Black women have lived in New York City since the Dutch arrived in the 17th century. But what we know about their lives and experiences comes in small snippets of information from historical records that considered their contributions secondary. When Black women do show up, we only get piecemeal clues about their lives, the institutions and groups they built, the obstacles they encountered, and how the majority white society viewed them at the time. The city’s changing geography and the tendency of Black communities to move around—often by force—contributes to the challenge of recreating their stories. The story of Eliza Webster, one woman who lived in Seneca Village, a 19th-century Black and white working-class community located in what is now the west side of Central Park, offers a case study of what we can learn even when our record is limited.
Eliza Webster in Seneca Village
In 1855, 35-year-old Eliza Webster lived in Seneca Village with her second husband, George, and her four children. Eliza was born in New York around 1819, but we don’t know whether her family was free Black or if her mother was enslaved. If it was the latter, New York State’s gradual emancipation laws of the time determined that children born to enslaved mothers after March 31, 1817, would serve as indentured servants until the age of 21, as historian Leslie Harris informs us. In 1855, the family occupied one of the larger houses in Seneca Village, a two-story house valued at $3,000, according to archaeological research. The house sat in the older part of the village near cultivated fields, perhaps tended by family members. Likely born in Virginia, George worked as a porter and had achieved enough economic stability that he owned enough land to qualify to vote. Malvina, 18, the oldest child, worked as a domestic worker, perhaps for a family living downtown. Three more of Eliza’s children from her first marriage lived with the family: John, 16, Benjamin, 13, and Edward, 7, as did Eliza and George’s child, 3-year-old George Jr.
Seneca Village and Black New York
Seneca Village was one of the first significant communities of African American property owners in the city. The 1821 New York State Constitution granted the vote to Black men with at least 200 dollars in real estate holdings, even as white men faced ever-fewer property requirements. Many Black New Yorkers seeking political rights looked uptown—where land was cheaper—to gain access to the vote. Established Black churches like the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Zion church bought large tracts of land in what would become Seneca Village. Some Seneca Village landowners remained downtown, but many Black families began building homes and cultivating the land, and many existing community groups and institutions extended their reach uptown as well.
Purchasing land to gain autonomy and security was a priority for many free or self-liberated Black Americans in the face of changing laws, political developments, and violent threats in the city. In 1834, white mobs rioted in opposition to burgeoning advocacy for federal abolition and destroyed the businesses, houses, and institutions of Black and white abolitionists. Growing rates of immigration created an increasingly crowded downtown and a competitive job market. And all Black New Yorkers faced the threat of kidnapping from “blackbirders” looking to sell them into slavery.
The 1850 federal Fugitive Slave Act heightened the fears of the formerly enslaved. It decreed that self-emancipated people could be seized from free states and returned to slavery and, moreover, that the federal government had the duty to assist slaveholders. Fugitives could not testify on their own behalf and were denied a trial by jury. As a port city, New York thrived as a major Underground Railroad site. Many Black New Yorkers actively participated in abolitionist groups and assisted the formerly enslaved. Free communities could also provide a haven, as Cheryl LaRoche describes. We know that at least one family who owned property in Seneca Village—the Lyons family, although they did not reside there—participated in the Underground Railroad and it is likely that more did as well.
The people of Seneca Village maintained ties to lower Manhattan through their employment, commerce, religious, and political institutions, and personal connections. Although a majority Black community, Seneca Village was also home to Irish and German immigrants, and at least one church had both Black and white members.
The community’s eviction in 1857 to make way for Central Park (the first use of eminent domain for creation of a park) destroyed not only the homes of Seneca Village, but the relationships, ties, and economic stability of the residents. What remains—artifacts uncovered in a 2011 archeological dig, census records, and maps and eviction proceeding records—give us clues about the people who lived there. The record is incomplete, but historical context and creative interpretation allows us to imagine the details and intricacies of these people’s lives.
The Websters before Seneca Village
The Websters’ blended family situation and the family’s residence in Seneca Village were still relatively new in 1855. Only five years before, census records show that Eliza lived downtown in the city’s Fifth Ward with an older daughter Josephine, 15, Malvina, 13, John A., 11, Benjamin, 8, and James E., 2, in a building with four other families, all Black. The ward itself was integrated, with a Black community referred to by some as Little Africa developing in the 1830s. African Americans in early 19th-century New York City lived in working-class wards across the city, as archaeologist Claudia Milne has found. Small free Black communities developed first near the Collect Pond and in the Five Points neighborhood (downtown near Manhattan’s courthouses and Chinatown).
An 1850–51 Doggett’s directory sheds more light on the soon-to-be family. “Eliza A. Hall, widow of John A. (col’d)” is listed as residing and doing “washing,” at 11 Anthony Street. Black women’s employment options were limited to domestic and laundry work, as Harris has shown that they were shut out of craft jobs and the newer industrial market. Paul Mullins has found that women sometimes preferred laundry work because of the ability to work at home, retaining more independence and avoiding surveillance by white employers. The 1855 census does not list Eliza as working: This could be an oversight due to the underreporting of working women, or it could be that her second marriage offered financial stability, and she instead spent her time caring for her home and children.
A notable other resident at 11 Anthony Street is “George W. Webster (col’d)” whose employment is listed as selling oysters at 161 Church Street. George’s employment at an oyster cellar was another common position held by Black New Yorkers. Some oyster cellars, like Thomas Downing’s, entertained wealthy and powerful white New Yorkers, while less formal ones might be patronized by working-class New Yorkers, both Black and white.
George’s work address, 161 Church Street, is at the corner of Church and Leonard, on the opposite corner to the AME Zion Church downtown, a cornerstone of the Black community. Did George and Eliza meet around 1850? Did they know each other before they both resided at 11 Anthony Street—maybe through the church—or did they meet as neighbors? The 1853 Doggett’s directory still lists George Webster and Eliza Hall living at 11 Anthony Street. Although still working at 161 Church St, George’s occupation is now listed as “liquor.” Eliza continued doing washing, a testament to the challenges of getting by financially for Black New Yorkers.
An 1853 insurance map shows 11 Anthony Street as a framed dwelling located between Hudson Street and West Street. The nearby area had a coal yard and a sugar refinery, both of which would have created a noisy and polluted physical environment. A desire for healthier surroundings might have been one of the reasons the family decided to move uptown. Their religious ties might have been another reason. Although it had owned land there since 1825, the AME Zion church expanded into Seneca Village in 1853, establishing the AME Zion Branch Militant church. If George and Eliza were AME Zion members, perhaps they decided to move uptown with their church. They do not appear in the records of All Angels or African Union, the other churches in Seneca Village.
After Seneca Village
After the eviction and razing of Seneca Village, the Webster family returned to the Fifth Ward. A baby was born in 1858; however the child does not appear in any subsequent records, indicating an early death. The 1860 Federal Census finds George and Eliza living with two of their children, Edward, 12, and George, 9, as well as Harriet Woodruff, listed as a servant. George’s real estate is valued at $1,000, a not-insignificant sum. The presence of a servant also speaks to financial stability. Beginning in 1858, the family reappears in city directories with George listed as having a saloon, first at 58 Leonard Street, and then at 52 Thompson Street, a wood-framed house with a store on the ground floor. The family lived a few doors down in a larger brick or stone dwelling, also with a store on the ground floor.
In May 1861, Eliza suffered the loss of her second husband when George passed away at the age of 42. Did she try and keep the saloon going? Perhaps the family’s money was tied up with this still relatively new business. Whether Eliza chose or was forced to close the saloon is unknown, but an 1863 directory lists a Black “Elizabeth A. Webster, widow of George W.” as a confectioner at 64 ½ Sullivan Street, just around the corner from the family’s previous residence and the saloon.
After that year, she disappears from the directory until 1870, when an “Eliza A., widow Geo. W” is living at 148 W 80th Street, not far from her old home in Seneca Village where she possibly enjoyed her greatest level of financial stability and physical safety. Eliza and her younger children might have fled the Fifth Ward during the Draft Riots of 1863. On July 15, the third day of riots, a mob attacked and burned a group of Black-occupied tenements on Sullivan and Thompson below Broome Street, just one block from their home. Did they have time to take all their things or did they leave them knowing everything might be destroyed? A forced move due to this violence must have brought back painful reminders of the Seneca Village eviction.
The riots—sparked by inflammatory antiwar newspaper articles that stoked white resentment about draft inequalities—resulted in the murder of at least 11 Black New Yorkers and the injury of countless more. Black homes, businesses, and institutions were destroyed, including the city’s Colored Orphan Asylum, which was ransacked and burned. Businesses that catered to Black patrons, from dance halls to boarding houses, were also attacked and destroyed. Hundreds of Black New Yorkers left the city for months afterward. Some never returned, moving to Brooklyn, other parts of New York State, or New Jersey.
Thirteen years after the family left Seneca Village, Eliza Webster found herself living in the 20th ward, on the west side of Manhattan in the 30s. Her personal estate was worth $400, and she had returned to the work most available to Black women: working as a laundress. George Jr., 19, still lived with her and worked as a waiter. A man in his mid-20s also lived in the home. This was likely a boarder, a common means of obtaining additional financial stability at the time. Edward Hall got married in 1868, and George Webster Jr. married in 1880. Eliza’s second oldest daughter Malvina Hall reappears in the historical record in 1885, when she remarried after the death of her first husband. In any subsequent census records, the family members are renters, and there is no mention of real estate holdings. Perhaps they sold any land in a time of financial need, a testament to the challenges of acquiring and retaining wealth and financial security for Black New Yorkers.
In 1879, Eliza Webster died at the age of 56. Historical records of her and her family’s moves around the city and occupations make them typical of their fellow Black New Yorkers. On-going research by the Institute for the Exploration of Seneca Village History continues to recover villagers’ stories and attempts to trace their descendants, including Eliza’s family. As a Black woman, Eliza’s employment options were few, making financial stability difficult, especially after her husband’s death. She endured the loss of loved ones and property. And yet she raised a family that sustained itself in a city where despite the challenges they faced, they were part of a dynamic and nuanced Black community.
Written by Laura Mogulescu, Curator of Women’s History Collections, Center for Women’s History