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The History of the School

The Child and Freedom

The 1799 law that abolished slavery explicitly focused on the young. Newborn children were the first ones destined to be freed. The logic behind this move had economic and philosophic bases. On the economic front, by focusing on children who would not be ready for freedom for a generation, legislators postponed the financial disadvantage to slave owners. Philosophically, the Enlightenment thinking that greatly influenced the founding fathers was also influential in early antislavery rhetoric. Much of that philosophy drew extensively from a model of childhood that stressed a child's potential and the responsibility of parents to cultivate that responsibility.

Thus, as Enlightenment thinkers John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued, education was the key to equality. It was this framework that allowed antislavery activists to argue that any difference in ability between whites and blacks was the product of environment and education, not innate merit. It was also the Enlightenment emphasis on education that allowed lawmakers to initially restrict freedom to only the youngest, by arguing that older slaves were too ingrained with bad "habits" to be able to enjoy freedom responsibly. Hence, education—the process of inculcating the habits as well as the knowledge requisite for citizenship—was fundamental in the struggle to establish racial equality. An institution like the New York African Free School, then, was under incredible pressure to prove racist ideology wrong. Students here had the burden, not just of learning to read, write, calculate, draw, and speak well, but of serving as models of black potential.

African Americans—enslaved and free—were the ones truly responsible for the success of black education in antebellum America. Faced with crushing workloads and the threat of punishment and loss of income African Americans made their way to any institute of learning that allowed them to participate. As James McCune Smith, himself a graduate of the New York African Free School, wrote, "[s]o deeply did they feel the want of education in themselves, that they would run all risks, make any sacrifice, to secure it."1

1 James McCune Smith, i ntroduction to A Memorial Discourse by Henry Highland Garnet (Philadelphia, Pa: J. M. Wilson, 1865), 27.