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Introduction

The New York African Free School

Preparing young black students for freedom was a complicated task when the New York African Free School was first created in 1787, a time when many African American residents of the city were slaves. Creating and attending an institution dedicated to providing tools of empowerment to young black people was a daring proposition. The task of educating black students for something other than slavery in New York City did not grow any less complicated as the state moved towards abolishing slavery within the state by 1827. Quite simply, no one was sure what citizenship would look like for African Americans, and no one was sure of what path black New Yorkers would—or should—take to get there. Although slavery had been on the wane for decades before official manumission in 1827, removing slavery from the equation substantially shifted social boundaries in a city that was in the midst of tremendous growth and upheaval. New York in the early nineteenth century was awash in social changes, and delineations of class, race, and citizenship were in continual flux. It was a time of tremendous potential, and, for those wary of losing their own hold on power, a time of great anxiety.

Tontine Coffee House

This 1797 depiction of the Tontine Coffee House at Wall and Water streets is among the first images representing African Americans in New York City.

Francis Guy, The Tontine Coffee House (1797). New-York Historical Society