Opening Doors

Source: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture / Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division/ The New York Public Library, via Columbia University

The New York African Free School was established November 2, 1787, seventy-eight years before slavery was officially abolished by the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Despite the fact that slavery was considered “crucial to the prosperity and expansion of New York”, groups such as the New York Manumission Society were established that advocated for African Americans and abolition.

Certainly ahead of its time, the school was co-educational, teaching reading, writing, arithmetic, and geography equally to children of both slaves and free men. Vocational skills were taught as well; the boys were offered astronomy and cartography, skills needed by seamen, and the girls learned sewing and knitting.

The one room school house pictured above began with 40 students, with a larger building established in 1814, which the student population quickly outgrew, reaching close to 800 in the 1820s.  In 1834 the African Free schools were absorbed into the New York public school system, at which point over 1,400 students were enrolled in seven school buildings.

The school helped to produce many community leaders, from James McCune Smith, the first African-American to earn a medical degree, to Henry Highland Garnett, the first African-American to address Congress.

If education was the key to equality, as Enlightenment thinkers argued, then the school offered an unprecedented opportunity, as well as a burden to its students.   Students there had the burden, not just of taking advantage of the education being offered them, but of serving as models for future generations of racial interaction. James McCune Smith went to Scotland and France to receive his higher education, returning to the United States to run the first “black pharmacy”.  Referring to the success of black education in antebellum America and the challenges that children faced in achieving their goals, in 1865 Smith wrote:

 [s]o deeply did they feel the want of education in themselves, that they would run all risks, make any sacrifice, to secure it.

One would like to think that those doors, once opened, remained ajar over the ensuing centuries. History tells a slightly different story, but not altered enough to call them locked.

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