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Bethune Street: Tribute to a Remarkable Woman

We have posted a number of times about the origins of the names of various streets in our area, nearly all of which honor men. Bethune Street, barely three blocks in length, deviates from that patriarchal trend. It was named after a woman who was exceptional in her philanthropic and educational work, Joanna Graham Bethune (1770-1860).

Bethune and her mother Isabella Graham, along with other early 19th century female humanitarian leaders such as Eliza Hamilton, founded the first voluntary benevolent associations to aid poor women and children. Their substantial contributions to charity and social reform not only set a tradition of philanthropy in our new nation, but also expanded the concept of the “women’s sphere” beyond the home.

Joanna Graham Bethune

Joanna Graham Bethune was born on February 1, 1770, at Fort Niagara, Canada to Dr. John Graham and Isabella Graham. Dr. Graham passed in 1773, and Joanna and her mother moved to Scotland. After being educated in Edinburgh at a school her mother opened in 1779, and at a French school in Rotterdam where she trained to be a teacher, she and her family moved to New York when she was 19.

A devout Christian, in 1795 Joanna married a Scottish merchant, Divie Bethune, who share her strong faith. The couple first lived down on Wall Street where Divie had his business. Joanna Graham Bethune’s mother Isabella, with the help of her daughter, founded the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Children. Joanna would go on to start her own organizations to help needy children.

One of the more well-known organizations Joanna had a significant hand in was the Orphan Asylum Society. Her memoirs published by her son following her passing in 1860 give a complete account of the founding of this organization. Joanna became interested in the work of August Hermann Francke who was the founder of the Orphan House in Halle, Germany. Her concern, shared with like-minded women including her mother, was specific to the plight of orphaned children. On March 15, 1806, a public meeting was held at the no longer extant City Hotel (on Broadway between Thames and Cedar Streets) at which the New York Orphan Asylum was formed. Sarah Hoffman was First Directress, Eliza Hamilton Second Directress, and Joanna was appointed Treasurer. According to the memoirs, the organization adopted the principle that they would never refuse an orphan brought to them for protection, “whether they had a dollar for the treasury or not.” Joanna shared with her son that if there was a need of funds for the asylum, “a few words stating that the funds of the Society needed replenishing, thrown into a newspaper, was sure to bring in donations equal the need; more frequently, the money came in before the appeal was made.”

1842 Map of he West Village showing Asylum Street

The asylum was first located on Raisin Street (later known as Asylum Street and today known as West 4th Street) in a rented two-story wood-frame, initially housing 16 orphans. Quickly, the asylum outgrew this home, and before long the Society had arranged for the purchase of a plot of land north of their first location on Bank Street. Construction began in 1807. The second home of the Asylum was a 50 feet square brick building capable of housing 200 orphans.

Although Greenwich Village was a good choice for the asylum’s launch, environmental and health pressures soon forced yet another move. In 1835 the Society purchased land in the Bloomingdale village, at what is now 73rd Street and Riverside Drive. The rising value of land in Greenwich allowed the Society to purchase this land at a profit. Construction on a new asylum began immediately and was concluded by 1837. After its move to Bloomingdale, the Asylum underwent many more changes and several more moves with Joanna remaining part of its leadership until 1859, the year before her death. The organization evolved to become the Graham Home for Children and merged with Windham Child Care to become Graham Windham – an organization that continues to work at improving the lives of children in care today.

Other organizations that Joanna organized included the Society for the Promotion of Industry Among the Poor in 1814, which in the wake of the War of 1812 gave jobs to 500 women, and the Infant School Society, founded in 1827 for the education of young children.

Joanna took up an additional cause during the 1820s making her known as the mother of the Sunday School movement, though the idea had been introduced to her in Scotland and England earlier. With the influx of both immigrants and emancipated slaves, and no public school system in place, Joanna sought to educate the young people of these populations both academically and religiously. She appealed to the elders of her church for the support of such an enterprise, but was not met with support. Divie advised her, “My dear, don’t wait for the men: Get a few women together and begin the work yourselves.” The first school was established in 1827, and over the next ten years, she would go on to establish nine more schools across New York City that would educate more than 6,000 children. She oversaw all of the schools and personally taught in the Five Points District. She wrote several books on children’s education, creating a model for future schools.

So the next time you are walking down this little thoroughfare in the West Village, I invite you to consider the significant woman for whom it was named.

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