Discovering the history and culture of Seneca Village, New York City


Many people who stroll through Central Park, whether they are tourists or lifelong New Yorkers have no idea what the past holds.

Andrew Williams, an African American shoe shiner, bought land in Manhattan’s middle in 1825. This was two years before New York abolished slavery. Many more free Black Americans fled the discrimination and disease of downtown and created their own bustling settlement, called Seneca Village.

“Seneca Village was an area of opportunity. It was a response to racism,” Cynthia Copeland, president of the Institute for the Exploration of Seneca Village History, said. She spent many decades researching its history.

Faith Salie, Correspondent asked: “Is there a possibility that Seneca Village was part the Underground Railroad?”

Copeland responded, “There is, and that’s speculative but highly probable.”

“Why do you believe that the history of our country has been untold or unknown up until fairly recently?”

Copeland said, “The victorious get to write the stories.” These were people who were forgotten. It is regrettable that the story was kept secret for so long. It’s amazing that the story is now out.”

An 18th-century map depicting the settlement of Seneca Village on Manhattan’s West Side during the 1980s before Central Park was built. 

CBS News


The story is largely unsolved, but archaeologists discovered hundreds of artifacts that were part of middle-class village lives.

Copeland said, “We found many beautiful bottles, [and] shoes that were probably the same size as one of the children.” “And one student just started to weep.”

Seneca Village had the highest concentration of African-American property owners in New York prior to the Civil War. White and Black villagers went to church together.

However, when New York City’s elite wanted to create a park to rival those in Europe, they found themselves drawn to Manhattan’s middle.

Copeland stated, “There was an insinuation campaign in the media: We’ve got to get rid of all the people that live in this park that shouldn’t be there. They are thieves, squatters and tramps. This is what they used.

The city took control of the land using eminent domain in 1853. Around 1,600 people were forced to leave, with nearly 300 of them from Seneca Village. Copeland stated that people were unhappy and put up a fight. 

But it was no use.

Seneca Village was only around for 32 years. The creation of Central Park began, and the rest is history. However, it was only recently that it became incomplete. The Central Park Conservancy has installed an outdoor exhibit and a monument to a prominent Seneca Village clan.

Marie Warsh, a Conservancy historian who leads tours of the landscape, said to Salie that it seemed like Central Park has existed since the beginning. People are often amazed that people have lived here.

Cal Jones, Manhattan Borough Historian Emeritus has spent thousands researching residents and took on the task of finding out who their descendants are.

Andrew Williams, the shoe-shiner, described himself as a visionary. “I saw the Andrew Williams, Seneca Village as kinda like a puzzle. Let me now put all the pieces together to create this stunning picture.

Last year, the picture was even clearer when someone recognized his search and reached out to him. Andrew Thomas Williams IV is the great-great-great grandson of Andrew Williams. He said, “It almost felt as if I found a treasure.” Mareia, his wife, didn’t know that Seneca Village was connected until a researcher messaged their couple on Facebook.

The history of Seneca Village was suddenly their family’s history. Andrew stated, “My great-grandfather taught music at a music school.” It made the entire Andrew Thomas Williams family so much more special. That connection is something I now truly get. It’s more than a name.”

Salie asked Mareia Wilkins, “How did it feel?”

She replied, “It gave my a sense od being and a feeling of pride.” “So, now I’m a little taller and feel a lot more powerful.”

They just had to tell the story when they visited Seneca Village. Andrew chuckled, “We haven’t been able locate any descendants.”

“And so, I said, “Descendants right there!” ‘” said Mareia.

Andrew said, “Oh, they started to clap, they were excited.”

Mareia stated, “All that we can do is honour the past.” “Nothing can be covered.

Andrew Thomas Williams IV stated that he will one day pass on a family heirloom: A ring with an “A” from his great-grandfather. It is a precious reminder of the story to be told.

Mareia pointed out that there are many other descendants.

Andrew said, “Yes, it’s necessary to tell the story.” “And then we’ll be able to learn so much more than what we know now. The whole story is amazing, and it’s going to be incredible when that information comes out.