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Race

Seneca Village, Black displacement, and the history of Central Park.

Let’s have a look at the first free Black settlement in NYC.

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Some tweets about Central Park have been going viral the past two days and they are missing valuable context and clarity. Yesterday, I saw this one:

Black people owned less than 1% of the land that would eventually become Central Park.

Seneca Village was about 5 acres of land. Central Park is almost 850 acres of land. So no, the area was not called Seneca Village. There were lots of little villages with their own names dotted throughout the area.

A third of the people in Seneca Village were white. In fact, most of the people in Central Park were white — they were Irish and German farmers.

The United States is a terrible country founded upon theft, greed, and subjugation. All of this land was stolen from Native Americans in the first place, so this is not an effort to impart any warm and fuzzy feelings about US history. Hyperbole is the enemy of truth, and exaggeration in one area of history serves to undermine facts in another. We live in a country where textbooks speak of slavery as a valid business model with a few mean employers. Because of that, when we are trying to force the reality of the horrors of slavery and racism into the American narrative, we can’t afford to embellish other injustices.

When you say Black families had their homesteads razed to make way for Central Park, the average person will picture roving bands of white people setting fires and violently chasing Black people with dogs and weapons. It happened all over the country throughout our history. Countless Black communities are forgotten today because the history of white America is written in Black suffering.

The location of Central Park wasn’t a decision made with race at the forefront. Seneca Village was indeed the first free Black settlement in NYC after slavery was outlawed. Free Black men could vote if they owned enough property, and around 15-20% of those property-owning men lived in Seneca Village. The city did take control of that property through eminent domain to make way for Central Park. All of these things are true.

These things are also true: At its peak the population of Seneca Village was less than 300 people and a third of those people were white. The total population of the area now known as Central Park was almost 2,000 people, and the majority of them were Irish and German farmers. The city used eminent domain to take all of their lands, but that doesn’t mean the lands were stolen from them. All of the residents who owned their property were paid for it — double or triple what the original selling price was — but they couldn’t say no to the sale. The city forced them to sell and move elsewhere. Aside from that though, most of the population of NYC lived below 14th Street, which meant much of the rest of Manhattan was semi-rural and people farmed land all over the island that they didn’t own. When the city decided to build Central Park, they forced the squatters to start paying rent to the city, and when they couldn’t pay, they were kicked out.

The image being painted on Twitter is that Central Park was full of communities of prosperous, land-owning freedmen who lost their voting rights when NYC decided to build a park where the Black people live. And that’s a fair assumption! NYC is full of racist building projects, and US history is full of racist legacies where successful Black towns were essentially punished or destroyed for simply thriving. That’s not quite the case for Central Park. Most of the displaced people were white. Most of the residents of Seneca Village were poor and 80% of them didn’t own the homes they lived in. Those who owned property, which in turn meant they could vote, were paid more than they’d originally invested.  They could use that money buy property elsewhere, which meant they could still vote.

But! This is still the United States. While racism may not be the central figure in the creation of Central Park as it was in other tales of yesteryear, it’s still there as a supporting character.

When NYC wanted a park, the original location chosen was a place called Jones’s Wood. The prosperous white families in that area successfully fought the city, so a new location was scouted and the city settled on the area now known as Central Park. Seneca Village was a very, very tiny portion of the land area and the Black residents there were a small percentage of the mostly white population that would be displaced, but there were very prominent Black families in Seneca Village. The majority of the residents were indeed poor farmers, laborers, and domestic workers who didn’t own land, but the people who did own land were important to the Black community in NYC at large.

The Lyons Family in Seneca Village were conductors on the Underground Railroad.

All Angels church was one of the few interracial congregations in the country. When riots broke out in Lower Manhattan as white racists attacked Black abolitionists, Seneca Village much farther north was spared any damage. As a result, this much more rural area attracted other prominent Black activists, and by the time Central Park was planned, 20% of the Black voters in the city lived there. The residents of Seneca Village put up a fight against the city just as the residents of Jones’s Wood had, but where those prosperous white families ultimately prevailed, the prosperous Black ones did not, and the city moved forward with its plans.

The two biggest takeaways from the creation of Central Park and the history of Seneca Village is the lack of violence and the displacement of white people. Those two factors counter the image most of us have when we hear the city took land from Black people to make a park. There are no stories of Black displacement where most of the people affected were white, and there are few stories of Black displacement from the 19th Century where the government engaged in protracted legal battles with the residents and ultimately paid property owners for their land.  Seneca Village should be remembered as the first free Black settlement in NYC, but we don’t have to paint it as another Tulsa to drive home the history of racism in the US. There are enough Tulsas to go around.

 

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Some sources if you want to read in more detail:
NY Times: Seneca Central Park
Columbia University: Seneca Village
CentralParkNYC.org: Seneca Village
Documents of the Assembly of the State of NY 

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Race

Leave slavery out of your abortion conversations.

Why do seemingly well-meaning white people like to compare various struggles to slavery

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Another day, another White Liberal unnecessarily using slavery to make a point.

(Twitter)

Joyce Alene is a professor at the University of Alabama School of Law. She has appeared as a legal analyst on various cable news channels and she was an attorney for the Obama administration. And she thought it was a good idea to compare abortion rights to slavery.

Not sure why this repeatedly has to be explained over and over, but it is very much possible to discuss persecution without bringing Black people into it. There is never a need to compare any struggle in this country to the worst atrocity in the history of the United States, and doing so makes you look unserious. What we are dealing with right now in regard to reproductive rights can be discussed on its own merit. We should be horrified by what’s happening, period. No hyperbole is necessary. No conflation with genocide is needed.

Why do seemingly well-meaning white people like to compare various struggles to slavery, when absolutely nothing the Modern White American faces has any similarity? Nothing the Colonial White American faced had any similarity. Leave slavery out of the conversation.

It’s a double insult. On the first side, Good Whites can’t come to grips with the foundation of America’s success in the world firmly resting atop slavery, so comparisons to modern struggles are subconsciously made to lessen the severity of what happened. Even the most liberal of White Americans has a difficult time accepting the fact that everything you see owes it existence to slavery. There would be no United States without the economic engine that was chattel slavery. From Yale to Bank of America to whiskey — the legacy of slavery is everywhere.

On the other side, too many Good Whites feel such a strong need to identify with the oppressed that they will manufacture similarities that don’t exist.

Or possibly a third side:

If you acknowledge that it’s a bad take and you don’t mean any offense, then you only said it to be shocking and to grab attention. You have trivialized slavery as a gotcha for clicks, and that’s even worse.

Women are being oppressed. Yes, restrictive legislation on reproductive rights disproportionately affects poor women and women of color, but all women are at the mercy of an evangelical government that believes it has the divine right to subjugate Eve’s daughters. That is enough to work with. Comparing it to anything other than that is a distraction and a disservice. Women deserve rights on their own merit.

 

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Race

We gotta invite Tigger to the Cookout now.

Maybe it sounds so much like n—-r some people just lose their minds.

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Some cartoon characters are Black because they’re created that way.

Some cartoon characters Black because we decided they are.

And some cartoon characters are just cartoon characters. I don’t recognize any Winnie the Pooh characters from my daily life, so they’re just animals to me, but we might have to welcome Tigger into the family. There’s no other explanation for why this white lady is so mad that he’s on a flag.

Tigger must’ve played rap music in her driveway or looked at her purse on the elevator or something, because this lady is acting like that flag says Black Lives Matter And Yours Does Not. I am very certain there are no rules (by this non-existent housing association) prohibiting a cartoon character flag and this woman feels like “rule” is the same as “I don’t like it,” which is unsurprising given the age and hue of the protagonist in this short film. My first retail job was at Bath & Body Works in a Southern shopping mall, and if there’s one thing I know for certain about that particular demographic it’s that they definitely believe personal opinions are facts, feelings are rules, and there is a manager of something somewhere who will side with them so they can get their way.

Bless the restraint of this homeowner. I probably woulda cussed that woman from here to Tara and then I would be gone with the police after she called 911 on me.

 

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History

Take this Jim Crow era literacy test for Black people.

I have a master’s degree, and I failed on the first question.

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I know what a literacy test is, but sadly, I’d never looked one up to see what the questions were like. During Jim Crow, they were used to keep Black people from voting. Some poor and illiterate whites got caught in the net as well, and that makes sense for a country who, when founded, only gave voting rights to landowning whites, but the purpose was to keep Black people from being heard. Former congressional candidate Gary Chambers Jr. posted a literacy test today, and you can’t pass it. I can’t pass it. No one can pass it.

This particular test from Louisiana in 1964 was to be administered to anyone who could not prove they had finished 5th grade or higher, which would overwhelmingly apply to more Black people. We had less access to education and were more likely to quit school in order to work the land and help our parents keep a meager roof over the family’s head back when so many Black people were sharecroppers.

And there’s no uniform key for this test. The white registrar reads the answers and decides whether you answered correctly or not. I’m sure this test, on the rare occasion it was given to white people at all, was graded more leniently when the hand turning it in wasn’t colored.

So. Take it and see if you would be able to vote in Louisiana in 1964, less than 60 years ago.

Ten minutes to complete 30 questions is about twenty seconds per question, and you have to get every single one correct. If this was an actual literacy test, I would pass with flying colors, because I can read well enough to know that some of these questions are unanswerable, but it’s not about literacy. It’s about creating a standard that no one can meet and then applying it unfairly to Black people. It’s giving Black people additional burdens to be perfect that white people don’t have. It’s disparaging Michelle Obama for showing her arms in her White House portrait even though Melania has nude photoshoots online. It’s arresting Black people for marijuana at 3 times the rate of white people, even though the same percentage of Black people smoke weed as white people. (x) It’s Black college students being just as likely to find employment as white people who didn’t even finish high school. (x) It’s cops shooting unarmed Black people and taking a white mass shooter to Burger King. (x)

A lot of Black kids heard this refrain from our parents growing up: You have to be twice as good as the white folks to get half as far. However. When the judge and jury of your achievement is White America, you can still fail the test they never even have to take.

 

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