Public Humanities: Forgotten Pieces of Seneca Village, the Free Black Community That Was Destroyed to Build Central Park

Last week, we caught up with Kaytlin Ernske ‘20, Sophia Lopez ‘22, and Professor Alexander Manevitz (pictured above) to talk with them about their Public Humanities Collaborative project. The student researchers are assisting Professor Manevitz this summer as he continues to study Seneca Village for his current book manuscript, The Rise and Fall of Seneca Village: Remaking Race and Space in Nineteenth-Century New York City. Seneca Village was a predominantly African American community in New York City during the antebellum period. The neighborhood was a growing free black community with strong social ties, schools, markets, and churches where residents were establishing themselves by buying property and making a sustainable community. Then, the City of New York destroyed that community to build Central Park. This summer, Kaytlin and Sophia have been working to piece together forgotten pieces of the neighborhood and highlight the voices of marginalized New Yorkers that have been lost in the archives. 

Kaytlin and Sophia’s work this summer focuses on using public records to make meaning of what Seneca Village was before its destruction when all the residents were forced by the City to sell their property. They have spent hours transcribing and tagging primary source documents property deeds, petitions, school records, church records, and more. Now, they are beginning to use digital tools like Cytoscape and Palladio to organize these documents and attach meaning and social networks to Seneca Villagers.

Professor Alex Manevitz said the meaning making part of their research are critical to the focus of his book. Much of what exists about Seneca Village in archival records is just small fragments of official documentation such as tax records or census records.

So much of what we know about Seneca Village in terms of what survives in the archival record…. Because they’re poor or middle class, because they’re Black, because they’re on the outskirts of the City, there’s very little of what they produce that survives in the archives beyond 150+ years. But once the City comes knocking and wants to build Central Park, then they’re in the public record… So a big part of this is–How do we get to social lives of these people through these official documents that often seem like soulless data points? How do we tell people’s stories and learn about people’s lives through that? – Professor Alex Manevitz

The meaning making and the social network mapping that the students are doing is work that has never been done about Seneca Village before. In general, information about Seneca Village is hard to find, and what’s easiest to find is extremely negative. Readily available information consists mostly of propaganda pieces that equate residents of Seneca Villagers to garbage, animals, the swamps they live near and more– which was used to justify displacing the entire community.

“I thought it was powerful to see people who for a long time have been disenfranchised and pushed to the edges of society to tell their own stories. Despite that they had to go through a legal process and it’s in these official documents, it actually showed the power of people fighting for themselves — and most people didn’t have attorneys to [write petitions] for them, so when they wrote their documents they were writing about their stories and their needs and refusing to be ignored. – Kaytlin Ernske ’20

Kaytlin, Sophia, and Professor Manevitz explore using data visualization tools to show the social networks of Seneca Village residents

One of the themes woven throughout Kaytlin and Sophia’s work in PHC this summer is considering how histories of discriminatory housing policies inform current day and the future. Throughout the summer, students in PHC have been learning about the different functions of public humanities projects– projects that aim to take specialist or academic knowledge and make it accessible to the general public. In this case, a public humanities project that brings life to the experiences of Seneca Villagers aligns with so much of what we see today. Kaytlin and Sophia both noticed parallels between the destruction of Seneca Village and current urban renewal projects.

I think it’s very important to note how the stories we’re discovering are relevant today. In our time at CT Fair Housing we’re studying urban renewal in Willimantic and we’ve been learning about urban renewal projects in the past and they’re very similar to this, (what happened in Seneca Village). You see marginalized communities being displaced and a city being built, and a huge question that comes up during our work with them is who is the city being built for? That’s still very relevant today and we’re seeing the connections between this and what’s happening in Hartford.” -Sophia Lopez ’22

For the community partner component of their project, they have been working with CT Fair Housing Center to study urban renewal in Willimantic and create a digital tour. They have been making connections between the destruction of Seneca Village, urban renewal in Willimantic in the 1970s, and current day urban renewal in Hartford and the way marginalized populations have been and are being affected. 

Overall, Kaytlin and Sophia have said this summer program has provided them an opportunity to do intensive research

they wouldn’t otherwise have been able to do.

“I think I’ve gained independence as a researcher. Before it was papers where it was like get the research done quickly and in by the paper’s due date. But now I have more time and I have a mentor who is able to show me what real effective research looks like.” – Kaytlin Ernske ’20

 

This project is a lot bigger than anything I’ve worked on before. When I’m writing a paper for school my information doesn’t really go beyond articles I can find with Google Scholar, but this is an introduction to new types of sources, concept mapping and piecing together information. It’s a completely new approach. I’ve never experienced anything like this.” – Sophia Lopez ’22

Although the Public Humanities Collaborative summer program is just 10 weeks long, Professor Manevitz says the work Kaytlin and Sophia have been doing this summer contributes to a much longer lasting project. He hopes to continue working on the book manuscript, publish, and ensure that all the information is public. The goal is to have the databases Sophia and Kaytlin are working on online so that researchers and the general public can see the stories of real people who lived in Seneca Village– as a counternarrative to the easily accessible negative propaganda that is accessible now. These databases will be an invaluable resource for future researchers.


The Public Humanities Collaborative (PHC) is a summer research opportunity that brings together students, faculty, and individuals and organizations in Hartford to work on public humanities: the study of how people interpret stories of our human experience. PHC is a component of Trinity College’s Summer Research Program funded by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, funds 16 students per summer. To learn more, visit http://cher.trincoll.edu/phc or contact Director of Community Learning Megan.Hartline@trincoll.edu.