Landmarks Announces Online Exhibit for Seneca Village Artifacts

Storage jar found in Seneca Village, part of the Seneca Village Unearthed online exhibit. Image Credit: LPC

The exhibited artifacts will help establish what life was really like for middle-class African American families in Seneca Village. On February 20, 2020, Landmarks Preservation Commission announced the launch of Seneca Village Unearthed, an online exhibit and collection of nearly three hundred artifacts from Seneca Village.  Seneca Village, formerly located in what is now Central Park, was once New York City’s largest community of free African American landowners in the mid-nineteenth century. The village was founded in the 1820s in what was then a rural area north of the city’s center located today between 82nd and 89th Street and Central Park West and the Great Lawn.

Even after slavery ended in New York State in 1827, housing codes and restrictive covenants made it challenging for people of African decent to buy land. Seneca Village did not have such restrictions. Its location, far removed from the city, may have brought some relief for its residents from the persistent discrimination and oppression they faced.

By 1855, the predominantly African American community was a vibrant, middle-class, multi-ethnic settlement with at least 220 residents that included Irish and German immigrants. It had three churches, a school, planting fields and orchards. Seneca Village was displaced in 1857 when the City acquired its land through eminent domain to create Central Park.

Archaeology has been vital in uncovering the remaining traces of this community. Little was known until scholars began to study it in the 1990s. The Seneca Village Project the explored the Village’s material remains through archaeology.

The Seneca Village Unearthed online exhibit and collection will allow the general public to have access to nearly three hundred artifacts and get a glimpse of what life was like for Seneca Villagers in the mid-nineteenth century. This online exhibit is part of Landmark’s continuing efforts to make the city’s archaeological research and artifacts from across the city available to a wide audience. Landmarks archaeology staff photographed the objects and digitized the catalogue of artifacts to create the online collection in addition to housing the artifacts at its NYC Archaeological Repository: The Nan A. Rothschild Center.

Landmark’s online collection and exhibit focus on the artifacts found as part of Seneca Village Project in 2011, when archaeologists found the stone foundation of the Charlotte and William Godfrey Wilson house and the original ground surface of the village. The exhibit highlights artifacts that belonged to the Wilson family, which includes dishes from their table and some of their personal objects. These objects help establish what life was really like for this middle-class African American family in Seneca Village. This is very different from how this community was portrayed in the newspapers during the eminent domain process that depicted villagers living in squalid conditions.

Landmarks Preservation Commission Chair Sarah Carroll said: “We are delighted that for the first-time members of the public will have access to this highly significant archaeological collection, which unearths the stories of the people who lived in this once vibrant African-American community. LPC is seeking to share the story of all New Yorkers in all aspects of our work, and by making resources like these available we can ensure everyone can learn about this significant part of our past.”

Amanda Sutphin, Director of Archaeology of the Landmarks Preservation Commission said: “We hope that people will be drawn to the remaining traces of what was once a vital 19th-century African-American community and from them better understand what life would have been like for Seneca Villagers. We welcome scholars to study this collection and reveal more about the stories of Seneca Village.”


By: Laine Vitkevich (Laine is a CityLaw intern and New York Law School Student, Class of 2020)


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.