The African Free School was founded on November 2, 1787 in Lower Manhattan by the New-York Manumission Society and founding fathers Alexander Hamilton and John Jay. It was the very first school for blacks in America. Ultimately consisting of seven schools, the system’s third school was located in Greenwich Village, at 120 west 3rd Street, then known as Amity Street. This site is one of over a hundred on our Civil Rights and Social Justice Map.
The schools prepared black children, many of whom were children of slaves, to take their place in the New York public school system.
Founding Father John Jay started the Manumission Society with the express mission to abolish slavery in the state of New York, which was achieved in 1827. Though many members of the Society were slave owners themselves, they understood that beginning the abolition process through the education of children would allow the state to move forward with the mission of abolition, for which so many organizations and individuals were fighting at that time.
The mission of the institution was to empower young black people and educate them for something other than slavery, which was a complicated and bold proposition for the time. In 1785 the Society worked to pass a New York State law prohibiting the sale of slaves imported into the state. This preceded the national law prohibiting slave trade, passed in 1808. The 1783 New York law also lessened restrictions on the manumission of enslaved Africans. In New York, a gradual emancipation law was passed in 1799, which provided that children of enslaved mothers would be born free. However, long periods of indentured servitude were required; 28 years for men and 25 for women. Existing slaves were eventually freed, until the last were freed in 1827.
The African Free School’s role in this process was unprecedented, as it educated thousands of students. Its first teacher, Cornelius Davis, served as head of school and fundraiser, inviting visitors from around the world to experience the school’s functions, educational methods, and students, of which Davis was incredibly proud. Once the student population grew, the school hired Black teachers as well, creating an early example of a mixed-race faculty of educators.
John Jay was the first president of the New York Manumission Society and later New York’s second governor, who signed New York’s Gradual Emancipation Act of 1799, which provided for the eventual freeing of all persons henceforth born as slaves in New York. Newspaper editor Horace Greely claimed that “To Chief Justice Jay may be attributed, more than to any other man, the abolition of Negro bondage in this [New York] state.” His involvement in the founding of the school was hailed by many, and with his educational background he worked with Cornelius Davis to institute a system of running the school in which higher-achieving students were elevated to take part of the education of their peers, passing on information, gaining independence, and allowing everyone to excel at their own pace in a school with few staff and fewer resources. When Davis stepped down, John Teasman, the school’s first Black principal, served for many years until he was dismissed in 1809 after disagreements with the Manumission Society. Charles C. Andrews, a white man, replaced him and served for twenty years.
In 1799, New York’s gradual emancipation law granted freedom to children born to enslaved mothers. The last slaves in New York were freed in 1827. For the next six years, the African Free School continued to teach Black children, tackling general education and empowerment, encouraging engagement in democracy and strength in citizenship.
Creating and attending an institution dedicated to providing tools of empowerment to young black people was a daring proposition… Quite simply, no one was sure what citizenship would look like for African Americans, and no one was sure of what path black New Yorkers would—or should—take to get there. Although slavery had been on the wane for decades before official manumission in 1827, removing slavery from the equation substantially shifted social boundaries in a city that was in the midst of tremendous growth and upheaval. New York in the early nineteenth century was awash in social changes, and delineations of class, race, and citizenship were in continual flux. It was a time of tremendous potential, and, for those wary of losing their own hold on power, a time of great anxiety.
Looking through the archive, there are no easy answers or even general trends of how students and teachers felt, thought, or experienced slavery, abolition, or how to move forward. Nothing is simple, and some things would be considered disturbing today, though at the time it seems that the discussions were taking place in earnest.
The New York African Free School was unique for its time, bringing Black and white people together to educate Black children and work to solve the larger problems, though not without conflict. The questions of abolition were on everyone’s minds. Ideas for solutions were varied, and the resistance amongst white people to abolition was strong.
Students wrote essays and poems, put on plays to tackle big issues, and delved into deeper questions of the trauma of slavery, racial pride, stereotypes, and their place in society, which was so precarious.
Often, school administrators took a condescending tone towards the parents of their students and seemed to encourage a sense of inferiority among the students themselves. Within the complications of the school’s leadership, it is clear that the anger of Black parents was a force in the ways the school was run.
Despite all the challenges and difficulties, the work of the school gave the thousands of Black students who passed through its doors a nuanced view of what the future held for them. As a result, many of its alumni went on to be educators, leaders, abolitionists, doctors, actors, ministers, and artisans. Famous alumni include Dr. James McCune Smith, the first African American to earn a university medical degree and work as a physician; actor Ira Aldridge; Minister Alexander Crummell; educator Charles Lewis Reason; and missionary and educator Alexander Crummell, among many others.
Again, from the New York Historical Society:
The lives of many of those who were associated with or graduated from the school are unknown to us. Women graduates, in particular, are difficult to trace. Faced with the dual obstacles of race and gender prejudice, there were few venues in which they could make a historical mark. Additionally, tracing the lives of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century women is very difficult because they were often lost in census records as they took their husbands’ last names.
The first African Free School, a one-room school house located in lower Manhattan, was established in 1794 and held about 40 students. Here, the children of both free and enslaved blacks were taught reading, writing, arithmetic, and geography. Boys were also taught astronomy, a skill required of seamen, and girls were taught sewing and knitting. After a fire destroyed the original building, a second school was opened in 1815 and held 500 students. African Free School No. 2, located on Mulberry Street, was Alma mater to abolitionist and educator Henry Highland Garnet. African Free School No. 3 was established on 19th Street near 6th Avenue. However, after objections from whites in the area, it was relocated to 120 Amity Street (now known as 120 West 3rd Street), in the heart of what was throughout much of the 19th century and into the early 20th century known as the “Little Africa” section of Greenwich Village. By 1834 the seven existing African Free Schools, with enrollment surpassing a thousand students, had been absorbed into the public school system.
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