Reviews | Seneca Village and the search for the black utopia

Seneca Village had the merit of being located several miles from the hostile downtown, on the western edge of what is now Central Park, between 83rd and 89th Streets. In addition to allowing black homeowners to vote, the bylaw placed citizens of color a welcome distance from Lower Manhattan.

The new settlement also provided a perfect setting for fugitives from slavery to take a break and cool off while moving north on the Underground Railroad. Among the escapees who passed through the city during the Seneca Village period was the remarkably handsome Frederick Douglass, a Baltimore fugitive who would soon become one of the greatest orators of his day.

One of the first buyers, Biblically named Epiphany Davis, highlighted the colony’s relationship to the anti-slavery struggle when he bequeathed his daughter a framed copy of a slave ship as “a reminder that whatever How comfortable life can be for hard-working black Americans, the evils of slavery should never be forgotten.

The story of Seneca Village is often told through the lens of tragedy and doom, but historian Sara Cedar Miller tells a more nuanced story in her upcoming book, “Before Central Park.” In this story, village land ownership is presented as a driver of empowerment and even enrichment for African Americans who have tapped into the real estate wave and cashed in at the right time.

Early buyers typically bought between one and three lots for an average of $ 40 each. It would have required caution and diligent savings on the part of laborers, gardeners, and porters who only earned around $ 69 a year. Those who sold during the real estate boom of the mid-1830s probably made more money than they had in their entire working lives. While these salespeople were making handsome profits, a new cohort of African Americans came onto the scene in search of security, financial assets and, of course, the right to vote.

A number of families who owned property in Seneca Village were members of an African American elite who lived, attended church, and ran businesses downtown. These families bought land in the village in part to support black self-determination, but they also saw real estate as an investment that would appreciate over time. Ms Miller writes that “the black elites kept their land or passed it on to their heirs until they were bought by the city for Central Park.”

African-American businesswoman and abolitionist Elizabeth Gloucester stands out in this story. It has long been clear that she had amassed considerable wealth at the end of her life. “Before the Park” clearly shows that Mrs. Gloucester’s famous real estate empire began with the Seneca Village land which she bought in 1849 for $ 100 – and for which the city granted her $ 460 in 1856 when she bought it. bought the land to build the park. .