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African Free School

African Free School

The African Free School opened in a private home on Cliff Street in New York City in 1787 with forty-seven students. It was supported by the New York Manumission Society, a joint effort of Anglicans and Quakers. Over the next fifty years the school was the primary vehicle for black education in New York City. Descended from the Trinity Church School for blacks, first headed by Elias Neau and maintained until 1778, the African Free School had served over 2,300 students by 1814. In 1809 it was the largest single school in the city, with 141 pupils. Like other charitable schools, it received city assistance beginning in 1796.

In 1813 a state law provided that the African Free School would receive both city and county school funds. Four more such schools had been opened by 1827. The first nonprivate building for the African Free School was at William and Duane streets. Later, schools opened at Mulberry and Grand streets (these were turned into an allfemale school in 1831, with additional buildings at Sixth Avenue and Nineteenth Street, at 161 Duane Street, and at 108 Columbia Street). The Free School taught a basic curriculum of reading, writing, and arithmetic, augmented with poetry, drawing, and public speaking. Navigation skills were emphasized, an indication of the importance of seafaring for black employment. Teachers gave special lessons on Haiti. As scrapbooks of award-winning assignments show, the students performed admirably. School rules were strict. Students were required to attend church and read the scripture, and were continually warned about the minor sins of lying, dishonesty, profanity, and "cruelty to beasts." School commenced at 9 a.m. and again at 2 p.m., with penalties for lateness. The school used the Lancastrian system of education, employing student monitors to assist in instruction. Despite the racism its graduates encountered, the African Free School was the training ground of a generation of talented African Americans. Among its most illustrious graduates were James McCune Smith, Ira Aldridge, Peter Williams Jr., James Varick, Charles Lewis Reason, Alexander Crummell, and Thomas Sydney.

After a period of declining enrollments, Samuel Eli Cornish, editor of Freedom's Journal, spearheaded efforts to double the student body by 1830. Four new schools opened in 1832. The Free School survived, despite bitterness among African Americans toward the procolonization stance of the longtime head of the school, Charles Andrews. It also faced competition, since other members of the black community had opened private schools as early as 1812.

The Free Schools did not go above the lower grades. Efforts by Peter Williams Jr. and David Ruggles between 1831 and 1837 failed to establish permanent, black-maintained high schools. African-American students were thus forced to continue to patronize the Free Schools, without much hope for advancement. In 1834 the Free Schools were transferred to the control of the New York State Public School Society, the major local conduit for state funds. In reality, the schools had already ceased to be philanthropic institutions and had become public schools.

See also Education in the United States; Manumission Societies


Andrews, Charles. The History of the New-York African Free-Schools, from Their Establishment in 1787 to the Present Time; Embracing a Period of More than Forty Years. New York: M. Day, 1830.

Barnett, Enid Vivian. "Educational Activities by and in Behalf of the Negroes in New York, 18001830." Negro History Bulletin 4 (1951): 102ff.

Curry, Leonard P. The Free Black in Urban America, 18001850: The Shadow of the Dream. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.

graham russell hodges (1996)

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