bruderer, a nurse who lives on the Upper West Side, also wanted to make sure her child knew about Seneca Village and Juneteenth.
“I feel happy because African Americans have actually found a place to live,” said her son, Mathias Bruderer, 10, who listened to music and made bracelets while learning about the history of Seneca Village. .
Laika Calhoun, 17, a rising senior at Nanuet Senior High School in Nanuet, NY, attended with her brother and parents. She said she experienced a range of emotions, including gratitude and sadness.
“Not only am I in this place, but I witness other black excellences,” Ms. Calhoun said. “The dancers are real, the people are real – it’s not just about remembering what happened, it’s about seeing a new, updated version of it.”