Seneca Village had the virtue of being located several miles outside the hostile city center, on the western edge of what is now Central Park, between 83rd and 89th Streets. In addition to allowing Black property owners to vote, the settlement placed citizens of color at a welcome distance from Lower Manhattan.
The new settlement also provided an ideal setting for fugitives from slavery to pause and refresh themselves while moving north on the Underground Railroad. Among the escapees who passed through the city during the Seneca Village period was the strikingly handsome Frederick Douglass, a fugitive from Baltimore who was soon to become among the greatest orators of his day.
One of the first buyers, the biblically named Epiphany Davis, underscored the settlement’s relationship to the antislavery struggle when he bequeathed his daughter a framed print of a slave ship as “a reminder that no matter how comfortable life could be for hardworking Black Americans, the evils of slavery were never to be forgotten.”
The Seneca Village story is often recounted through the lens of tragedy and woe, but the historian Sara Cedar Miller relates a more nuanced tale in her forthcoming book, “Before Central Park.” In this telling, land ownership in the village is cast as an engine of empowerment, and even enrichment for African Americans who exploited the real estate wave and cashed out at the right moment.
Early buyers typically purchased between one and three lots for an average of $40 each. This would have required prudence and diligent saving by manual laborers, gardeners and porters who earned only about $69 a year. Those who sold out during the real estate boom of the mid-1830s probably earned more money than they had in all of their working lives. While these sellers turned a tidy profit, a new cohort of African Americans arrived on the scene looking for safety, financial assets and, of course, the right to vote.
A number of families that owned property in Seneca Village were members of an African American elite that lived, attended church and ran businesses downtown. These families purchased lots in the village partly in support of Black self-determination — but they also viewed real estate as an investment that would appreciate over time. Ms. Miller writes that the “Black elites held on to their land or passed it to their heirs until it was bought by the city for Central Park.”
The African American businesswoman and abolitionist Elizabeth Gloucester stands out in this story. It has long been clear that she had amassed considerable wealth by the end of her life. “Before Central Park” makes a strong case that Ms. Gloucester’s renowned real estate empire began with the Seneca Village lot that she purchased in 1849 for $100 — and for which the city awarded her $460 in 1856 when it purchased the plot to build the park.