A closer look at the history and legacy of Seneca Village, Manhattan.
Secrets of the Dead: The Woman in the Iron Coffin Premiered Wednesday, October 3 on PBS, and is now streaming via pbs.org/secrets and PBS apps.
Executive Producer: Stephanie Carter
Producer/Director: Jacqueline Medina
Producer: Ben Phelps
Producer: Hanna Rioseco
Editing and Cinematography: Chelsea Rugg
Camera and Sound: Daniel Rivera
Re-recording Mixer: Josh Broome
Graphics: Kyle Sweet
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When we look at what it takes to be an American I think you find no better example than right here in New York for this own free black communities in which they defined what it meant to be an American even when the law and the government did not see them as such. One of the first free black communities in New York is Seneca village.
it's founded in 1825 and that of course is pre-emancipation when we're talking about New York specifically. Slavery ends New York in 1827. So a group of African Americans who were affiliated with the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, they were the first to buy property in this area that became known as Seneca Village. Daily life in Seneca Village would have been impacted by racial violence on a daily basis. they lived in an integrated community so while it was a free black community they had among them Irish neighbors and some German neighbors too. And they intentionally placed themselves there. Seneca Village comprised approximately 70 buildings. There was three churches the first church to be created was the African Union Church. This church also did have a school and it was one of the few schools that was available for African American students so it helps us understand Seneca Village as a place where community and church and education was very important. I would say one of the more famous residents if you will was Albro Lyons. He actually lived in lower Manhattan during the draft riots.
And his daughter Maritcha who was a teenager at the time, she's the one who left her memoirs and really explained the horror that happened in Manhattan streets during the summer of 1863 when African Americans were basically being tortured and murdered by their fellow New Yorkers. in 1855 when the city starts thinking about a public space that will be called Central Park they decide that Seneca Village has no value and said we would have more value if we became a public space and we will call that public space Central Park. Of course it really had nothing to do with that community or upholding what that community stood for. You know it was about 800 acres of land and while it was not the first example of the use of eminent domain it was certainly a prominent example. But it is certain that you know the creation of the park did really disrupt the development of what was one of the city's most important African American communities. Within 30 years, Seneca Village is basically established, thrives, and it evaporates completely. So there are not a lot of physical traces of Seneca village in the landscape. Since about 1997 a group of historians and archaeologists have been studying Seneca village You know we found more portraits and illustrations and we were finding --we found a map that actually had the names of individuals so we didn't know it was in our collection that helped us to understand though this is why these people are there and then from there those names on the map we could connect to the census records then we could find out for sure that these were actually black folk and white folk and they actually owned their property they weren't squatters and so it was just telling a different kind of story.
They found such magical things that I think tell a story of a really dignified thriving African American community. It's through their efforts that we know so much more about Seneca Village. We collected these things and we try to interpret them to see if they dated to the period of Seneca Village, and so they did and you look at the newspapers, you look at the maps, you look at the title deeds, you'll get family papers and you just kind of piece that together like okay so this is telling an interesting story how about how can we bolster this story? How can we humanize it a little bit more?
There's no descendants that have been found from Seneca village and it's not from lack of trying. My suspicion is to do with the amount of time that Seneca village existed for. It existed through to 1855-57 --for whatever reason like so many things in history we lose them to the archives but not for lack of trying.
we are in a search, we''re on a hunt to try to find direct descendants who are connected to the story because again it's just one of those things that will humanize and you know put a nice punctuation mark --an exclamation at the the story. If you look at the history and the rediscovery of Seneca Village there is a pattern here and the pattern is this: the city always erases history that's what it does. It does so in the name of New York, in the name of progress but I think it's really important that ordinary people ordinary New Yorkers ordinary Americans understand that it's always being other ordinary Americans who have preserved their own communities even if it means forgetting about that community and then rediscovering them again decades later.