“Separate but Equal”: From the African Free Schools to the New York City Public School System
By Imani Vieira
Written in part of a series of honoring the Black Histories in the LES

Education for enslaved people in New York during Antebellum America was a rarity. But there were a few people, white abolitionists mostly, who believed that education was the way to equality. They believed it was the first step in creating a generation of people who could successfully integrate into New York ‘society’ and could experience a life beyond the cruelty of slavery.

The New York Manumission Society was founded to further abolishment of slavery in New York and believed in the power of education to foster integration. Though many members continued to be enslavers themselves, beginning in 1785, they pushed to end the sale of enslaved people imported in New York State. Later in 1799, a gradual emancipation was passed, it did not actually free any enslaved people, it provided “freedom” to children born of enslaved mothers… but indentured them until they were young adults.

The African Free School was founded in 1787 in lower Manhattan by the New-York Manumission Society, by Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay. The School was established during slavery in New York State, the first of its kind in the country, and by the time of its absorption into the New York Public School System in 1835, it had educated thousands of children within its seven schools across Lower Manhattan. The complete emancipation of enslaved people in New York State happened in 1827, making it the first state to abolish slavery in its totality.

The mission of the African Free School system was to educate Black children to ultimately “integrate into New York society” and many African Free School alumni went on to be prominent African American leaders.

Famous alumni include Dr. James McCune Smith; the first African American to earn a university medical degree and work as a physician, actor Ira Aldridge, educator Charles Lewis Reason, missionary and educator Alexander Crummell, and abolitionist and community leader Henry Highland Garnet.

The African Free School started as a one-room school with about 40 enrolled students, most of whom were children of enslaved people. After a fire took the original building, the Manumission Society moved the Free School to a building on Mulberry Street, right in the heart of Five Points, a community with the highest concentration of Black New Yorkers at the time. School records show a registration of over 500 children.

Although numbers showed a large enrollment at the Free School in Five Points, attendance said otherwise. Students missed school due to work, lack of proper clothing, and ultimately growing tensions between white administrators and Black parents.

The New York African Free School Collections calls us to reexamine the complexity of relationship and social norms at play:

As complicated and ambiguous as these materials are, the historical records of the New York African Free School jolt us out of conventional ways of looking at education, allowing us to view the process as a set of performances in which a school’s administrators, teachers, and students are all working—sometimes together, sometimes in conflict—to create a pathway from childhood to adulthood, as well as (in this case) from slavery to freedom.

In the earliest days of the school, most teachers were white, but as the school expanded, Black teachers were hired as well; one of the earliest examples of a mixed-race faculty of educators in the US. Unfortunately, parents were often treated as inferior to the teachers or even to the students themselves (their own children) due to their status in society: either still enslaved or formerly enslaved.

Writings from some students show they adopted a favoring of Eurocentric behaviors and beauty standards, leading them to look down on their enslaved parents and families. However, other students found themselves questioning the administration and outwardly expressing conflicted attitudes towards White people, which led to anxiety in the White administrators and teachers at the Free School around what the mission of the school could do to foster a potential shift and rise to ‘power’ of Black leaders through education.

Since there are mixed accounts of how the students and administrators felt towards the school and the mission it tried to enact, the legacy of the African Free School is a complicated one. The students were given a platform to “enact” ideas of freedom rather than truly be free. They still had extremely limited rights in society. The question around what worlds truly open up for Black New Yorkers after receiving an education contradicts the idea that education was the main answer to racial integration.

Education has been and continues to be a crucial human right, whether during slavery, Jim Crow, or today. Education also continues to give us an understanding around how to move racial equity forward. But we must push educational institutions, even now, to truly make commitments beyond further funding, which doesn’t seem to foster radical change or integration. Though the Manumission Society leaders committed money to supporting young Black students, the model of the African Free School didn’t show a commitment to otherwise furthering opportunities for young Black ‘members of society’ beyond the school room.

In 1834, the African Free School system was absorbed into the New York Public School System. African Free School students were integrated into the same system as white students, but they remained segregated, little changed in their social status, and educational conditions for Black children of New York eventually worsened. As segregation continued, Jim Crow laws took rule, defining the education of Black children for decades.

We must recognize that the decisions of adults are affecting children — who deserve a fair and truthful education.

Much like through the abolition of slavery, there has been great pushback from white New Yorkers around integration in education. Many progressive White people in the 1960s claimed to believe in integration of schools but not in bussing students between neighborhoods–or they claimed to have “far too much to worry about ” at home than to also worry about failing schools or the lack of resources in other neighborhoods or school districts.

Even now, White New Yorkers all over the city still show resistance to proposed plans for integrating the Public School system beyond further funding schools who are under-resourced– even as recently as during the DeBlasio administration despite current rates of segregation in the city showing that, in some parts, it is worse than it was in the 60s. New York State is leading the nation in segregated schools. In 2019, it was revealed that of the 895 slots for incoming freshmen at Stuyvesant High School, a highly selective public high school in Lower Manhattan, only 7 slots were offered to Black students. Integration should not be defined as a “separate but equal” education, which is still the case over 150 years after the founding of the African Free School, but rather to truly give all students of New York City, regardless of race or socio-economic class an equal and FAIR opportunity.

Educational institutions cannot function at their full capacity if the minds of adults and policies outside educational systems do not change. This is a part of the larger commitment to reparations the city must recognize. If education is the ‘key’ to ‘advancement in society’ we have to look at how that is actually being set up. Black and Latinx children are the most affected by racist school policies and lack of resources in schools, but radical integration would be a benefit for all students. It is necessary not only for the betterment of the public school system as a whole, but also to further a commitment to racial equity across New York City for future generations.

Readings, Resources
New York Times – Segregation Has Been the Story of New York City’s Schools for 50 Years
New York History – Examination Days: The New York African Free School Collection 
Village Preservation – African Free School, First in America for Black Students, Found a Home in Greenwich Village