Designate Chelsea’s Former Colored School No. 4 as a New York City Landmark

Designate Chelsea’s Former Colored School No. 4 as a New York City Landmark

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Eric K. Washington started this petition

Manhattan’s former Colored School No. 4 at 128 West 17th Street, now a disused city-owned Department of Sanitation premises, is a remarkably extant relic of New York City’s 19th-century racial-caste grade school system. In November 2018 a request for evaluation (RFE) of this Chelsea property was submitted to the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC). The agency promptly concurred — and not surprisingly, as it had designated Brooklyn’s kindred Colored School No. 3 in 1998 — that the schoolhouse “may merit consideration for designation as an individual landmark.” But three years hence, there have been no substantive updates.

Built circa 1853, the unassuming 3-story structure was for thirty-four years, from 1860 until 1894, consigned to African American children and teachers. Best known as “Colored School No. 4,” it was actually known successively as Colored School No. 7 (1860 to 1866), Colored School No. 4 (1866 to 1884) and Grammar School No. 81 (1884 to 1894). The schoolhouse served the numerous working-class African American families of the area, then part of the so-called “Tenderloin Precinct.” Its decades-long use spanned the Civil War, the postbellum Reconstruction Era and New York’s ensuing gritty-bordered Gilded Age.

New York has woefully too few extant sites that reflect the complex historical trajectory, milestones and breadth of the African American experience in our great city. Justice dictates that we preserve this rare surviving “colored schoolhouse” in Manhattan, and honor the impressive lives that filled its rooms.

Some of those figures included:

Rev. J.W.C. Pennington (1807-1870) — abolitionist, orator, minister, writer, educator
William Appo (1808-1880) — musician, composer, educator
Florence T. Ray (1856?-1920) — writer, educator
J. Imogen Howard (1848-1937) — writer, educator, NYS manager at 1893 World’s Fair
Oscar James Dunn (1826-1871) — first Black Lieutenant Governor of Louisiana
Henry Highland Garnet ((1815-1882) — abolitionist, orator, statesman
Henry Ossian Flipper (1856-1940) — first Black graduate from West Point
Sir James Bain (1818-1898) — Lord Provost of Glasgow
Walter F. Craig (1854-1933) — violinist, composer, orchestra leader
Richard M. Robinson (1855-19__?) — composer, Bd of Ed Ass’t Supervisor of Music
S. Elizabeth Frazier (1864-1924) — first Black teacher in mixed NYC public school
Ednorah Nahar (1873-1916?) — dramatic elocutionist
James H. Williams (1878-1948) — Chief Red Cap Porter at Grand Central Terminal

Sarah J.S. ‘Tompkins’ Garnet showed her mettle within the very first months of her thirty-one years as the school’s redoubtable principal, as when a racist white mob set upon the schoolhouse during New York’s infamous Draft Riots of July 1863. By the time the school closed in 1894, Garnet’s diligent corps of African American teachers had long made it a singular pillar of the Black community.

Colored School No. 4 was integral to an informal plexus of other late 19th-century Black schools, churches, enterprises, missions and societies that gave anchor to lower Manhattan’s growing African American enclaves as they drifted upwards to west side neighborhoods like Hell’s Kitchen and San Juan Hill. Its graduates and teachers were the progenitors of myriad citizen leaders who would effectively build the community of Harlem, even farther uptown, into the renowned 20th-century capital of Black America.

Please sign this petition to join the more recent actions of the local community board (CB4), neighboring block associations, historical societies, numerous agencies and individuals who have appealed to the LPC to expedite the unduly pending evaluation of this unheralded heritage site. Sign to urge Mayor Eric Adams; Landmarks Preservation Commission Chair Sarah Carroll; the State and National Registers of Historic Places; Department of Sanitation Commissioner Jessica Tisch; and Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine to actualize the rightful designation of the former Colored School No. 4 building as an individual cultural landmark.

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