When Reverend Christopher Rush laid the cornerstone of the First African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in 1853, he placed in it a time capsule, a box that contained a bible, a hymn book, and copies of two New York papers,The TribuneandThe Sun. These were mementos for future New Yorkers
Rush, who escaped slavery and became the second ordained bishop of the AME Zion Church, also delivered the church’s first sermon. He read in part from the First Epistle of Peter, an address to the oppressed and persecuted, assuring the congregation that “although now for a little while you may have to suffer through various trials,” salvation would reward those who kept the faith.
But even as he counseled hope, the church was doomed.What Rush didn’t know was that the land where the Church would stand, part of a thriving African American community, had been condemned two weeks before as part of the plan to create New York’s Central Park.
The community, called Seneca Village, began in 1825 and eventually spanned from 82nd Street to 89th Street along what is now the western edge of Central Park. By the time it was finally razed in 1857, it had become a refuge for African Americans. Though most were nominally free (the last slave wasn’t emancipated until 1827) life was far from pleasant. The population of African Americans living in New York City tripled between abolition and complete emancipation and the migrants were derided in the press. Mordecai Noah, founder ofTheNew York Enquirer, was especially well-known for his attacks on African Americans, fuming at one point that “the free negroes of this city are a nuisance incomparably greater than a million slaves.”
Most landowners at the time refused to sell to African Americans. A white couple who lived in what was then a distant northern outpost of Manhattan was an exception, subdividing and selling off their land first to Epiphany Davis and Andrew Williams, two prominent members of the The New York African Society for Mutual Relief, and then to the AME Zion Church. More members of the African Society, whose purpose was in part to build black communities, followed suit and purchased land too. Slowly, houses were built. Some of them were rather grand, two-story affairs, with barns and stables, and some were modest shacks. The area was eventually anchored by three churches and a school.
By 1871, Seneca Village had largely been forgotten. That year,The New York Heraldreported that laborers creating a new entrance to the park at 85th Street and 8th Avenue had discovered a coffin, “enclosing the body of a Negro, decomposed beyond recognition.” The discovery was a mystery, the paper reported, because “these lands were dug up five years ago, when the trees were planted there, and no such coffins were there at the time.” That’s unlikely, as the site was the graveyard of the AME Zion church.
Researchers from Columbia, CUNY, and the New York Historical Society have been working on excavating the site of Seneca Village since the early 2000s. The work has been slow, with excavation starting in 2011.
The only official artifact that remains intact on the site is a commemorative plaque, dedicated in 2001 to the lost village.
A pervious version of this story misstated the name of Christopher Rush’s church.