Most of the well-known monuments in New York’s Central Park celebrate cultural icons, including William Shakespeare, Alice in Wonderland and, more recently, suffragists Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
Despite no evidence linking them to the crime, the teens’ presence in Central Park was perceived as suspicious due to stereotypes that have often marked people of color as trespassers in public parks. The intense media coverage of the case both revealed and catalyzed those stereotypes.
Police coerced the teens — Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Korey Wise and Yusef Salaam, all between the ages of 14 and 16 — into confessing. Even though the boys recanted their confessions during the trial, few in the press and public doubted their guilt. The media repeatedly trafficked in racist language, dehumanizing them and blaming them for Central Park’s lawlessness and decline. Local newspapers published headlines calling the Central Park Five a “wolf pack” and a “wilding,” “roving gang.” Donald Trump bought a full-page ad in the New York Times calling for the state to “bring back the death penalty” to use on the teens.
The Central Park Five were incarcerated until 2002 — when another man confessed to the crime.
The Gate of the Exonerated, which will be at the entrance on 110th Street between Fifth Avenue and Malcolm X Boulevard, offers an opportunity to examine how a history of racism in the outdoors has affected Black people and other people of color, not only in New York City parks, but across the United States. Since at least the 19th century, White authorities have attempted to remove and exclude Black people from park landscapes.
Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmsted envisioned the space as a democratic refuge for all New Yorkers that would foster “a sense of enlarged freedom” and provide a place to escape the challenges of urban life. Yet, an established enclave of abolitionists and free Black New Yorkers was displaced to create the park.
In 1857, the city of New York used eminent domain to demolish Seneca Village, a community of mostly Black property owners founded in 1825. Seneca Village consisted of 50 homes, an AME Zion Church (a denomination founded by a Black abolitionist), a school and a burial ground. Black abolitionists Albro and Mary Joseph Lyons — whom the city also plans to construct a memorial for — owned property in the area and operated a boardinghouse for Black sailors that served as a stop in the Underground Railroad. Seneca Village’s location, spanning from present day West 82nd to 89th Street, also provided a buffer from racial violence, which included a three-day assault against Black businesses, churches and abolitionists carried out by White rioters in the more densely-populated Lower Manhattan in 1834.
Although Seneca Village residents received some compensation for their property, their removal was an act of gentrification that benefited nearby White property owners, whose real estate value increased with their proximity to the new Central Park. Black property ownership remained rare in New York during this time, indicating the relative prosperity of Seneca Village’s inhabitants.
Part of the impetus for constructing Central Park was the emergence of outdoor recreation culture, a response to the country’s urbanization and industrialization in the 19th century. But as spaces for outdoor recreation were created, White authorities worked to segregate them. In the North, this often took the form of private outdoor resort owners systemically denying memberships to people of color, often without citing race as the reason. Municipal governments across the South implemented more explicit segregation ordinances in the outdoors under Jim Crow, in spaces ranging from small neighborhood playgrounds to sprawling state parks.
Beginning in the 1930s, New York City invested heavily in building new park infrastructure under Robert Moses. Moses served as park commissioner from 1934 to 1960 and had an outsize influence on the city’s park system. During his tenure, the city built 658 playgrounds, 20,000 acres of parklands and public beaches, and 416 miles of parkways. Although framed as serving all New Yorkers, these projects had uneven effects.
Robert Caro, Moses’s biographer, called Moses “the most racist human being I had ever really encountered.” New York City Parks historian-in-residence Thomas Campanella wrote that while Moses designed beautiful outdoor facilities in Harlem, like the grand Jackie Robinson Pool, he also included primate-themed details in a Harlem playground and referred to working-class Puerto Rican communities as “scum.” Moses also continued the city’s legacy of razing predominantly non-White communities to construct parks.
Following the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, New York City parks became sites of Black activism. In the early 1960s, Columbia University announced plans to build a large student gymnasium in Morningside Park, a public park that bordered the campus and West Harlem. However, the university proposed that members of the majority-Black community would use a separate entrance in the basement and could access only a small part of the building. Harlem residents viewed the proposed building as a symbol of racism and a struggle for control of the land. Black Columbia students began referring to the plan as “Gym Crow.” A coalition of Harlem residents and students rose up in 1968 to successfully halt the gym’s construction, but not before rising tensions ignited during student protests that temporarily shut down campus and ended with police violence against students.
Although the Central Park Five’s national condemnation and wrongful conviction is one of the most infamous examples of discrimination in the outdoors, it is not an isolated incident. The notion of a gang of non-White teens assaulting a vulnerable White woman in Central Park was explosive because it tapped into deeply held stereotypes that people of color in parks represented danger.
Today, Central Park hosts a diverse array of parkgoers. New Yorkers from every borough traverse the same park paths as domestic and international tourists. Still, in 2020, a White woman called the police on a Black birdwatcher for asking her to leash her dog, and claimed he was threatening her. A video of the altercation went viral online, prompting animated dialogue about the prevalence of bigotry in public outdoor spaces.
The words “Gate of the Exonerated” inscribed on a perimeter wall of the park will be an acknowledgment of a painful injustice that marred one of the city’s — and the country’s — most beloved and romanticized landscapes. Though the inscription is a subtle commemoration, it nevertheless offers an entry point into redressing the long history of racism in the outdoors — a history that demands a much larger national reckoning.