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Let’s Talk About the Taking of Black Land

From Seneca Village to “urban renewal,” the government has claimed Black property—rarely with the “just compensation” promised by the Fifth Amendment.

Seneca Village was a home of political power for Black people as well. Remember, in 1855 there were no 14th or 15th Amendments. There was no guaranteed right to vote for African Americans, even free ones living in the North. To be eligible to vote in New York State in the 1850s, a Black man needed to be a male landowner in possession of $250 worth of property and have state residency for three years. Neither the property nor the residency requirements applied to white men. Seneca Village was a way for some Black men to meet that property requirement. Of the 100 Black people eligible to vote in New York State in 1845, 10 lived in Seneca Village. Five years later, in 1850, of the 71 Black property owners in New York City, 20 percent lived in Seneca Village.

By 1857, however, the entire area had been razed to the ground. The homes and churches were demolished, and the people were scattered. Seneca Village did not fall to some natural disaster, or even the ubiquitous mob of angry whites that shows up, again and again, throughout American history to lynch Black people who seem to be getting ahead. No, Seneca Village was destroyed because in 1853 New York passed a law allowing for the construction of Central Park.

Seneca Village was located in what is now thought of as the west side of Central Park. Its boundaries extended from about 82nd Street to 89th Street, between what is now Central Park West and where Seventh Avenue would be if it extended straight through the park. Seneca Village was a small and arguably unnecessary part of the 775 acres of land set aside by the legislature to create the park.

The government had the authority to buy or “take” the land for Central Park under the doctrine of eminent domain, which is enshrined in the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution. Eminent domain is the theory that all land, even private property, can be acquired by the government if it is in the public interest. The relevant part of the Fifth Amendment reads:

No person shall be…deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

Eminent domain is such a core concept of sovereignty that the US Supreme Court has said that it doesn’t even require a constitutional provision. But compensation for exercising that inherent sovereign authority does require some constitutional language.