[Marxism] The Death of the Black Utopia

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Nov 29 11:08:47 MST 2019


NY Times Editorial, Nov. 29, 2019
The Death of the Black Utopia
By Brent Staples

New York City embraced willful amnesia when landscapers working at the 
western edge of Central Park unearthed two coffins in August of 1871. An 
engraved plate on a richly appointed rosewood coffin identified the 
deceased as Margaret McIntay, buried two decades earlier at the age of 
“sixteen years, three months and fourteen days.” A more modest box found 
not far away contained the remains of an unidentified black person 
described in the press as “decomposed beyond recognition.”

The New York Herald pronounced the discovery a mystery, even though the 
location — near the West 85th Street entrance to the park — told what 
should have been a familiar story. Less than a decade and a half 
earlier, the city had cleared the way for its hallowed park by evicting 
1,600 or so people who lived on the land. Among those displaced were the 
residents of Seneca Village, Manhattan’s first significant settlement of 
black property owners and the epicenter of black political power in 
Manhattan during the mid-19th century. The village occupied land along 
what is now Central Park’s western edge, between roughly 83rd and 89th 
Streets.

 From its modest beginnings in 1825, the village had grown over three 
decades to include homes, gardens, a school, cemeteries and perhaps as 
many as 300 residents. By the time it was razed more than 30 years 
later, the settlement counted several distinguished citizens among its 
property owners. Nevertheless, real estate interests and their minions 
in the press set the stage for what the writer James Baldwin would later 
describe as “Negro removal” by defaming the flourishing enclave as a 
“shantytown” and a “nigger village.”

As the historian Leslie M. Alexander shows in her book on black activism 
in early New York City, defamation had done its work by the time the 
landscapers uncovered the forgotten dead in 1871. Less than 15 years 
after an eviction process that had been documented in the press and in 
the courts, few New Yorkers remembered that park construction had swept 
away a community. The story had been eclipsed by the cultural forgetting 
that often cuts black achievements out of history, Ms. Alexander writes, 
and “was effectively erased from the memory of New York City.”

The Seneca Village story was essentially lost until 1992, when Roy 
Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar resurrected it in their celebrated 
book “The Park and the People: A History of Central Park.’’ Not long 
afterward, a New-York Historical Society exhibition on the life and 
death of the village caused such a stir that the society created a 
curriculum that brought the story into classrooms. Since then, 
archaeologists and historians have greatly expanded what we know about 
who lived in the village and why black residents fled Lower Manhattan 
for a rustic settlement that was a few miles outside the urban center at 
the time.

The Central Park Conservancy, the nonprofit organization that manages 
Central Park, draws on this new history for an outdoor exhibition that 
identifies the sites of important buildings in the settlement while 
guiding visitors through a pastoral landscape that is essentially the 
same today as it was in the 19th century. Mayor Bill de Blasio has 
wisely seized on the Seneca Village revival to underscore the need for 
remaking the lily-white landscape of historical monuments in New York. 
The mayor’s planned Central Park monument will celebrate the heroic 
Lyons family, charter members of the New York City free black elite who 
owned land in Seneca Village and ran a stop on the Underground Railroad 
in Manhattan that sheltered hundreds of escapees from slavery.

The successful businessman and racial justice advocate Albro Lyons had 
deep roots in the churches and voluntary associations that championed 
racial justice in 19th-century Manhattan. He graduated from the first 
African Free School founded by the New York Manumission Society, a 
wealthy group of white men that included people like Alexander Hamilton 
and John Jay. The school produced other members of the African-American 
elite, including the internationally renowned Shakespearean actor Ira 
Aldridge, the abolitionist Henry Highland Garnet and James McCune Smith, 
the first African-American to receive a medical degree.

Albro Lyons and his wife, Mary Joseph Lyons — also from a free family — 
ran a boardinghouse for African-American sailors that served as the 
perfect cover for an Underground Railroad operation. Their daughter, 
Maritcha Remond Lyons, was a teacher, feminist and popular public 
speaker who chronicled the family’s story in a memoir that provides a 
rare window into that era of black activism in the city.

By elevating this family, New York City is drawing an explicit 
connection between the aspirations that Seneca Village represented for 
the black families who invested in property there and the racial 
terrorism that African-Americans, including the Lyons family, often 
faced in crowded upstart Lower Manhattan.

Manhattan, Capital of Slavery

New Yorkers who grew up with the fiction that slavery was limited to the 
South learned otherwise in 1991, when construction in Lower Manhattan 
unearthed hundreds of skeletons from a forgotten colonial-era cemetery 
that had served as the resting place of 15,000 Africans. The burial 
site, known since 2006 as the African Burial Ground National Monument, 
underscored the fact that New York City in the late 18th century was an 
epicenter of the slave trade, holding more Africans in chains than any 
other city in the country, with the possible exception of Charleston, S.C.

New York City’s addiction to the immediate fruits of slave labor — and 
to the profits that it reaped from servicing the business needs of the 
South — made for a slow and tortured path to emancipation there. In 
1799, New York State ratified gradual emancipation for enslaved 
offspring born after July 4 of that year but held them in indentured 
servitude until they were young adults. In 1817, the state passed yet 
another law that freed enslaved people born before 1799, with 
emancipation taking effect in 1827 — making New York one of the last 
Northern states to abolish slavery.

By this time, white New York had taken steps to cripple 
African-Americans politically and economically. Black men had largely 
been banished from lucrative skill trades and relegated to subsistence 
jobs. To short-circuit black political empowerment, the State 
Legislature made voting rights for black men contingent upon ownership 
of property valued at $250 or more — even as it rolled back the property 
ownership requirement for white men. As a result, only 16 black men in 
Manhattan had the right to vote.

Beyond that, white New Yorkers relentlessly attacked African-American 
institutions, torching churches and blocking efforts to build black 
schools. Racial terrorism worsened after the Legislature made it known 
in 1817 that all African-Americans would soon be legally free. Slave 
catchers who roamed the streets seeking to kidnap both free black people 
and fugitive slaves were a persistent hazard. No Negro was safe.

It was against this backdrop that a white Upper Manhattan couple, John 
and Elizabeth Whitehead, began selling the plots of land that formed the 
foundation of what would become Seneca Village.

In September of 1825, a young black man named Andrew Williams bought 
three lots. The trustees of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church 
bought six, near 86th Street, for use as a cemetery for the colored. 
(The need was particularly pressing, given that the potter’s field where 
the church had buried its dead was soon to become Washington Square 
Park.) A biblically named church trustee, Epiphany Davis, purchased 12 
lots at what was then the considerable sum of $578.

As the historian Alexander Manevitz said recently, the size, timing and 
location of A.M.E. Zion’s land purchase showed that the church was 
committed to “a broader political project.” That project was modeled on 
the teachings of church founders who had emphasized political activism 
and the formation of social organizations that could advance 
African-American rights.

The villagers learned the virtue of standing apart from the city proper 
in 1834, when their enclave was spared the three-day assault of white 
rioters who attacked the churches and businesses of both blacks and 
abolitionists in Lower Manhattan.

The historian Leslie M. Harris rightly describes this as the worst 
street violence of New York’s antebellum period. The rioters claimed to 
be outraged at abolitionists because they promoted fraternization across 
racial lines. But, as Ms. Harris writes, the mob attacked “the political 
and economic power that blacks might gain through alliances with 
middle-class and elite whites.”

Albro Lyons would clearly have taken note when abolitionists reacted to 
violence and intimidation by retreating into silence. When he purchased 
land uptown in Seneca Village, he might have done so as a hedge against 
Lower Manhattan becoming uninhabitable for African-American activists 
like himself.

Classical Philosophy in the Park

The question of how Seneca Village got its name remains unresolved. 
Nevertheless, the argument that villagers derived it from the Native 
American tribe seems unlikely, given that Manhattan was not Seneca 
territory. Leslie M. Alexander offers a more provocative suggestion — 
that the name of the village might refer to the Roman statesman and 
philosopher Seneca, who advocated for government founded on respect for 
individual liberty. Black residents who studied classical philosophy at 
the African Free Schools, she argues, may have adopted the Seneca name 
to reflect their aspirations for the new community.

By buying land, black villagers had satisfied the state law that made 
black voting rights contingent on property ownership. Mr. Manevitz 
estimates that by 1855, the village contained only 1 percent of the 
city’s black population — but had 20 percent of its black property 
owners and 15 percent of its black voters.

Most Seneca Villagers owned modest plots, but lived expansive lives 
compared with other African-American New Yorkers, who were typically 
confined to attics and basements along the squalid streets of Lower 
Manhattan’s Five Points district. The novelist Charles Dickens, who 
visited the area in the 1840s, wrote: “Poverty, wretchedness, and vice 
are rife enough where we go now. This is the place, these narrow ways, 
diverging to the right and left, and reeking everywhere with dirt and 
filth …. [A]ll that is loathsome, drooping and decayed is here.”

By the mid-1850s, the flourishing Seneca Village community had attracted 
three churches: A.M.E. Zion, African Union Methodist Church and an 
unusual racially integrated church called All Angels, where Irish 
parishioners who had moved into the area worshiped alongside 
African-Americans.

Leslie M. Alexander describes the interracial church as “a testament to 
a new social and political reality.” Black parishioners and white 
parishioners not only sat side by side in the pews but also were 
apparently buried together, reflecting the hope that people of different 
races could one day coexist in mutual respect. That vision was swept 
away with the settlement.

The destruction of Seneca Village foreshadowed the urban renewal craze 
of the 1960s, when the country embraced an explicit policy of labeling 
vibrant working-class areas “slums” to justify tearing them down. 
Historians who are trying to reconstruct the full story of New York 
City’s black utopia — and find descendants of the dispossessed — could 
yet tell us more about what the 19th-century city was really like.




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