|A romanticized etching appeared in A. Costello's Our Firemen: A History of the New York Fire Department in 1887 (copyright expired)|
Contrary to the conception of some, racial bias and discrimination were as much a part of Northern mores as they were of the Deep South's. The 1936 history From Cherry Street to Green Pastures: A History of the Colored Orphan Asylum at Riverdale-on-Hudson recalled that the orphanage was “Founded in stirring times, when race prejudice was rife.”
Those stirring times were 1834 when two Quaker women, Anna Shotwell and her niece, Mary Murray, discovered that black orphans, unlike their white counterparts, were either confined to the alms house or to the streets to fend for themselves. The New-York Daily Tribune later reported “Their only place of refuge was the Alms House at Bellevue, where colored children are mingled with the adult inmates, exposed in consequent to very corrupting influences, and imperfectly furnished with the means for any kind of instruction.”
The women relentlessly badgered city leaders “trying to make the officials understand that they were only storing up trouble for themselves if they did not find homes, education and a chance for self-respecting employment for hapless negro boys and girls.” They also appealed to friends and wealthy citizens for funding.
In 1836 they purchased a house on 12th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. The purchase was necessary because no property owner would lease to a group housing black children. With the house ready to receive orphans, three Quaker women headed to the almshouse. They rescued 11 children who were being housed in the cellar there. But there was a problem. According to the 1936 history, “They could not be taken to their new home by carriage, for no coachman would drive negro children, yet several of them were too small to walk.”
Anna Shotwell picked up one of the toddlers and told Mary Murray and the other woman, “I’ll carry this one if thee will take the others.” And a rather extraordinary pilgrimage through the streets of Manhattan was made to what the women called “the cottage.”
But the “cottage” would not suffice for long. The group of women lobbied for funds to build an appropriate orphanage and school. On December 12, 1842 the New-York Daily Tribune reported that work had commenced on the Colored Orphan Asylum on Fifth Avenue just north of the Croton Reservoir (now the site of the New York Public Library). “Twenty lots of ground were appropriated for the purpose by the Corporation of the City, and private subscriptions to a considerable amount of have been received for the same object.”
The location, between 43rd and 44th Streets, was undeveloped and rocky. Fifth Avenue was still a rutty, dirt road this far north. But the high location and open lands provided fresh air and sunshine, highly prized attributes for Victorian orphanages.
The Tribune noted “Such an Institution was thought to be especially needed, because these children, although the most wretched of orphans, were virtually excluded from all the existing Orphan Asylums.”
The Asylum opened in May 1843. It was an impressive brick structure sitting on a high basement faced in fieldstone. Three-story pilasters separated the openings of the slightly-projecting central section, above which sat a classical pediment. The New-York Tribune would report “Mr. Joseph B. Collins states that the Asylum for Colored Orphans was erected at an expense of $20,000, which had been procured in donations by the exertions of a few ladies.” That amount would translate to about $650,000 today.
“Shortly after the house was opened the Mayor and Common Council paid a visit and were so pleased that they gave the Association twenty additional lots. This permitted the institution to keep two or three cows and to plant a vegetable garden,” reported the Asylum’s centennial history.
Only children under 12 years of age were housed here. Education at the Asylum included the learning of a trade for boys, and domestic skills for the girls. Once a ward of the Asylum reached 12 years old, he or she was released as a farm laborer or domestic servant.
To supplement donations, the mangers of the Colored Orphan Asylum held fairs. These were a common Victorian method for churches and other institutions to raise money. On December 26, 1845 one of the managers wrote a letter to the Editor of the New-York Daily Tribune that dripped with slightly-veiled sarcasm.
“The interest manifested by H. Greeley, for improving the moral and physical condition of his fellow men, among whom I am pleased to observe he recognizes the colored man, induces me to take the liberty of directing his attention to ‘the Fair for the benefit of the Colored Orphan Asylum,’ got up entirely by colored people at their own suggestion.”
The orphanage was, by now, housing 145 children and costs were on the increase. The letter ended saying “If you would pay a visit to the Asylum some Tuesday or Friday, you would, I think, be gratified to witness an assemblage of happy faces—made so by those who can sympathise with suffering humanity, regardless of the shade of complexion—and in the advancement of mind and morals he would rejoice that so large a number had been rescued from the contamination and degradation which their helpless condition must have subjected them.”
The Tribune followed up on the success of the fair on January 12, 1846. “To their credit it is announced that on Saturday they paid over to the Institution nearly seven hundred dollars, beside presenting the inmates with a large quantity of cakes and other dainties.” The newspaper concluded its article with a remark unthinkable to modern readers. “This shows that they rightly appreciate and gratefully acknowledge the benefaction to their race conferred by the Society.”
But by the end of the year, the $700 was gone and the managers were once again pleading for donations. On December 11 they wrote “The anxiety arising from the care of so large an establishment can scarcely be realized by those who have not deeply participated in its responsibilities. The table must be daily supplied, clothing adapted to the coming season, and the moderate salaries and wages of those employed cannot be withheld.”
On May 10, 1847 the Asylum celebrated its 11th Anniversary with an exhibition by the children. The New-York Daily Tribune said they “numbered about 100, and presented a pleasingly tidy and orderly appearance. The exercises in singing, geography, arithmetic, etc. were most creditable alike to teachers and pupils.”
In his remarks to the audience Mr. Ketchum wondered at the fates of the children were it not for the asylum. “Not a third of them would have been visible to our eyes; those would doubtless have sunk to their graves who are now rescued by these benevolent ladies, washed and clothed, fed and provided with a comfortable home.” He recounted the story of a Southern slave holder who, after visiting the Colored Orphan Asylum, went home and freed his slaves. “Now, the managers did not ask him to do that—but doubtless there were very glad of it!”
In February 1851 the number of orphans had risen to 114 with net expenses totaling about $281 per month. The indefatigable managers continued to hold fairs and knock on doors for support.
When one of the teachers died in August 1852, Rev. J. W. Pennington, pastor of the black Presbyterian church at the corner of Prince and Marion Streets, headed to her funeral at the Asylum. Black citizens were barred from riding in public omnibuses; so he sought alternative transportation to no avail.
He wrote to the Editor of The New York Times on September 25 “On the block above my house is a carriage-stand, where I stopped and attempted to negotiate for a hack, but $1.50 was the lowest cent I could get one for, to go the distance! So in painful excitement I walked the entire distance, under the burning sun of one of our hottest days, getting there after the hour, and not fit for service.”
Pennington said “it is a hard case that a man should be compelled, in the public service, to walk ounce after ounce of his heart’s best blood out of him every day, and not be allowed to avail himself of the public conveyances designed to save time, health, and life…I shall be told that the majority of the public will object to my riding in the ‘busses. Is that true? Will the members of a Christian public object to me, a minister of Christ, using the facilities of a public conveyance, while about my Master’s business?” He concluded his letter saying “I ask for simple justice at the hands of my countrymen.”
By 1860, with the number of orphans now at 180, the Asylum had managed to get assistance from the City—60 cents a week per orphan. In desperation the Directors appealed to the Department of Public Charities for additional funds--$1 per child—at its May 24th meeting. The Department’s minutes showed that the request, “with a number of others of less importance,” was referred to the Committee of the Whole.
The Directors waited three weeks until the Department came to a resolution. On June 14, according to The New York Times, “it was decided that in the future 70 cents per week should be paid to the Colored Orphan Asylum for each pauper child.”
The Asylum received three unlikely orphans on August 25, 1860. On July 22 the W. R. Kibby, a slave brig of Boston, was found abandoned by the Crusader off Anguills, in Spanish waters. It was hauled to New Orleans. On August 14 the New Orleans Picayune reported “On opening the fore hatch, one of the men discovered a wooly head, and thinking it was some one of the negro stewards from the Crusader, stowed away in order to go North, he hailed him as such, but no response, and it proved to be a boy, one of the original cargo.”
In fact there were three African boys in the cargo hold; now in need of water and food after eight days of hiding. The W. R. Kibby was ordered to be sailed to New York, “for the purpose of condemnation, she having been found derelict, and subsequently with African slaves on board.”
Upon reaching Manhattan, the boys were put in the Eldridge Street jail. They captured the attention of United States District Attorney James I. Roosevelt. Although it appears he was more moved by the intelligence they could provide than by humanitarian reasons.
On August 24 The New York Times reported that Roosevelt, “who has manifested much interest in the three African boys found on board of the slaver Kibby, has written to the President, suggesting that they should be released from their imprisonment in Eldridge-street Jail, and be placed in the Colored Orphan Asylum in this City, where they can be instructed, and thus enable the Government to obtain the particulars of their capture, and other facts concerning the voyage of the Kibby, the fate of their several hundred comrades, and such information as would be of servtee in suppressing the Slave-trade.”
The newspaper added “The boys appear quite cheerful, though evidently at a loss to understand why they are shut up in prison.”
|Older girls pose with hoops in the paved play yard. Younger children sit on the steps. From the collection of the New York Historical Society|
On January 27, 1860 the children once again exhibited their learning for the public. The New York Times said that the orphans, “in matters of personal cleanliness and robust health, would challenge comparison with the attendants of any free educational institution in this City.” The writer seemed astounded at their aptitude. “The musical taste and tenacity of memory exhibited in these performances were surprising. The songs were in several instances led by a most diminutive specimen of the colored race, whose old-fashioned antics excited immense laughter, and on one occasion even evoked an encore.”
On April 12, 1861 the Confederate Army opened fire on Fort Sumter in South Carolina, sparking the Civil War. The orphans on Fifth Avenue, seemingly a world away, were happily unaware--for now.
On November 29, 1862 The Times reported on Thanksgiving celebrations. “A glad sight it was to see the hundreds of these colored children, rescued from poverty and crime, and placed under the kindest and best Christian influences, fitting them for a lift of respectability and usefulness.” It would be the last Thanksgiving dinner in the stately orphanage building.
In 1863 the Draft Lottery was established to augment troops fighting in the South. But corrupt practitioners focused on the working class—primarily Irish immigrants—while the wealthy bought their way out of service. A protest quickly disintegrated into a bloody riot; three days of murder, looting and arson in July with innocent blacks being strung up from lampposts, shot and stabbed.
It was not merely men in the mob; women and children joined in the looting. On July 13 the rabble headed for the Asylum. The following day The New York Times reported “The Orphan Asylum for Colored Children was visited by the mob about 4 o’clock…Hundreds and perhaps thousands of the rioters, the majority of whom were women and children, entered the premises, and in the most excited and violent manner they ransacked and plundered the building from cellar to garret.”
Items were tossed out of the upper windows and one little girl among the mob, 10-year old Jane Barby, was killed “by furniture which was thrown upon her.”
The newspaper estimated that there were perhaps 600 to 800 terrified children within the building. “When it became evident that the crowd designed to destroy it, a flag of truce appeared on the walk opposite, and the principals of the establishment made an appeal to the excited populace, but in vain.”
The newspaper reported that the entire orphanage had been ransacked, “and every article deemed worth carrying away had been taken—and this included even the little garments for the orphans.” Repeatedly the rabble tried to set the building on fire. Chief Engineer Decker stood on the top step of the entrance “amid an infuriated and half-drunken mob of two thousand, and begged them to do nothing so disgraceful to humanity as to burn a benevolent institution, which had for its object nothing but good. He said it would be a lasting disgrace to them and to the City of New-York.”
Decker’s pleas were in vain. The mob wanted not only to burn the orphanage, but to murder the children inside. “The institution was destined to be burned, and after an hour and a half of labor on the part of the mob, it was in flames in all parts.”
|Children flee through the crowds at the orphanage burns. One orphan, at far left, is being beaten and stomped -- Harper's Weekly, August 1, 1863 (copyright expired)|
Five stage coach drivers, among them Paddy McCaffrey, and the members of Engine Company No. 18 saw around 20 of the orphans surrounded by the murderous mob. “It hardly seems credible, yet it is nevertheless true, that there were dozens of men, or rather fiends, among the crowd who gathered around the poor children and cried out, ‘murder the d—d monkeys,’ ‘Wring the necks of the d—d Lincolnites,” reported The Times on July 17. “Had it not been for the courageous conduct of the parties mentioned, there is little doubt that many, and perhaps all of those helpless children, would have been murdered in cold blood.”
The children miraculously escaped through the courageous actions of heroes like Paddy McCaffrey. The 19th Precinct Station House received “two hundred and sixteen of the children, none over twelve years of age, who had escape from their home by the rear as the dastardly and infamous mob forced an entrance in front and fired the building,” reported The Times. “These little ones would undoubtedly have been slaughtered had they not been carefully guided away. They were sadly terrified on reaching the Station, but were reassured, housed, and kindly cared for by Sergeant Petty.”
|Looters carry away furniture as the Colored Orphan Asylum burns to the ground -- from the collection of the New York Public Library|
On August 16 all the children were conveyed to Randall’s Island. Their orphanage was a blackened ruin.
On November 12, 1863 the Superintendent of Unsafe Buildings directed that the charred walls of the Colored Orphan Asylum be taken down. Almost immediately, fund raising began to rebuild. But not everyone thought it was such a good idea.
In 1863 the land around the orphanage site was no longer rural, rocky terrain. The mansions of Manhattan’s wealthiest citizens had begun creeping up the now-paved Fifth Avenue. One reader of The New York Times, who preferred to remain anonymous, voiced his concerns in a letter to the editor on August 1.
“The location, however good for the purpose originally, is bad, very bad, at the present time. The land is altogether too valuable. It would sell quickly at one hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars,--and why devote so costly a property for such a purpose?”
To support his argument, he offered a nearly preposterous prediction. “This building has been recently burned by a mob; who can tell when the next asylum, on the same spot, may follow suit? Better build at a distance from the mob, where they would not be likely to go, and out of this county.”
The children were housed at 51st Street and Fifth Avenue for four years until the new Colored Orphan Asylum was completed far away at 143rd Street. Fine mansions soon occupied the site of the old orphanage; replaced in the 1896 by the elegant Sherry's restaurant; and in the 20th century by soaring office towers.