Manhattan’s only known surviving “colored” schoolhouse
The former Colored School No. 4, later called Grammar School No. 81, is a three-story brick building located at 128 West 17th Street in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. Built circa 1870, its design is a rare architectural representation of the Model Primary School House plan that had been 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 perhaps the oldest extant Board of Education facility?—the building evokes a official racially segregated education system for most of the nineteenth century. Yet, the system’s handful of "colored" schools constituted institutional pillars and cultural centers of the New York’s African-American communities. By the late 1870s, a movement to disestablish these schools prompted demonstrative public appeals from black citizens—including Frederick Douglass—which influenced then New York State Governor Grover Cleveland to sign a Legislative act on May 5, 1884, that spared two separate race-based schools from closure: of those two, Colored School No. 4 was thereafter designated as Grammar Schools No. 81. Despite the new name, it remained a “colored” school into the 1890s until its disuse. The Board of Education gave up the building circa 1897.
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 1870, and nine years later married the school’s longtime principal, the famous educator, suffragist and community leader Sarah J. Tompkins.
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 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)