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The History of the School

Students' Voices

The work the students completed provides an intriguing glimpse of the process of negotiating one's place as a free person amidst the rapidly evolving striations of race and class in New York City. While it is tempting to read these student works as the clear expression of the children's feelings, it is important to remember that many of the performances were scripted for them by whites. Of course, like all students, the students at the New York African Free School were constrained by the expectations of their instructors, the bounds of the curriculum, and the desire to achieve good grades. As complicated and ambiguous as these materials are, the historical records of the New York African Free School jolt us out of conventional ways of looking at education, allowing us to view the process as a set of performances in which a school's administrators, teachers, and students are all working—sometimes together, sometimes in conflict—to create a pathway from childhood to adulthood, as well as (in this case) from slavery to freedom.