Picture this. You own and live in a two story home in New York. Your kids go to school a few blocks away from your house. On Sundays, you and your family go to church where your neighbor is the pastor. You have a stable job and can afford simple pleasures like coffee in the morning and dessert after dinner. You don’t live in the center of the city, but that’s alright because you are part of a tight-knit community that looks out for one another. You feel safe and comfortable and see a future for you and your family here.
It’s 1843. And you are black.
You’ve been living here for 10 years, and you receive notice that the city is making plans to construct the largest public park in the country. On your land. And they have the legal right to do so; the law of eminent domain says the city can claim private property for public use as long as they provide compensation. Your choices are to move from your home, neighborhood, and community, or be moved.
You see that the village that you and your community have created, which is about 2/3 African American and 1/3 immigrants, is called a “n—r village” in the media, “a ‘shantytown’ inhabited by ‘wretched and debased’ ‘squatters.’” You hear that the founder of The New York Enquirer has said that “the free negroes of this city are a nuisance incomparably greater than a million slaves.” You wonder if you and your neighbors have a fighting chance in the courts, knowing that almost everyone outside of the area claimed for the park is against you.
Some African Americans in the 1800s actually experienced this story. From 1825 to 1853, Seneca Village was a thriving neighborhood of majority-black landowners and professionals that inhabited the area in the West 80’s between Seventh and Eighth Avenues.
In 1853, the city carved out what would become Central Park, swallowing all of Seneca Village and some surrounding neighborhoods as well. In 1856, some landowners took the compensation the city offered and left, and in 1857, some were forced out by the police.
As Diana Wall, anthropology professor at City College, told the Daily News in 2016, “You demonize the people who are being dispossessed so it’s OK to dispossess them.”
A Flint, Michigan government official, who has since resigned, said: “Flint has the same problems as Detroit: f–ing n–—s don’t pay their bills, believe me, I deal with them.”
The governor of Maine said about drug-related crime: “You shoot at the enemy. You try to identify the enemy and the enemy right now, the overwhelming majority of people coming in, are people of color or people of Hispanic origin.”
Rev. Jamie Johnson, director of the Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships at Department of Homeland Security, now also resigned, said that black people turned “America’s major cities into slums because of laziness, drug use and sexual promiscuity.”
And, of course, most recently coming out of the mouth of the current President of the United States: “shithole countries.”
And still, we create our black villages. They don’t all look like Seneca Village; or Fort Mose, Florida; or Greenwood, Oklahoma; or Blackdom, New Mexico. But they’re black villages just the same.
They look like black teachers finding their squad of other black teachers to commiserate with and to celebrate with. They look like black veteran teachers mentoring new black teachers. They look like collaborating on and sharing curriculum about black people and black history for the benefit of our black students and every other student in the classroom. They look like black teachers supporting other black teachers to withstand the storm that is October through May.
We create black villages in schools so that we can be healthy and present enough to teach our kids, but also in the media to tell our stories, in the courts to protect ourselves from injustice, in the hospitals to advocate for ourselves and our needs. Knowing that no amount of money, no level of education, no circle of friends, no show of respectability will protect us from the individual and institutional racism that’s pervaded this country since long before the destruction of Seneca Village.
Black Villages is a guiding principle not just for Black Lives Matter week, but for life. We rely on black villages to survive.
For more information on Seneca Village, including the above quotes, please see this City Metric article, this NY Daily News article, this Timeline article, and this thehistoryblog post. Also, this project at Columbia University focuses entirely on Seneca Village.
Ashia Troiano is a former high school Social Studies teacher and a curriculum writer. She currently works for The New Press.