Double ambrotype portrait of Albro Lyons Sr. and Mary Joseph Lyons, 1860. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, NYPL
Within New York City’s bustling streets lies a significant history of the African American contribution to the City’s development. While New York was known as a safe haven for enslaved Africans who retreated North in search of freedom, the City’s history also includes the legacy of thriving free Black communities that existed prior to the Civil War. Remnants of a few of those can be found on a walking tour through the five boroughs.
The passage of New York State’s Gradual Emancipation Law in 1799 began the journey to the abolition of slavery in the state, though it took until the mid-1820s before the first population of enslaved people received freedom. Determined and resourceful freed men and women quicky began to establish communities through property ownership, which also gave them the right to vote, and through building schools, churches and other establishments. Evidence of these communities is often found through burial sites and, in some instances, preservation of structures that have been maintained over the years.
Explore the landmark sites below for a deeper understanding of the history and contributions of New York City’s Black communities in the era before the national abolition of slavery.
George S. Ogden photograph collection, Brooklyn Museum/Brooklyn Public Library, Center for Brooklyn History
The Weeksville community, established in 1838, was bordered by East New York, Ralph, Troy and Atlantic Avenues—part of present-day Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights. It was named after local Black longshoreman James Weeks, who purchased two lots from abolitionist Henry C. Thompson and built a house there. Weeksville became home to over 500 free African Americans and had the highest rate of property ownership of any free Black community. Residents established churches, a school and the Freedman’s Torchlight—a newspaper that helped inform and educate the community. Among the prominent Black professionals who lived here were Susan McKinney Steward, the first Black doctor in New York State, and her sister Sarah Smith Tompkins Garnet, the founder of the Equal Suffrage League of Brooklyn, the first organization advocating for the voting rights of Black women. Weeksville was a safe haven for Black people looking to flee the violence of the 1863 draft riots, and its residents were active in seeking post-slavery equal rights. Over time, the community slowly dissipated as the surrounding areas of Brooklyn were developed. Pieces of the settlement remain in the Hunterfly Road Houses, historic landmarks that the Weeksville Heritage Center maintains.
"Summer house East from 8th Ave," 1862. Rare Book Division, NYPL
Map of the lands included in Central Park, from a topographical survey, June 17, 1856; [Also:] Plan for the improvement of the Central Park, adopted by the Commissioners. Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, NYPL
Seneca Village is one of the more well-known free Black communities thanks to its relationship to one of the City’s top attractions: Central Park. Called the “Black utopia” by the New York Times, Seneca Village was built on land that runs along the park’s western perimeter, from West 82nd to West 89th Streets. The community was founded in 1825 when newly freed Black people and the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church bought plots of land for development. By the 1850s, the place encompassed approximately 70 buildings, and more than half the population owned their homes. Albro, Mary and Maritcha Lyons, a family of abolitionists and educators who lived here, ran a boarding house for sailors that also served as a stop on the Underground Railroad.
The story of Seneca Village’s end entails a bit of controversy. The City used eminent domain to take the property for the development of Central Park; by the late 1850s, residents of the community were displaced and forced to relocate. Protests were held, and it’s likely some residents were undercompensated for their property; in any event, most traces of the village were soon gone, and only interpretive signs and guided tours exist today.
Rossville AME Zion Church. Courtesy, Municipal Archives, City of New York
One of the oldest free Black communities in the country, Sandy Ground was founded in 1828 on present-day Staten Island when Captain John Jackson, a Black man, purchased a home in the area. The land, previously inhabited by Indigenous people and then Dutch and French immigrants who brought enslaved Black people to the area, got its name due to the quality of the soil. The community concentrated on oyster farming as a means of employment, attracting oystermen from Maryland who saw an opportunity for work thanks to the shellfish in nearby Prince’s Bay. Over time, the focus shifted to different industries including agriculture and industrial work. The settlement may also have served as a stop on the Underground Railroad for slaves fleeing to Canada.
While the borders of Sandy Ground were somewhat unclear, parts of the community existed near the intersection of Bloomingdale and Woodrow Roads in Rossville. Structures from the original community have been designated as New York City landmarks, including three homes, a cemetery and the Rossville AME Zion Church—all close by that crossroads.
James Pennington, 1921. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division, NYPL
Located in what is now Elmhurst, Queens, Newtown was originally a one-street town surrounded by vast open land. In 1828, a local landowner deeded two acres of land to the community to develop a church and parsonage. The church, first known as the United African Society of Newtown and later the St. Mark AME Church, was one of the first structures built here and served as a gathering space for education and discussion. One prominent Black leader from Newtown, James Pennington, was a pastor, abolitionist and the first African American to study at Yale University (though not allowed to formally enroll there). The town became the center of attention in 2011 when construction on a lot formerly owned by St. Mark AME uncovered the remains of a 26-year-old African American woman preserved in an iron coffin. This led to the discovery of several unmarked graves and what became known as the Elmhurst African American Burial Ground, believed to be the resting place of over 300 African Americans who resided in Newtown.
Unionport - Westchester - Schuylerville: Town & County of Westchester, NY, 1868. Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, NYPL Digital Collections
Not much is documented about free Black communities in the Bronx. The Bethel AME, later incorporated as the Centerville AME Church, was founded in 1849 by Rev. Steven Amos and was the first church in the area to accept Black clergy. Located along current-day Unionport Road between Benedict and McGraw Avenues, the church used the adjacent lot as a burial ground for members of the community. Records of those buried in this lot indicate that this was a thriving Black community of mainly laborers, craftsmen and other professionals.
To dig deeper into the stories of New York City’s free Black communities, start with the links below: