Unbeknown to most New Yorkers, the former Colored School No. 4 in Chelsea, the last-known “colored” schoolhouse remaining in Manhattan from the city’s segregated school system of the 19th century, still stands at 128 West 17th Street. Though it has not been a school since 1894, the vacant, three-story yellow brick building is still owned by the city, under the control of the Sanitation Department, which used it as a lunchroom until about seven years ago.
But water has invaded the building and, despite appreciative statements from municipal agencies regarding its historic value, a four-year campaign to gain landmark protection for the former schoolhouse, led by an African American historian, has yielded no tangible results.
The local community board, which voted unanimously last year to support the building’s designation as a landmark, has urged the city to perform a “swift and thorough repair” of the building’s leaky roof.
“It’s urgent for the Sanitation Department to maintain the building and it’s urgent for Landmarks to designate it,” said Kerry Keenan, a co-chair of the Chelsea Land Use Committee of Community Board 4, in an interview. “When a building is not designated a landmark and it sits vacant and unchecked for a long time, it’s cause for a developer to come along and argue to tear it down because it’s unsafe.”
Vincent Gragnani, a Sanitation Department spokesman, said in an email that while the agency supported the building’s “landmarking and good stewardship going forward,” it lacked the money to rehabilitate it, “and we have a long list of dire facilities needs that we need to prioritize, with the safety of our work force at the forefront.”
He added that the department was working with other city agencies “to advance the landmarking process and identify a long-term strategy for the structure.”
Built around 1853 from designs for a “model primary” schoolhouse adopted by the Public School Society, the modest West 17th Street building was used by Black children and teachers from 1860 to 1894. It also housed an evening school for adult Black students.
During the Draft Riots of July 1863, the schoolhouse came under assault by a mob of working-class white people incensed by the first federal draft, which conscripted citizens into the Union Army to fight in the Civil War while allowing wealthier people to buy their way out of military service. Just the night before, a white mob had burned the Colored Orphan Asylum on Fifth Avenue to the ground.
The West 17th Street school’s charismatic new leader, Sarah J.S. Tompkins, rose to the challenge of protecting the children under her charge. According to The New-York Tribune, the mob tried to break into the school to hunt down two Black women it had chased inside. Teachers barricaded the doors, however, and the rioters, after a few failed attempts to gain entry, gave up and attacked the occupants of a nearby shanty instead.
Later that day, Tompkins escorted many of the schoolchildren safely to their homes through the dangerous streets before heading to her own home in Brooklyn. Two months later, The New York Times reported, she and her students held an observance “in gratitude for their escape from death during the late riots.”
During its 34 years as a place of learning for Black children and adults, the West 17th Street school served as an institutional pillar for the Black community at the southern fringe of a gritty neighborhood then known as the Tenderloin, said Eric K. Washington, an independent historian.
Mr. Washington first learned of the school while researching “Boss of the Grips,” his biography of one of the school’s graduates, James H. Williams, the first Black chief of the Red Cap porters of Grand Central Terminal.
Concerned that developers might have their eye on an empty building in such a prime Chelsea location, Mr. Washington submitted to the city Landmarks Preservation Commission in 2018 a request for evaluation of the former Colored School No. 4 as a potential landmark.
In January 2021, the commission started an “equity framework,” which its chairwoman, Sarah Carroll, said would “ensure diversity and inclusion in designations, to make sure that we are telling the stories of all New Yorkers.” Mayor Eric Adams recently reappointed Ms. Carroll to a new seven-year term.
That spring, having received little substantive response from the commission about the school, Mr. Washington provided the agency with additional research.
“There are woefully too few places you can cite that represent the African American experience in New York, which goes back to its history in New Amsterdam,” he said in an interview. “It’s as old as New York, and there are very few surviving buildings that represent that experience, and those that do exist we lose so rapidly to development.”
Zodet Negrón, a Landmarks Preservation Commission spokeswoman, said that the agency had prioritized further research of Colored School No. 4 as part of its equity framework.
The commission has determined that the building “merits consideration and is currently studying its potential for designation” as a landmark, Ms. Negrón said in a statement. “As the only known surviving former ‘colored school’ in Manhattan, it is a reminder of the history of racist segregation policies in New York City and has important associations with the Black community in 19th-century New York.” The former Colored School No. 3, built in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn in 1881, when Brooklyn was still an independent city, was declared a landmark by the city in 1998.
To be eligible for landmark status, a building must not only possess historical, cultural or architectural significance but also retain enough physical integrity from its period of importance that its historic character associated with that era remains legible.
In this case, commission research has found that although the schoolhouse’s original dark brick facade was reclad sometime in the early 20th century, the structure retains its 19th-century form and four-bay facade configuration, including its characteristic separate entrances for girls and boys. It also retains its multipaned double-hung windows on the upper floors. Several of those window panes are broken, while the doors and one doorway are marred with graffiti. Sheets of peeling paint hang from the ceiling inside.
Mr. Washington’s landmarking campaign has garnered support from Erik Bottcher, the local city councilman, as well as preservation groups and local co-op boards and block associations. More than 1,500 people have signed a petition in favor of landmark designation.
In a May Zoom meeting facilitated by Mr. Bottcher, Gregory Anderson, a deputy commissioner of the Sanitation Department, told Mr. Washington and community stakeholders that a February inspection found the building to be remarkably intact, according to several of the meeting’s participants. A department spokesman said in an email that the building has “water damage in the interior” caused by “water infiltration through the roof” but “has no major structural issues.”
But preservation advocates remain concerned that a prolonged roof leak could damage the building’s structural integrity.
Colored School No. 4 was one of a group of schoolhouses that developed from the African Free School, which was established in 1787 by the abolitionist Manumission Society to educate Black children; the society counted prominent figures like Alexander Hamilton among its members. After being conveyed in 1834 to the Public School Society, a group funded with public and private money, the schools were transferred in 1853 to the city Board of Education.
Built around that time, the West 17th Street schoolhouse hosted multiple primary schools for white children until 1860, when it became home to Colored School No. 7; its designation was changed to No. 4 in 1866.
The pupils of “colored” schools were primarily children of laborers, according to a history published in 1869 by what was then known as the U.S. Office of Education. “Many of them are put out to service at an early age,” the agency reported, “and only get a chance to go to school when they are out of a situation.”
The West 17th Street school’s primary animating spirit was Sarah J.S. Tompkins, one of the city’s earliest Black public school principals and the same woman who escorted schoolchildren to safety during the Draft Riots. She became known as Sarah J.S. Garnet after marrying the influential abolitionist Henry Highland Garnet in 1875.
A prominent suffragist who began teaching at 14, Sarah Garnet was an early organizer of an equal suffrage league of Black women in Brooklyn and a co-founder of the National Women’s Afro-American Union of New York. She also traveled to Albany, N.Y., to lobby New York State legislators for equal pay for women.
“She’s beyond dynamic, she’s charismatic,” said Susan Goodier, an assistant professor of history at the State University of New York at Oneonta, who wrote an essay about Garnet for an upcoming anthology. “She draws people to her like W.E.B. Du Bois,” Dr. Goodier said, referring to the renowned Black civil rights activist, “and Charles Ray, one of the editors of The Colored American. All these prominent leaders come to talk to her kids.”
Just a few blocks away from the former Colored School No. 4, another school at 320 West 21st Street was renamed the Sarah J. Garnet Elementary School this year. The change was driven by fourth and fifth graders who had become angry upon learning about William T. Harris, for whom their school had been named. Harris was a former U.S. commissioner of education who promoted the forced education and assimilation of Native American children, whom he said belonged to a “lower race.”
The staff of Colored School No. 4 included William Appo, an influential Black musician and composer, and Joan Imogen Howard, the only Black manager at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, who was sent to the 1900 Paris Exposition by The Evening Telegram after winning the newspaper’s great teachers competition.
Graduates included the violinist and composer Walter F. Craig, the leader of a pre-eminent society orchestra that performed for both Black and white audiences.
“These were not just teachers, not just students, these were important players in the social infrastructure of New York City, and they represent this really broad swath of interests,” Mr. Washington said. “They were abolitionists, they were ministers, they were orators, they were musicians, they were military people.”
The school’s curriculum for boys most likely included reading, writing, math, science and some arts, as well as rudimentary practical skills that “would help children get service-oriented jobs that were in the interest of the dominant culture,” said Cynthia Copeland, a public historian who has done extensive research on Seneca Village and other Black communities of 19th-century New York. Girls’ instruction probably included domestic subjects like sewing, cooking and etiquette, as well as lessons on how to read, write and speak.
“The most important thing to take away was how to comport yourself, because perceptions of the Black community were very important,” Ms. Copeland said, adding that it was “likely that Black history was introduced in those spaces but probably not called Black history.”
In 1873, New York State passed a law prohibiting school officials from denying children access to any public school “on account of race or color.” But the law was not uniformly enforced, and the Black community itself held varying views about whether its children should share schools with white students.
By the early 1880s, according to Mr. Washington, the State Legislature appeared ready to let the city Board of Education absorb its few “colored” schools into its overall system. This proposal prompted Garnet to join a mass protest calling on the board to either retain Black teachers as equals with white ones or leave the Black schools alone.
Though the Board of Education’s bylaws were amended to abolish the “colored” schools by 1884, Gov. Grover Cleveland signed a superseding state law that year that permitted just two of the Black schools to retain their Black teachers and continue to function largely as de facto Black schools, even as their doors were opened to students of all races. One was Colored School No. 4, which was renamed Grammar School No. 81.
By 1888, enrollment had dipped notably at the West 17th Street school while at least a salting of white students had joined the Black ones.
“This was formerly known as an exclusively colored school and our pupils came from all parts of the city,” Garnet told The New York Herald. “But now they have left in order to attend schools nearer their homes.”
The school closed in 1894.
Two years later, the city rented the building as a clubhouse for Civil War veterans of the 73rd Regiment. By the 1930s, the former schoolhouse had been turned over to the Sanitation Department.
“Because it’s owned by the city, it should be easier to convert it to public use rather than have it sold to the highest bidder for upscale development,” said Thomas Lunke, an urban planner and 30-year Chelsea resident who has helped Mr. Washington understand the intricacies of city government.
Mr. Washington said that he would like to see the old schoolhouse become some kind of lyceum, with public programming that echoes its past as an educational institution full of life and learning, perhaps with performances and book signings.
“When you walk by the building, it’s not going to stop you in your tracks because of its ornateness,” Mr. Washington said. “The ornateness comes from the souls that inhabited the place.”
The post The Push to Landmark the Last-Known ‘Colored’ School in Manhattan appeared first on New York Times.