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128 West 17th Street
Photograph: Courtesy of Google

The last-known segregated school in NYC might soon become a landmark

The historic building in Chelsea has been sitting empty for years.

Anna Rahmanan
Written by
Anna Rahmanan

Earlier this week, the Landmarks Preservation Commission voted to calendar the former Colored School No. 4 at 128 West 17th Street by Seventh Avenue in Chelsea, the last-known "colored" school in Manhattan.

For the unaware, to "calendar" a location means that officials have scheduled a public hearing to discuss the significance of the site and potential plans to actually landmark it.

We can't think of a more significant address to memorialize as the almost 175-year-old building is the last-known school that exclusively catered to African American students in Manhattan and it is also connected to a number of Civil War figures that made their mark through history, including suffragist Sarah J. S. Tompkins Garnet, who eventually became the school's principal (one of the very first African Americans to hold such a position in the city's school system); Susan Elizabeth Frazier, who graduated from the institution and was also the first African American teacher assigned to an integrated public school; and famous violinist and composer Walter F. Craig.

A bit of history: the three-story building was erected between 1849 and 1850 by the NYC Public School Society (born out of the African Free School, whose goal was to educate both free people of color and children of enslaved people, it became part of the local public system in 1834). For over 30 years, Black students and teachers used the building during the day and African American adults enrolled in the on-premise evening school at dawn. 

In 1863, a mob of white people tried to attack the school in response to the first federal draft but Garnet actually led an internal effort to barricade the entrances and the protesters eventually left. 

Fast forward to 1884, when the Board of Education voted to stop using the word "colored" in official school buildings. At that point, the institution changed its name to Grammar School No. 1 while still only hosting African American students. In 1894, that all changed as the city finally closed segregated schools for good. 

The New York Times reports that, since the 1930s, the location has been under the care and tutelage of the Sanitation Department. However, as noted by the paper of record, the building is now sitting empty (the city agency used it as a lunch room until a few years ago!) and it is not in good condition. 

Design-wise, the pre-Civil War structure still features large windows, a four-bay facade and two separate entrances, one formally used by boys only and the other exclusively by girls.

"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," historian Eric K. Washington, who has been leading the effort to landmark the building since 2018, said to the New York Times in 2022. "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."

As is customary in cases of the sort, the committee will hold its public meeting in the near future and eventually vote on whether to designate the former school an official city landmark. We will, of course, keep you updated on the proceedings. 

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