Summary of Presentation by Dr. William Seraile on February 27, 2018
William Seraile is Professor Emeritus of History at Lehman College of the City University of New York. He is the author of five books, including “Angels of Mercy: White Women and the History of New York’s Colored Orphan Asylum.”
The Colored Orphan Asylum (COA) was founded in 1836 by three Quaker women. It was sorely needed, since youth of color were excluded from orphanages for white children. The orphanage faced many obstacles throughout its existence including financial panics, fires, diseases and chronic money shortage. Racism led to its complete destruction in the Draft Riots of July 1863, when its building at 43rd and Fifth Avenue was looted and burned by the mob. The frightened children and staff escaped to the protection of a nearby police precinct and then to Blackwell’s Island (Roosevelt Island).
For most of its history, the COA typically housed and educated children to about the age of 12. Older children, 12 to 18, were indentured, mainly to rural areas in New England, New York and New Jersey. Unlike indentured white orphans, indentured black children rarely had the opportunity to further their education by serving as apprentices to skilled laborers.
After the Civil War a new COA was built in 1868 at 143rd Street and Amsterdam Avenue. In 1907 it relocated to Riverdale. It remained there until 1946, when the COA shifted from a residential institution to an emphasis in foster care and adoption. The Riverdale site is today the Hebrew Home for the Aged.
By the time it closed in 1946, the COA had provided care for approximately 15,000 children, yet its trustees/managers were reluctant to treat African Americans as equal partners. With the exceptions of James McCune Smith who served as physician for twenty years, and a few teachers or matrons, the colored staff was limited to menial positions. The first African American trustee was not brought in until 1939 and shortly thereafter the first Jewish trustee. It was also at this time that the trustees started to work with Harlem churches to strengthen their mission of providing for orphaned, neglected and delinquent
Despite its shortcomings, the orphanage providing nurturing, education, lessons in morality and stablity to children who otherwise would have been left on the streets. After a series of mergers, the COA survives today in the Harlem Dowling-West Side Center for Children and Family Services. A recent merger with Children’s Village in Dobbs Ferry has expanded its reach in providing family services.