Thursday, November 19, 2020

The Former Colored School No. 4 Building - 128 West 17th Street


The first Blacks arrived in New Amsterdam in 1626, imported from Africa as slaves by the Dutch West India Company.  During the British occupation of New York City in 1776 the population soared after the Crown promised freedom to slaves who deserted their rebel masters.  It resulted in thousands of runaway slaves flocking into the city.  By 1780 there were more than 10,000 Blacks living in New York.  Finally, in 1827, slavery was abolished in New York.  But freedom did not necessarily translate into improvement in the lives of Black citizens.

The city, of course, was tasked with the education of all children; but integrated classrooms was not conceivable.  "Colored schools" were established, staffed by Blacks.  They were an offshoot of the first African Free School, established in 1787 on Mulberry Street.  Seven Colored Schools were organized in 1834.  

In 1853 Primary Schools No. 27 and 29 shared the new 25-foot wide building at No. 98 West 17th Street (renumbered 128 in 1868).  Three stories tall and faced in brick, it had two entrances--one for boys and the other for girls--as expected in Victorian school buildings.  In the basement was a small living space for the janitress, Mary Sallie.

There were four teachers in each school, all unmarried women.  Their wages in 1855 ranged from $400, earned by H. A. McCormick (about $12,200 a year today), to the $100 salaries earned by Abbie M. Saunders and Eliza Ideson.  How the women survived on the equivalent of $3,000 a year in today's money is remarkable.

The street address was not the only thing about the school building that would change.  By 1861 it was renumbered Primary School No. 14 (H. A. McCormick was still teaching here at the time), and within two years it became Colored School No. 7.  That year it was staffed by seven teachers--four teachers in the Boys' Department and three in the Primary Department.  

By 1866 the name was changed yet again, now known as Colored Grammar School No. 4.  Schools across the city staged a yearly exhibition of the children's work and this one was no exception.  On May 30 that year the New York Herald reported "The exhibition of Colored Grammar School No. 4 took place last evening at the Cooper Institute.  The audience was quite large, and included a few white persons, both male and female, and was well pleased with the exercises embraced in the programme."  The newspaper was careful to point out that the school was "formerly No. 7."

Rather surprisingly, two specialized teachers were added to the staff in 1868.  William Appo, a renowned Black musician, taught music and S. Anna Burroughs taught drawing.  

Graduating from grammar school was an important milestone, especially for Black children who were often pulled from school in order to work and help their families financially.  On March 5, 1869 The Sun reported "In Colored Grammar School No. 4, in Seventeenth street, Mrs. Sarah J. S. Thompkins, the principal, treated her pupils to an inauguration celebration.  Remarks were made by the Rev. Charles B. Ray, Fred Sill, C. E. Blake, Jacob Thomas, and William F. Busler."

The position of music teacher was taken by Joan Imogen Howard, who came from Boston, Massachusetts.  Like William Appo, she was recognized as an accomplished musician.  She was as well an ardent worker for integration and racial rights.  On October 30, 1892 The World reported "Miss J. Imogen Howard, the only colored women on the Board of Lady Managers of the [Chicago] World's Fair, is busily engaged in gathering statistics concerning colored women in New York State.

Joan Imogen Howard, Women of Distinction, 1893 (copyright expired)

Reflecting the innate racism of the time, the reporter asked Howard if it were possible for a Black woman to become a member of "the learned professions here."  Her reaction was visible.  "Miss Howard looked surprised," said the article.  She replied "I know of a great many.  In Brooklyn there are three doctors, each of them enjoying a large practice and doing well...I am personally acquainted with one colored woman who graduated from law school with honors...Miss Ida B. Wells, a young colored girl, is assistant editor of the New York Age, a weekly paper devoted to the interests of the colored people."  She went on to list a number of other successful professional women.

In 1873 the attendance of Colored School No. 4 was 120 pupils.  The school building was showing the effects of two decades of use.  An inspection by the School Board that year found in part: "ceilings cracked through and need repairing; ventilation by windows; water closets of wood, in poor condition; heated by seven wood stoves, properly shielded with tin."

The tin-lined flues of the cast iron stoves would cause problems at least twice.  On January 6, 1879 The New York Evening Express entitled an article "Scared Colored School-Children" and reported "A defective flue caused a fire this morning in Colored School No. 4, at 128 West Seventeenth street.  The fire occurred just before the assembling of the school, and a panic was thus averted, although the children collected around the building were considerably frightened."

It may have been that incident that prompted Principal Sarah J. S. Garnet to routinely instruct the pupils on how to react to a fire.  (Sarah Garnet was the widow of the Rev. Dr. Henry Highland Garnet, the former Minister to Liberia.)  It proved to be worthwhile instruction.  On February 14, 1883 The Sun reported that another flue fire had broken out.

At around 10:30 that morning children on the second floor noticed wisps of smoke "and became restless."  Mrs. Garnet told a reporter "I had frequently told the children that if fire broke out they would have sufficient warning from me to enable them to walk safely out of the school building.  Their faith in me is what saved them from a panic."

There were a total of 150 children in the building.  Garnet instructed a teacher to arrange the pupils on the second floor in straight lines, while she went upstairs to do the same with the youngest children.  "At a signal the pupils marched down the narrow, wooden stairways and stood quietly in the inner court yard."  One child ran three blocks to the nearest fire station.  The fire was quickly extinguished and the pupils were marched back to their desks.  "They were as busy in the afternoon as though nothing had happened," said The Sun.

In 1884 Joshua S. Lawrence published an article in Ballou's Monthly Magazine entitled "The Negroes of New York."  He praised racial advances, beginning, "What a contrast between now and twenty years ago!  Then they were vassals, now they are clamoring for the offices and other perquisites of a free government."  His out-of-touch assessment was highly biased and he insisted "The negro in this city is not debarred or hindered in any way...Their children are allowed to enter public schools all over the city, besides having separate ones, taught by their own teachers."  

The article pointed out that integration was slowly coming about.  "In order to show that the color line is breaking in this regard, an idea encouraged by the Board of Education, is not to take notice of complaints when two or more negro children happen to be near the offspring of some fastidious parent."  Lawrence mentioned Colored School No. 4, saying it combined "both primary and grammar," levels.

At the time of the article the prospects for the school were dim.  The Board of Education had already proposed closing the school.  The minutes of the Board of Education on March 5, 1884 documented the receipt of a petition "From the Teachers of Colored Grammar School No. 4, asking that said school be continued for a longer period than that assigned by the action of the Board in 1883."  The petition was forwarded to the Committee of Colored Schools.  Its decision was no doubt disheartening.  

The teachers were permitted to continue to teach "in other premises than the school building, but without incurring any expense on the part of the Board."  In other words, if the teachers wanted to continue the school, they were responsible for all aspects of it, including funding.

But there was obviously a change of heart.  The facility continued, now known as Grammar School No. 81.  Sarah J. S. Garnet was still principal and Joan Imogen Howard was still teaching here in 1892.  Another inspection that year reflected the poor sanitary conditions.  It said "the sinks are defective and cannot be cleaned and flushed regularly.  The closets [i.e. toilet rooms] are not ventilated, but are filled with sewer gas and foul air."

The push to discontinue the school in the 17th Street property continued.   In December 1894 Mayor William L. Strong received a resolution from the Board of Education "requesting the sale of property No. 128 West Seventeenth street." By the following year the building was unoccupied.

Finally on March 24, 1896 the City signed a deal with the Civil War veterans of the 73rd Regiment to lease the ground floor as its clubhouse.  Four months later renovations had been completed and on July 6, 1896 the New-York Daily Tribune reported "The members of the Veteran Association of the 73d New-York Volunteers-2d Fire Zouaves--held a celebration in honor of the opening of their new headquarters, No. 128 West Seventeenth-st--the old schoolhouse."  Among the entertainment that night was John J. Moloney, who "gave his bone solo, which elicited much applause."

The club rooms were decorated with war relics, perhaps the most significant of which was the first Confederate war flag captured by the North.  On March 11, 1907 The Yonkers Statesman explained that it had been taken by Corporal Daniel Boone on May 2, 1862 at Yorktown, Virginia.

Other than the sign announcing the Veteran Association, little had changed in the school building.  Note the small-paned windows of the upper floors.  Real Estate Owned by The City of New York, January 1, 1908 (copyright expired)

Interestingly, the city retained possession of the old school house property.  On January 19, 1921 The City Record announced that renovations would be made "to properly place the a state of occupancy for the Veteran Fire Association."  The 73rd Regiment Veterans remained in the ground floor while $5,000 was spent in renovations on the upper floors for the Veteran Fire Association.

The new residents renamed their portion of the building Firemen's Hall.  Like its downstairs neighbor, it was a social club.  On February 17, 1923, for instance, The Brooklyn Standard Union reported "The Veteran Firemen's Association held its annual banquet last Saturday night, at Firemen's Hall, 128 West 17th street, Manhattan.  There were 300 members and their guests present, and it was a most unique affair."

Around 1941 the remarkable holdout still retained its schoolhouse appearance.  from the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services

The two organizations remained in the building at least into the 1930's.  A renovation in 1931 made "general repairs to the toilets, urinals and all the fixtures."

The building was later acquired by the New York City Department of Sanitation, which utilizes it today.  At some point a a veneer of yellow brick was applied.  Remarkably, the small paned windows survive.  The little building with its remarkable history is easily passed by today with little notice.

photographs by the author
many thanks to Laurence Frommer for prompting this post


  1. Hello I am wondering why you think this building was overlaid with a yellow brick veneer? I took photos today and dont see an extra layer of brick. It seems unlikely that the face brick would be completely replaced unless there was a big renovation. Glad to share photos. Also ... there are no pre 1908 photos i have seen ... i am not convinced that the facade with multipane windows is from the late 1850s when the school appears on a map as #98. Could the late 1800s /early 1900s renovation(s) have resulted in those windows? How about the brick...any thoughts on how early this type of brick pattern with projecting panels could have been used? Lynne Funk Architect

    1. The fact that the red brick facade is now yellow brick, and that the stone lintels are replaced with brick seems to be to make the case for the veneer. The windows might have been installed as part of the 1896 renovation; however since nothing else of the design is Colonial Revival, that would have made an odd choice by the architect.

  2. Hi, so you see the 1908 view as red brick. Is that a photo? Maybe the 1916 UB action i see in BIS resulted in a recladding....curious that they retained the raised panel seen NJ in 1908 view. What year do you think these windows could be? I have not seen this pattern except for prism glass in transoms.

    1. yes, the 1908 image is a photograph. The 16-over-16 windows would be typical of the late 18th, early 19th century; or from the Colonial Revival period of (in New York City) about 1895 through the 1920's.

    2. And the yellowish brick could have been arpund 1916?

    3. I would imagine they were included in the 1921 renovations.

  3. Fascinating read of a building filled with fortitude. You write, 'During the British occupation of New York City in 1776 the population soared after the Crown promised freedom to slaves who deserted their rebel masters.' I was unaware of this subject. Can you recommend some follow-up reading on this subject?

    1. There are any number of resources concerning Lord Dunmore's proclamation. Here is one for your reference: