In the middle of Manhattan was once the first New York settlement of liberated Afro-Americans. But Seneca Village was destroyed. What would it look like there today if that hadn’t happened?
In the often harmonious everyday life of New York’s Central Park, some brown signs on the central west side of the site are seldom noticed. It says “Discover Seneca Village” in white letters – discover the village of Seneca.
Lots of green in the metropolis
Central Park, which has served as a backdrop in countless Hollywood films, is one of the metropolis’ most popular attractions with more than 40 million visitors a year. The 3.5 square kilometer green space, completed by landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux in 1876, seems to have become an indispensable part of the cityscape today – but for its creation the Seneca Village had to give way, the first settlement of liberated Afro-Americans in New York .
In 1825 the owners John and Elizabeth Whitehead had their land – located between 82nd and 89th Street on the west side of today’s park – divided into 200 parcels and sold. Andrew Williams, a 25-year-old African-American shoeshine boy, bought the first three lots for $ 125. Saleswoman Epiphany Davis bought 12 lots for $ 578. Over the years a small settlement emerged – consisting mainly of free-born or freed Afro-Americans, as well as some Irish and German immigrants.
By 1850 the settlement already consisted of around 50 houses, three churches, cemeteries and a school. “Seneca Village was one of the few Afro-American settlements at the time and enabled residents to live far away from the built-up areas in south Manhattan and away from the unhealthy conditions and the racism they faced there,” says the Central Park administration . In 1857, however, the New York City Council decided to tear down Seneca Village and create Central Park.
After that, the settlement was long forgotten. A few years ago, the park administration began to use signs to indicate the former existence of the village – and now Seneca Village is getting the really big stage, directly opposite on the other side of Central Park in the renowned Metropolitan Museum. “What if this settlement had had the chance to grow and prosper?” The exhibition “Before Yesterday We Could Fly” recently asked.
Just one room
The show consists of a single room, but it is permanent – and plays with an established exhibition concept of the Metropolitan Museum, the so-called “Period Room”. These are special rooms in the permanent exhibitions, which are supposed to transport the visitors with furniture, wallpaper and art to specific time periods in special places – to France in the 18th century, for example, or to ancient Rome. These rooms have a “very special magic”, wrote “Vogue” recently – but so far they have dealt almost exclusively with the life and work of white historical figures.
Now the “Met” has for the first time an “Afro-futuristic Period Room”, designed by production designer Hannah Beachler, who was involved in Beyoncé’s music film project “Lemonade” and won an Oscar for her work on the film “Black Panther”. “This project is important to me because it is a necessary conversation about time, loss, community, and hope,” said Beachler. The room offers “an important opportunity to start new dialogues and to illustrate stories that have not yet been told between our walls,” said the Austrian museum director Max Hollein.
A small house is suggested in the brightly wallpapered room, filled with works of art and objects such as bowls and combs – inspired by objects from the real Seneca Village that were found during excavations at Columbia University in 2011. A video installation is also running.
“New York Times” critic Salamishah Tillet hailed the exhibition as “one of the most carefully considered reparations projects” that the Metropolitan Museum, which has often been criticized in the past for its too limitedly white and also male perspective on the history of art, has so far produced. “Ideally, the space is so haunting and suggestive that the visitor then goes to the site of the former Seneca Village in Central Park, only a few minutes away – and sees that the clash of historical extinction and artistic speculation, forced eviction and dreams of black freedom is so shocking and unfair that we all mourn and begin the difficult work of economic and emotional reparation together. ”dpa