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Philosophy of the African Free School

The New York African Free School was one of the first institutions that needed to come up with practical answers to the questions raised by abolition. Blacks and whites worked together—and sometimes clashed with one another—to figure out the shape of the future for a multiracial New York. Important and unanswered questions loomed large as administrators, teachers, and students strove to build a viable school for young blacks in the midst of a slaveholding city: What would it take to make a slave (or the child of a slave) an equal participant in a democracy? What should children be taught so that they could help themselves and their country reach their full potential?

Of course, not every white citizen wanted black children to grow up to inhabit a position of full equality. If we consider the hesitation among many whites about African Americans gaining access to the power of full citizenship, then the questions prompting educational and curricular decisions are quite different. The goals and curriculum of the school would reflect a profound ambivalence. The desire would be to teach students how best to occupy a subservient position all their lives, not how to participate in the responsibilities of citizenship.

A close look at this history of the school, of its founders, its teachers, and its students does not provide any easy answers. What it does provide is a view of a complicated mix of good intentions, disturbing decisions, and decidedly mixed messages. The students' own work reveals a fascinating mix of pride and subservience. They read essays and poems that reveal profound sadness over the state of slavery, and at times, a sense of racial pride. Other examples reveal an embrace of European models of beauty, a note of disdain towards slave parents, and a willingness to play the role of the sentimental slave-child that critics today would find disempowering. And at times,during the yearly "examination days" students would perform skits (sometimes written for them by white teachers and trustees, but apparently sometimes written by the students themselves) that conformed to disabling racial stereotypes.

The record of hiring at the school also indicates a good deal of ambivalence. The school was run by a black principal, John Teasman, for many years. His appointment was a remarkable achievement for a black man at this moment in history, and sent a clear message that blacks could—and should—aspire to leadership positions. However, clashes with the Manumission Society led to his dismissal in 1809. He was replaced by Charles C. Andrews, a white man, who would eventually argue that black children should consider resettling in Africa because New York offered such paltry opportunities. Often, school administrators took a condescending tone towards the parents of their students and seemed to encourage a sense of inferiority among the students themselves. Andrews resigned in 1831. There are conflicting reports of why he was fired, but sources agree that the anger of black parents were a major force motivating Andrews to tender his resignation.