Let’s Talk About the Taking of Black Land

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Let’s Talk About the Taking of Black Land

In 1825, John and Elizabeth Whitehead divided their Manhattan farmland into 200 lots and began selling it off. I know it’s hard to imagine Manhattan as ever having farmland, but “the city” remained densely clustered on the southern tip of the island well into the 19th century.

The first three lots of the Whiteheads’ land were bought for $125 by a shoe shiner named Andrew Williams. Williams was a Black man, and the Whiteheads were among the very few white landowners who would sell to Black people back then.

Williams was a member of the New York African Society for Mutual Relief. The group sought to help Black people buy real estate and was moderately successful at helping the Black middle class gain a foothold in New York. Other Black families began buying land from the Whiteheads in the area around Williams’s new plot. A Black store clerk named Epiphany Davis bought 12 lots for $578. The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church bought six lots, and the village became even more desirable to Black middle-class families. Irish immigrants, another group of “undesirables” the Whiteheads were willing to sell to, bought many of the other lots. The Whiteheads ended up selling half of their lots to Black people. The little enclave they made was known as Seneca Village. According to census data, in 1855 Seneca Village had 264 residents, three churches, three cemeteries, and two schools.

Seneca Village was a home of political power for Black people as well. Remember, in 1855 there were no 14th or 15th Amendments. There was no guaranteed right to vote for African Americans, even free ones living in the North. To be eligible to vote in New York State in the 1850s, a Black man needed to be a male landowner in possession of $250 worth of property and have state residency for three years. Neither the property nor the residency requirements applied to white men. Seneca Village was a way for some Black men to meet that property requirement. Of the 100 Black people eligible to vote in New York State in 1845, 10 lived in Seneca Village. Five years later, in 1850, of the 71 Black property owners in New York City, 20 percent lived in Seneca Village.

By 1857, however, the entire area had been razed to the ground. The homes and churches were demolished, and the people were scattered. Seneca Village did not fall to some natural disaster, or even the ubiquitous mob of angry whites that shows up, again and again, throughout American history to lynch Black people who seem to be getting ahead. No, Seneca Village was destroyed because in 1853 New York passed a law allowing for the construction of Central Park.

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