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Learn about AFS History

The History of the School

Bricks and Mortar

New York African Free School Number 2

New York African Free School Number 2, as drawn by student P. Reason and reproduced in principal Charles C. Andrews's book on the African Free Schools.

Columbia University Libraries

The New York African Free School was created in 1787 as part of the mission of the New York Manumission Society. It began as a single room schoolhouse with about forty students, many of whom were the children of slaves, under the schoolmaster Cornelius Davis. In 1791, a female teacher was employed to teach female students needlework. For the first twenty years between forty and sixty students attended the school. After the schoolhouse on Cliff Street burned down in 1814, members of the New York Manumission Society raised funds for a new building on William Street. A few months after the new schoolhouse was opened, it became so crowded that they opened another schoolroom to better accommodate the girls who wanted to learn sewing. In the intervening years, the female branch of the school had basically been abandoned. After a while, even this accommodation became too crowded. More appeals went out to the wealthy citizens of New York, and another school, deemed No. 2, was erected on Mulberry Street in 1820. By this time, five hundred students were enrolled on the registers.

However, there was often a glaring discrepancy between the numbers of students registered, and the number actually attending classes. The reasons for such a discrepancy are manifold—the necessity for many children to work during the day, the lack of proper clothing, and also, particularly in the later years of the school, tensions between black parents and white administrators.