black and white radical abolitionists of the North are the most
well known figures working for racial justice in America in the
nineteenth century. But within that movement, blacks grew disillusioned
with the reluctance of radical whites to deal with the problems
of black poverty and racism on their doorstep. Abolitionists agitated
for the immediate end of slavery in the South, but they did not
build schools or other institutions for blacks in the North who
experienced severe racism that limited their economic and political
opportunities. While researching my book, In the Shadow of Slavery:
African-Americans in New York City, 1626-1863, I discovered
detailed records of an institution that tried to address this gap.
The Colored Orphans Asylum was established in New York City in 1837
by two Quaker women, Anna Shotwell and Mary Murray. They kept the
records of the children housed in the orphanage and of the childrens
The women who founded the Colored Orphan Asylum were not radical
abolitionists, but they made concrete changes to address problems
related to black poverty that the radical abolitionists did not.
Over twelve hundred children passed through the Colored Orphan Asylum
in the decades between its founding and the Civil War. This same
group of women also constructed the Colored Home for the care of
elderly indigent blacks in New York.
Before the establishment of this institution in 1837, other private
orphanages built at the time refused to receive black children.
Black orphans were taken in by extended family or neighbors, and
when these networks failed, they were sent to the almshouse with
adults, where they lived in the disease-plagued basement, without
access to education. Although the asylum began as an institution
for children who had lost both parents, the children of single mothers
formed the majority of the clients. Some of the children were runaway
slaves from the South, but most were children born after emancipation
in New York and brought to the orphanage by black family members
or neighbors who saw it as safe place.
The orphanage also offered some economic independence for the white
female charity workers who ran the institution. The asylum served
as a source of employment and income for many single women over
the years, including the managers themselves. But the women also
realized that the orphanages existence depended on the support
of their black clients. Shotwell and Murray knew that their clients
were not just passive recipients and that they would put pressure
on the institution to meet their needs. As a result, the goals and
practices of the orphanage changed over time in response to their
clients concerns. The orphanages acceptance of the children
of single parents was a response to the requests of black adults.
Relatives of some of the children negotiated for more education
than just the basic skills the women initially offered at the institution.
And in response to New York Citys black community, the women
hired the black doctor and radical abolitionist James McCune Smith
to tend the orphans, replacing the white doctors associated with
the American Colonization Society, an organization that many blacks
The alliance between the Quaker reformers and the black community
fueled the growing hostility of some whites towards blacks in antebellum
New York. Many whites greatly feared alliances between blacks and
middle-class and elite whites that would lead to greater economic
and political success for blacks. With the approach of the Civil
War, those fears intensified and took gruesome shape in the Civil
War Draft Riots that erupted in July 1863.
Poor whites resented being drafted into the Army while members of
the elite could pay for substitutes to take their place. Though
many blacks were willing to go South and fight to end slavery, the
Army refused to enlist blacks at this time. So, groups of poor whitesGerman,
Irish, and other immigrantsrioted, initially targeting symbols
of the draft, like the Draft Office. But they then turned against
blacks in general, as representatives of why they had to fight this
war and as people whom they believed really were not part of the
nation. Over five days of rioting, angry white mobs lynched eleven
black men and drove hundreds of blacks out of the city.
By this time, the asylum had grown into a large and very visible
institution, near the present site of the New York Public Library
on Fifth Avenue. On July 13, 1863, a large group of men and women
looted the four-story asylum and burned it to the ground. Miraculously,
none of the 233 children there were killed. They escaped to a police
station and eventually were sent to the Alms Housethe very
fate the orphanage originally was designed to prevent.
When the women attempted to rebuild after the riots, white neighboring
property owners asked them to leave. They relocated first to 51st
Street, and then to 143rd Street between Broadway and Amsterdam,
in the heart of present-day Harlem. The asylum continued its work
through the Civil War and into the twentieth century, following
the trajectory of social welfare practices. As the idea of orphanages
fell away, it became a child-welfare and foster care organization
and exists today in the Bronx as the Harlem DowlingWest Side
Center for Children and Family Services.
The history of this institution is similar to the way I think about
community. It doesnt just happen, and its not something
you retreat to. Its something you have to create and recreate.
Thats what white reformers and black parents and children
did with the orphanage. The institution was created and sustained
as both groups continually renegotiated the meaning of asylum and
safety for black children.
If this history can inform contemporary conversations and conflicts
about race, including the current controversies here at Emory, the
connecting thread is the significance of dialogue and negotiation
within interracial communities. Shotwell, Murray, McCune Smith,
and the asylums clients were only at the beginning of a long
history of interracial dialogue about race and racism in America.
Now, as then, whites must seek to understand blacks and other
minorities definitions and experiences of racism and racial
inequality. Currently, many whites seek to define what constitutes
racism at Emory and in America by selective listening to trusted
blacks and minorities, and by undermining minority group statements
when they do not conform to whites ideas of what constitutes
racial inequality. But genuine listening, negotiation, and responsiveness
between whites and minorities demand first a willingness by whites
to recognize their unequal privilege, and then a relinquishing of
their dominance of the discourse on race in this country.