Seneca Village was founded as slavery was ending in New York State. According to a law enacted in 1799, enslaved people were to be emancipated (or freed) on July 4, 1827. The law had many clauses, so that not everyone was freed immediately. For instance, males born before 1799 were not to be emancipated until they turned 28 and females until they turned 25.

Not everyone of African ancestry was enslaved. Many people were part of the "free colored" population. Some of these men and women had been freed by their enslavers, some were born free, and some escaped enslavement in the South by running to the North.

People of African ancestry in the United States have been referred to by many different names. In the nineteenth century, although whites used such terms as "colored," people proud of their African heritage would often refer to themselves as "African." This is demonstrated by associations and organizations formed by the members of African communities, such as the African Free Schools, the African Dorcas Society, the African Mutual Relief Association, and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. Even so, most documents of the period used terms like "colored," "nigger," and "negro."

According to census records and New York City Directories, most of the founders of Seneca Village were "free coloreds." City Directories recorded the names, addresses, and occupations of many heads of households. Most of the Seneca Village inhabitants migrated to New York from Virginia, Maryland, Connecticut, and New Jersey, although many came from elsewhere in Manhattan.

New York City in the 1800s was a rapidly growing, ethnically mixed, and crowded port city. The laboring classes carved out neighborhoods for themselves, living in tenements, shanties, and unstable wooden houses built on former marsh and swamp land.

Sanitary conditions were often horrendous; as a result, death was common, particularly among the young.

The city was divided into wards, and there were three so-called "Colored Wards," each with its own flavor and reputation. The area now called Foley Square was home to the Sixth Ward, which began as a working-class African American neighborhood. The African Burial Ground was rediscovered there in 1991.

In the 1840s, Irish immigrants also moved there. Five Points, also in the Sixth Ward, was known as the city's most notorious slum.

Because African Americans were subjected to the worst housing conditions in the downtown neighborhoods, those with the financial means jumped at the chance to move to an open, airy, and rural space in northern Manhattan. This is one of the many theories why African American males began to settle "uptown" in the Seneca Village area. A move away from the dark cellar apartments and dank tenements to a family plot of land with a wooden house, built by household members or perhaps through a community effort, must have been appealing.


"Moving day" was customarily on May 1.

Another reason for the trek northward was that land was relatively inexpensive compared to the prohibitive prices for land downtown. It was nearly impossible for African American laborers to purchase land downtown. And until the early 1800s, a state law made it difficult for African Americans to own land through inheritance.

The New York State Constitution of 1821 required African American males to own $250 in property in order to qualify for the suffrage--that is, the right to vote. They also had to prove that they had paid taxes and lived in the state for three years. The state Constitution also gradually eliminate property requirements for white males, so that all white males had the right to vote.

Purchasing land in Seneca Village ensured the land-owner the right to vote. By 1850, African American Seneca Villagers were 39 times as likely to own property as other African Americans in New York City. The idea of voting, and having a say in how the government makes decisions, appears to have been very important to Seneca Villagers. In 1855, there were approximately 12,000 African American New Yorkers. Of these, only 100 males could vote. Ten of these voters lived in Seneca Village.

By the 1850s, Seneca Village was an integrated community of African Americans and immigrants from Germany and Ireland. Irish immigrants entered the United States in large numbers in the 1840s, fleeing a great famine that resulted when the potato crop failed and there wasn't enough food to feed the people. Single women arrived first, followed by single men and eventually families.

By 1855, at least 264 people lived in Seneca Village. Approximately 30 percent were European, predominantly Irish. Few documents have been uncovered that tell about the immigrant population of the village, so less is know about them. However, two Irish residents of the village would later become infamous political leaders in New York City's Tammany Hall.




They were George Washington Plunkitt, shown here, and Richard Croker.

Despite segregation, discrimination, and conflict elsewhere in the city, it appears that Seneca Village residents lived in relative harmony. For example, Margaret Geery was the midwife in Seneca Village. According to birth records, Ms. Geery delivered children for African Americans and whites. African Americans joined Germans and Irish in worship at All Angels' Church, and buried their dead side by side in the church cemetery.