Before New York City became a modern cityscape, much of the land was farmland. But early in New York’s history, slavery was practiced throughout what would become the five boroughs, as well as on Long Island and in the upstate regions. Slavery was introduced to the city as early as 1626, just shortly after the first Dutch settlers arrived. When the English took over the city in 1664, the Black population was approximately 9%. This would only grow as slavery became significantly more widespread, with about 40% of white households owning slaves. Minor slave uprisings were prevalent, including a particularly large one in 1741, and around 7,000 slaves were legally admitted between 1700 and 1774. However, there were free Black communities in and around New York City too.
By 1799, children of slaves were declared free, and it was not until 1827 that New York State Governor Tompkins abolished slavery. Following abolition (and in some cases, prior to abolition), many free African Americans established small communities, many of which were fully economically self-sufficient. While some like, Seneca Village, are known to many New York history buffs, others still remain unknown to most. Here is our guide to 12 free Black settlements in and around New York City, with a bonus one in the Adirondacks.
1. Seneca Village, which was located in modern-day Central Park
Seneca Village was settled in 1825 and flourished through 1857, consisting predominantly of African Americans, many of whom owned property. By 1855, the community included 52 homes, a school, and three churches for its approximately 225 residents. Tanner’s Spring was likely a water source for the community, named for Dr. Henry S. Tanner, who fasted for 40 days and only drank water from Central Park’s springs. African Americans began buying property between 82nd and 83rd Streets and Seventh and Eighth Avenues in the mid-1820s, accelerated by the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, which acquired land for a burial ground. Most of the homes were two stories, and most residents were employed as chefs, sailors, coopers, and preachers. St. Michael’s Church established a Sunday School in Seneca Village in 1833, serving as an important community center.
Along with African American residents, there were also Irish and German immigrants living there. Unlike the shantytowns of what would become southern Central Park, Seneca Village was a safe and stable community; owning a home in mid-19th century New York gave many African American residents the right to vote, as well as a refuge from racism, which plagued other parts of the city. However, in 1853, the City of New York acquired the land by eminent domain. Residents were compensated for their land, though many argued that it was insufficient. Construction of Central Park began just a year after the community dissolved in 1858, and by the 1860s, essentially none of the property remained. Residents relocated to other sections of the city.
Though Central Park’s construction erased much of the history of Seneca Village, scholars and archeologists have worked to learn more about this historic community, one of the most famous free Black communities in New York. Historians Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar were the first to study Seneca Village in detail in the early 1990s, after which the New-York Historical Society organized an exhibit curated by Grady Turner and Cynthia Copeland titled Before Central Park: The Life and Death of Seneca Village. In 2011, the Institute for the Exploration of Seneca Village History conducted an archaeological excavation at the site, which uncovered stone foundation walls and thousands of artifacts from residents, including an iron tea kettle, a roasting pan, and a stoneware beer bottle. However, the foundation bricks, which are commonly considered a foundation of Seneca Village, are actually the remains of a 1930s sandbox.