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Former Colored School No. 4 (later Grammar School No. 81)

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Manhattan’s only known surviving “colored” schoolhouse

Place Details

Borough : Manhattan
Neighborhood : Chelsea
Institution, Social Movements, Education


Eric K. Washington

Although built circa 1853, the unassuming 3-story structure at 128 West 17th Street was for thirty-four years, from 1860 until 1894, consigned to African American children and teachers. Best known as “Colored School No. 4,” it was actually known successively as Colored School No. 7 (from 1860 to 1866), Colored School No. 4 (from 1866 to 1884) and Grammar School No. 81 (from 1884 to 1894). The schoolhouse served the numerous working-class African American families of the present Chelsea area, which was then part of the so-called “Tenderloin Precinct.” Its decades-long use spanned the Civil War, the postbellum Reconstruction Era, and New York’s ensuing gritty-bordered Gilded Age.

The building’s design extends even further back. It is a rare architectural representation of an 1843 “Model Primary School House,” a plan that was adopted in 1844 by the Public School Society (which in 1853 merged with the Board of Education) as part of the city’s “ward school system.” As the borough’s only known surviving “colored” schoolhouse—and possibly its oldest extant Board of Education facility—the building evokes the city’s racial-caste education system that prevailed throughout most of the nineteenth century.

Yet, the system’s handful of so-called "colored" schools constituted institutional pillars and cultural centers of New York’s African American communities. By the late 1870s, a movement to disestablish these schools prompted demonstrative public appeals of opposition from Black citizens, invoking such prominent figures as Frederick Douglass and Henry Highland Garnet. Ultimately, New York State Governor Grover Cleveland signed a Legislative act on May 5, 1884, that spared two of the separate race-based schools from closure: Colored School No. 3 and Colored School No. 4, respectively. Of those two, the latter was thereafter designated as Grammar Schools No. 81. Despite the new name, it remained a “colored” school until its disuse in 1894.

Historically, Colored School No. 4 was one of a series of schoolhouses to evolve from the African Free-Schools, which were first established in 1787 by the New-York Manumission Society—before its general public school system was established—to educate black children during a protracted process of gradually abolishing race-based slavery throughout the State. The renowned former abolitionist, orator and statesman Rev. Henry Highland Garnet lectured at the Colored School No. 4 on 17th Street in 1871, and four years later married the school’s longtime principal, Sarah J. Tompkins, who thereafter was best known as Sarah J. Garnet.

Sarah Garnet was famously the school’s driving spirit, as an educator, suffragist and community leader. By the time the school closed in 1894, Garnet’s diligent corps of African American teachers had long made it a singular pillar of the Black community. Other notable figures associated with this unique school at 128 West 17th Street include teacher J. Imogen Howard, who became the first black World’s Fair manager at Chicago’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, representing New York women; Susan Elizabeth Frazier, a graduate, who became New York City’s first African American teacher assigned to a mixed public school; acclaimed violinist and composer Walter F. Craig, a graduate who became the first black member of the all-white Musical Mutual Protective Union, and was one of the preeminent society orchestra leaders, among both black and white audiences, of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; William Appo, one of the most influential African-American musicians and educators in the latter half of the nineteenth century; and graduate James H. Williams, who, as Chief “Red Cap” Attendant for nearly half a century at Grand Central Terminal, he organized a body of black college men who comprised an essential work force of the august railroad station.

In 1898, the “the unoccupied school-house, No. 128 West Seventeenth Street,” became headquarters for several decades to the Seventy-third Regiment, New York Veteran Volunteers, Second New York Fire Zouaves; the James C. Rice Post No. 29, G.A.R. of New York; and the Exempt Firemen’s Benevolent Association (aka Veteran Firemen’s Association). The property, which belongs to the City of New York, is controlled by the Department of Sanitation.

I discuss this property in my book, "Boss of the Grips: The Life of James H. Williams and the Red Caps of Grand Central Terminal" (2019, Liveright/W.W. Norton & Co.).

I also submitted a Request for Evaluation (RFE) to the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), whose encouraging response on January 24, 2019, stated: "The agency has reviewed the building’s architectural and historical qualities, and has determined that it may merit consideration for designation as an individual landmark.”

(added May 2020; updated by author 2022)


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