The creation of the African Free School, which was founded on November 2, 1787, signaled a profound shift in the course of social reform, abolition, education, and racial equality in New York City and early America.
Prior to the Revolutionary War, New York City had one of the largest populations of Black slaves in the colonies. In 1779, British General Henry Clinton offered freedom to all slaves who fought for the British. Similar promises were made by the American side, and historians estimate that between 5,000 and 8,000 African Americans fought for the Americans and 20,000 fought on the side of the British. By 1780, more than 10,000 Black people called New York City home.
In 1785, founding fathers Alexander Hamilton, Geroge Clinton, John Jay, and several other influential citizens created the New-York Manumission Society (full name: “The New York Society for the Manumission of Slaves and the Protection of such of them as had been or wanted to be Liberated“). Their work began with protesting the widespread practice of kidnapping both free and enslaved Black New Yorkers and selling them as slaves elsewhere.
The New York Manumission Society believed that education was key to creating citizens that would be capable of sustaining a democracy. And so in 1787, the Society founded the New York African Free School — the very first school in the United Stayes for black students. Members raised funds to develop what would eventually grow to seven schools.
The first African Free School started as a one-room schoolhouse in lower Manhattan. The children of both free and enslaved Black New Yorkers were taught reading, writing, arithmetic, and geography. Boys were also taught astronomy, a skill required of seamen, and girls were taught sewing and knitting. Originally the school employed only white teachers, but it grew to employ black teachers as well.
After a fire destroyed the original building, African Free School No. 2 was opened in 1815 on Mulberry Street, serving 500 students. 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 120 West 3rd Street, in a building long since demolished (Village Preservation got the existing building, and 250 other surrounding buildings, landmarked in 2013 as part of the South Village Historic District).
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. Those who were currently enslaved were eventually freed, the last ones in 1827.
By 1834, the seven African Free Schools, with enrollment surpassing a thousand students, had been absorbed into the public school system. Thousands of students had passed through its doors, including many who would find great success in their fields as educators, leaders, abolitionists, doctors, actors, ministers, and artisans. This includes James McCune Smith, the first African American to earn a university medical degree and work as a licensed doctor; Henry Highland Garnet, a leading abolitionist and the first African American to address Congress; Ira Aldridge, the most famous African American actor of his era; Mathematician, linguist, and educator Charles Lewis Reason, the first African-American college professor in the United States; and missionary and educator Alexander Crummell, an influential thinker and passionate abolitionist.