Cultural Watch

African Free School, First in America for Black Students, Found a Home in Greenwich Village

(GVSHP) Ariel KatesNovember 3, 2018 — The African Free School was founded on November 2, 1787 in Lower Manhattan by the New-York Manumission Society and founding fathers Alexander Hamilton and John Jay. It was the very first school for blacks in America.  Ultimately consisting of seven schools, the system’s third school was located in Greenwich Village, at 120 west 3rd Street, then known as Amity Street. This site is one of over a hundred on our Civil Rights and Social Justice Map.

The schools prepared black children, many of whom were children of slaves, to take their place in the New York public school system.

Founding Father John Jay started the Manumission Society with the express mission to abolish slavery in the state of New York, which was achieved in 1827. Though many members of the Society were slave owners themselves, they understood that beginning the abolition process through the education of children would allow the state to move forward with the mission of abolition, for which so many organizations and individuals were fighting at that time.

The mission of the institution was to empower young black people and educate them for something other than slavery, which was a complicated and bold proposition for the time. In 1785 the Society worked to pass a New York State law prohibiting the sale of slaves imported into the state. This preceded the national law prohibiting slave trade, passed in 1808. The 1783 New York law also lessened restrictions on the manumission of enslaved Africans. In New York, a gradual emancipation law was passed in 1799, which provided that children of enslaved mothers would be born free. However, long periods of indentured servitude were required; 28 years for men and 25 for women. Existing slaves were eventually freed, until the last were freed in 1827.