This NSF-REU site supports archaeological excavations and artifact analysis at Seneca Village, a 19th century African-American and Irish immigrant community located in today's Central Park in York City. After several years of historic research, followed by soil borings and ground-penetrating radar, undergraduates are being incorporated into the excavation and analysis of eight areas identified by radar as potentially containing archaeological features.

Intellectual merit: Seneca Village was a middle class African-American community on New York City's edge and for the first 15-20 years of its existence was composed only of African Americans, making it rather unique for its time. Archaeologists have recently begun to consider the lives of middle-class African-Americans, focusing on the ways in which their consumption of material culture expressed class and racial identities. Furthermore, historian Leslie Alexander (2008a) has noted that groups such as those resident in Seneca Village were conflicted as to their identity as "Americans" and "Africans." She suggests that the Village was established as an autonomous Black community in an antebellum climate where, because of discrimination, equality and assimilation within American culture were not realistic goals. She believes that for its residents, Seneca Village not only provided a respite from discrimination, but also "embodied a series of ideas about African pride and racial consciousness," and "the creation of lasting Black institutions." This REU site explores this issue of "African" and "American" identities among Seneca Villagers by analyzing their material culture and comparing it with that of members of other black middle-class communities as well as with members of the contemporary white middle class in New York City.

Students are involved in all phases of field excavation and the subsequent lab analysis of eight targeted deposits identified by the GPR, including house floors, a previously unrecorded church basement, and possible midden and shaft deposits. As well, they participate in the use of the material culture from these contexts to address issues related to research questions that they design themselves.

Broader Impacts: Most Americans underestimate the presence and significance of enslaved and free blacks in the North and particularly in New York City in the 19th century. They are also ignorant of the existence of middle-class African Americans. This project challenges these stereotypes by calling attention to the presence of a black, middle-class community in the heart of today's New York City. The village's location in what is now Central Park, an iconic landmark, further underlines the integral role of African Americans in the city's history. As well, the continued presence of two of the churches that were located in Seneca Village (All Angels' and African Methodist Episcopal Zion Branch Militant) link the present and the past closely. Students are recruited from New York City's colleges because of the signifigance of this community, either as members of descendant communities or because of their own histories and connections to place.

This REU site is committed to a significant effort to publicize the results of their fieldwork. The educational and outreach portions of the project (which are going on concurrently with the excavations) include: the development of a curriculum for 4th and 7th grade New York City (and other) students, the creation of a documentary for public consumption, and web and "real" exhibits.

Project Report

REU Site: The Archaeological Study of Seneca Village, a 19th Century African-American and Irish Immigrant Community in Today’s Central Park. (ID 1062796) Last summer, archaeologists conducted excavations at Seneca Village, the 19th century community located in today’s Central Park. Founded in the 1820s by African Americans, by 1855 the village was a thriving community, with a population of almost 300, three churches, and a school. Approximately two-thirds of those who lived there were of African descent, mostly middle class, while the remainder were Europeans, mostly Irish. In the 1850s, the City decided to construct Central Park in an area that included Seneca Village; it took the land through the right of eminent domain, evicted the residents, and razed their homes for the creation of the Park. Although landowners were compensated for their loss, many felt the compensation was inadequate, and renters of course received nothing at all. This project was a long time in the making. Preliminary research on the site began over a decade ago. A study of historical maps, a soil study, and a ground penetrating radar study allowed us to pinpoint locations where it seemed possible that traces of the village might have survived. There were six such areas. Once we had gathered this information, it took us more than five years to get permission to excavate, a negotiation which was ultimately successful only because of the skills and dedication of some of our Advisory Board members. When we began fieldwork, our research questions focused on several different levels of inquiry. We wanted to ‘ground truth’ the radar and see the extent to which the GPR had been successful in identifying archaeological remains. If in fact we found archaeological remains related to Seneca Village, we were interested in determining their extent and excavating a sample of them so we could explore the material lives of the people who lived there. Finally, assuming we recovered enough material, we were interested in exploring what it meant to be a member of the black middle-class in New York in the 19th century. We looked forward to comparing our finds with those from other contemporary middle-class African American communities throughout the United States as well as with middle-class Euro-American sites in New York. We received an REU grant from the National Science Foundation (#1062796), which supported the interns who worked with us throughout the field and preliminary laboratory phases of the project. We also received support from National Geographic, the Durst Foundation, the Friends of Cornell Edwards, and the Gilder Foundation. Our eight week field program started in early June, 2011. We proceeded systematically, from area to area, and evaluated whether the features that the GPR had identified were relevant to the history of Seneca Village. The excavations were extremely successful. Although as expected some of the features pinpointed did not relate to the Village, we discovered two features that were very important. One was the foundation walls and cellar deposits of the home of William Godfrey Wilson, a porter and sexton of one of the village churches, and his wife, Charlotte, and their eight children. These deposits contain both architectural and domestic materials which will allow us to explore the lives of the Wilson family. Particularly evocative finds included a child’s shoe, a roasting pan, and a tea kettle. The other feature was made up of the deposits from a buried ground surface behind two houses in another part of the village. We are looking forward to using the data from this feature to reconstruct the environment in this part of the site as well as the ways of life of the people who lived there. Thus, we expect to address all of our research issues. The research focus of the Seneca Village project concerns the identity of its residents. Archaeologists have begun to consider the lives of middle class African Americans, focusing on the ways their consumption of material culture expressed class and racial identities. Historian Leslie Alexander believes that Seneca Village not only provided a respite from discrimination in the city, but also embodied ideas about African pride and racial consciousness. We are exploring this issue of "African" and "American" identities in the material culture from the excavations and comparing it that of other Black and White middle-class communities. Most Americans under-estimate the presence and significance of enslaved and free Blacks in the north. They are also unaware of the existence of middle-class African Americans. This project challenges these stereotypes by calling attention to the presence of a Black middle-class community in the heart of New York City, in Central Park, an iconic landmark. Diana diZerega Wall, Department of Anthropology, The City College of New York/The Graduate Center, CUNY Nan A. Rothschild, Department of Anthropology, Barnard College, Columbia University

National Science Foundation (NSF)
SBE Office of Multidisciplinary Activities (SMA)
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Fahmida N. Chowdhury
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CUNY City College
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