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Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership

Colin L. Powell School Celebrates Seneca Village Exhibition

"Seneca Village: Unearthing a Forgotten African-American Village" 14 years in the making.

Imagine “uncovering history live” beneath the soil layers of Central Park. For Ashton Dorminvil, participating in a summer-long anthropological dig in 2011 was an experience he’ll never forget. “History was in your hands,” recalls 2013 graduate in biology. “It’s still fascinating to me.”

Fourteen years in the making, the Seneca Village excavation focused on a section of the park near 85th Street and Central Park West, now known to be a site of an early nineteenth-century community of primarily free African-American men and women. Central Park construction razed the village in the 1850s.seneca_dig_500

Culminating Exhibition
This spring, a culminating exhibition, “Seneca Village: Unearthing a Forgotten African-American Community“ at the Raphael Cohen Library at City College featured artifacts and findings from the project.

On Wednesday, June 5, the Colin L. Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership hosted a celebration of the exhibition, which included curated tours and featured a talk by Cynthia Copeland, a former education coordinator at the New York Historical Society, now on faculty at NYU. Copeland is one of the founding directors of the Seneca Village Project, along with CCNY Anthropologist Diana Wall and Barnard College’s Nan Rothschild.

Rapt Attention
Seneca Village project stemmed from an education project Copeland led for children to engage them about mysterious village remains said to lie beneath Central Park. The children's excitement and rapt attention suggested to Copeland that adults might be equally compelled by the socio-cultural significance of the settlement and the variety of narratives to explore.

These narratives, Copeland added, include “the story of African-Americans who owned property just before emancipation in New York; the story of women owning property in this era, which was uncommon; the stories of the significance of the churches; the education history…there was a colored school, which stood in the basement of one of the churches…and the story of abolitionism…some of the individuals living there were trying to uplift the race and fight for the civil rights of people to vote or just live freely.”

Locating Descendents
Wall, chair of the Colin L. Powell School's Anthropology, who supervised the dig, says next steps include working with a genealogist to conduct a “backward genealogical search” to help find descendants of the Seneca villagers. She and project staff hope to find funding that will support hiring a genealogist to build a course around the research, so students can continue to be active participants on every phase.

As with discoverable narratives, the Seneca Village Project provides a number of touchstones for students seeking to broaden their perspective. And they can expect to come away from the project with more than an education. All of the students participating in the initial dig, which include undergraduates from NYU and Barnard College, remain connected. “We’ve stayed close,” Dorminvil says. “It’s a bond that we’ll never forget.”