NY Colored Orphan Asylum 1836 to 1863

Pardon my political incorrectness! This is my entry for Black History Month, February 1018, about a unique part of African-American history yn New York City at the 19th Century – the 1800’s.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the city of New York used outer areas to house orphans, sick, and unwanted. It kept the peace stable. Most people lived in what is now the financial center and Tribeca. Farms gave way to establishing a city in lower Manhattan. One key question, how were “Negro” orphans treated in the segregated 19th century?

Orphans are and have been a reality for centuries. Churches have tried to camouflage it but there were orphanages in most western civilized societies. If you were black, Afro-American, or Negro in New York City’s 19th-century, and an orphan, you had a safe place to stay. The NY Colored Orphan Asylum was a secure, racist-free orphanage on Fifth Avenue, between 42nd and 43rd Streets. The Colored Orphan Asylum provided home services for about 233 children.

The New York City Colored Orphan Asylum was at this location from 1836 to 1863. Actually, the idea began in 1834 when three Quakers decided to create a safe haven for negro orphans. 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.

In 1836, New York City barely resembled how it appears today. Most New York City residents lived south of 14th Street. Actually, south pf Canal Street. The infamous 5-Points neighborhood wasn’t built yet toward the now trendy lower east-side.

42nd Street and Fifth Avenue was undeveloped land and a socially acceptable area to build asylums, particularly a Colored Orphan Asylum. People didn’t need to see, hear, or think about the wayward, the sick, and the orphans. As a matter, one main reservoir from the original Croton Reservoir (1843) was on 42nd Street, where Bryant Park is today. That’s how remote the current midtown hub was in 1836. It remained there until 1863 when it was destroyed and burned.

White racism among the poor and immigrant people reacted to the Civil War military draft imposed by President Abraham Lincoln. A key problem focused that the advantaged wealthy were able to pay for exemption. The poor and new immigrants from Germany and Ireland would be drafted.

The poor Irish and German immigrants had a particular focal point at targeting the African-Americans of New York as scapegoats. The Irish usually had to compete with the “Negroes” for jobs and grunt labor, particularly in building tunnels, such as the water tunnels and sewage tunnels. In addition, “Negroes” were pretty much exempt from being drafted due to a lack of military opportunities.

The riots were a three-day orgy of violence towards Afro-American owned businesses, Afro-Americans, and Native Americans. They marched upwards to the shanty areas where those “minorities” lived. And, by the third day, the Colored Orphan Asylum was burned to the ground. Most of the children were rescued by the Fire and Police department.

The asylum would relocate to 144th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, in the new village of Harlem, at Sugar Hill. Later it moved to Riverdale in the Bronx. Though attractive, the Riverdale site was the most upper, out-of-the-way area of the Bronx, on West 261 Street bordering Yonkers. It was larger and considered one of the best orphanages in New York City. In the 1960’s, the site was sold to the Hebrew Home for the Aged.

Dr. James McCune Smith, an African-American physician, provided medical services for about 20 years to the orphans at Colored Orphan Asylum in New York. As there were absolutely no opportunities for Africans to enter medical schools in the United States, Dr. McCune received his medical education at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. In addition, he was the founder of the American Geographic Society.

It is difficult to put yourself in the shoes of those who are not seen as being on par with tour status. Many minorities are viewed under different scopes. This included blacks and the poor. The conceptualization of race (or gender) moved from the biological to the sociological sphere with the march of science. The atmosphere created by racial inferiority theories and stereotypes, 246 years of black chattel slavery, along with biased educational processes, almost inevitably led to medical and scientific abuse, unethical experimentation, and over-utilization of African-Americans as subjects for teaching and training purposes. Stricter ethical controls became issues only in the late 1970’s.

With no acceptance to the American Medical Society, most 19th-century African medical doctors received training in Africa, Europe, or very segregated schools in the Americas. Thus it is important to understand how influential the Quakers were in providing medical care to those residing at the New York City Colored Orphan Asylum.

In contrast to what happened in Manhattan in 1863, There was a Home for Colored Aged in Crown Heights in 1863, supported by many philanthropists of that area. These African Americans had lived in a Brooklyn area called Weeksville. This area had one of the largest (one of three) “Colored” communities.

Unwanted or orphaned children continues to be a society-wide dilemma, often debated. Fortunately, segregation is no longer legally valid. Despite strides toward the American Dream of equal opportunity, people are still separated by race, ethnic, religious and gender issues. As Senator Patrick Moynihan may have said, New York (and the USA) is less of a melting pot but more like a tossed salad. There are still many strides and challenges to overcome.