View of Vandewater Street, corner of Frankfort Street, 1863, by Major & Knapp
Boarding House for Black Sailors, 330 Pearl Street (Part 1)
Also known as the Colored Sailors’ Home, the Boarding House for Black Sailors was founded in 1829 by Albro and Mary Lyons, prominent Black abolitionists who owned property throughout Manhattan and used their wealth to create opportunities for other Black people. The Boarding House—originally located on 20 Vandewater Street and intersecting with both Frankfort Street and Pearl Street—was destroyed in 1863. Its approximate location today is 330 Pearl Street.
Listen to Cynthia R. Copeland, public historian and president of the Institute for the Exploration of Seneca Village, discuss the connections between the Underground Railroad and the Boarding House for Black Sailors.
Boarding House for Black Sailors, 330 Pearl Street (Part 2)
In addition to functioning as a stop along the Underground Railroad and a place where freed Black people could find accommodation at a time of physical and financial exclusion, we might also imagine the Boarding House as a space where Black sailors came together to share laughs and secret glances, and perhaps even sunbathe, feeling the East River’s breeze.
Hear from Tourmaline and her former college professor, Robin D. G. Kelley, as they consider some of the ways the Black sailors might have practiced freedom dreaming.
African Society for Mutual Relief, 42 Baxter Street (Part 1)
42 Baxter Street, taken from Columbus Park, 2021. Photo: Arlette Hernandez
The African Society for Mutual Relief held its earliest meetings in a schoolhouse located on Rose Street. In 1820, 12 years after its founding, the Society moved to 42 Baxter Street (at that point named Orange Street), a transition aided by a gift of $1,800 from Juliette Noel Toussaint, who was married to one of the city’s leading hairdressers in the early 19th century.
“You have to understand that [at that time] $1,800 was a lot of money for an association where members paid 25 cents a year to be members,” says Mariame Kaba. “So it was a significant donation. She’s a woman, a Black woman who very few people know the name of, but she was incredibly important to the mutual aid of Black New York.”
Hear Mariame Kaba, founder of Project NIA, explore the history of the African Society for Mutual Relief.
African Society for Mutual Relief, 42 Baxter Street (Part 2)
The freedom dreams launched by the African Society for Mutual Relief continue to reverberate today, often in spite of—or, in the case of Marsha P. Johnson’s work, in resistance to—the systems of unfreedom that sit at Baxter Street.
Listen to Tourmaline as she reflects on the activism of Marsha P. Johnson at this site.
David Ruggles’s Home, 36 Lispenard Street
Edmund V. Gillon. Church Street between Lispenard and Walker Streets. c. 1975. Edmund Vincent Gillon. Museum of the City of New York. 2013.3.1.824
By the time David Ruggles grew involved in New York’s abolitionist movement, no Black person—free or otherwise—was safe in the city. On several occasions, emancipated Black residents were kidnapped and sold into slavery. It was in the middle of such persistent danger that Ruggles declared, “In our cause, mere words are nothing—action is everything.”
No trace remains of David Ruggles’s original home, which was located in the same spot as the brick building on the left-hand side of this photograph. Today the building houses a coffee shop, and only a plaque affixed toward the building’s rear acknowledges this history and Ruggles’s contributions.
Robin D. G. Kelley, reflecting on Ruggles and the freedom dreams he launched from his home, asks us to reflect on the stories and places that have been lost or forgotten: “What would New York City look like had there been more militant opposition, fighting to hold on to these spaces? How do you defend these spaces? Think about how many historic spaces were destroyed in New York, not yet by dramatic acts of violence, but by state policies of eminent domain, freeway construction, urban renewal—this sort of soft power that’s been way more destructive.”
Hear writer and activist Mariame Kaba describe the ways David Ruggles fought for the freedom of Black people within and beyond New York City.
Seneca Village, Central Park between West 82nd and West 89th Streets (Part 1)
“Summer house East from 8th Ave.” Rare Book Division, The New York Public Library
At a time when New York City’s Black residents were blocked from owning land, a Black community nevertheless arose. Spanning from 82nd to 89th streets, in what is now known as Central Park, Seneca Village was home to countless Black families. The community first began in 1825, after Andrew Williams, an African American man who lived downtown, purchased three lots of farmland.
“It does become somewhat of an integrated community,” says Cynthia R. Copeland, an educator and public historian. “We did have female landowners in Seneca Village in the 19th century, which was just amazing. And to see people coming from different regions of the country—New Jersey and the Eastern seaboard, Maryland. We had somebody who supposedly came from out West. We had a member who was described as coming from Africa and somebody from Haiti. There’s this mixed blend of families that is happening in the community.”
Hear from Cynthia R. Copeland on how archaeological research has helped us reimagine Seneca Village.
Seneca Village, Central Park between West 82nd and West 89th Streets (Part 2)
Invoking eminent domain, the government’s right to claim private property for public use, Seneca Village was razed to the ground as construction on Central Park began in 1857. Hundreds of people were displaced, and the effects of this forced movement remain difficult to uncover.
Still, the spirit of Seneca Village persists, taking new forms with each person who tends to this history. In Tourmaline’s words: “As more and more people learn about the history of Seneca Village and the history of Central Park, people get to have their own relationships and make meaning from that place. This is really a story of our expansive desires, the history of them, and our now, using that [desire] as a launching pad to expand even more.”
Listen to Tourmaline’s reflections on the ways Seneca Village manifests today.
Ebony Flowers. Original illustration for Tourmaline’s Pleasure Gardening walking tour. 2021. Courtesy the artist
While no photos of Seneca Village have been confirmed, we know that early illustrations describing the community as a “squatter settlement” are far from accurate. We can begin to reimagine Seneca Village by looking at photographs of Central Park in the midst of construction in 1862, or right before construction began in 1858.
Yet perhaps the most meaningful representations of Seneca Village are those developed from the freedom dreams of artists and caretakers like Ebony Flowers, whose illustration shows us a vision of Seneca Village grounded not in empty space, but in people and community.
With special thanks to the guests who joined Tourmaline on her tour, including:
Cynthia R. Copeland, President, Institute for the Exploration of Seneca Village
Mariame Kaba, Director, Project NIA
Robin D. G. Kelley, Distinguished Professor and Gary B. Nash Endowed Chair in US History, University of California, Los Angeles
Laraaji, musician and mystic
Some Additional Resources and Bibliography
Central Park Conservancy. Discover Seneca Village: Selected Research Topics and Resources. September 2020.
Central Park Conservancy. Seneca Village Site.
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Black New Yorkers: 1613–1865. The New York Public Library.
Marie Warsh. “Exploring Northern Central Park: A History Told Through Rocks and Hills.” Urban Omnibus, 2015.
Asha Futterman and Mariame Kaba. Radical Black Women of Harlem Walking Tour. Barnard Center for Research on Women.
The Black Gotham Archive.
Columbia University. Seneca Village Project.
MoMA PS1. Homeroom: Black Trans Liberation: Memoriam and Deliverance.
MoMA Audio is supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies.