By Ariama C. Long

Contrary to popular belief, racial segregation was present throughout the northern parts of the U.S. as well the South during the era of Jim Crow from about 1865 to 1965. In Manhattan, a small school building was once former “Colored” School No. 4, the only known surviving New York City public school from that time period that served Black students.

Historian Eric K. Washington, a Harlem native, embarked on a crusade in 2018 to preserve the three-story brick school building as a monument to Black history, and to illustrate how Black students were educated despite the harsh discrimination they faced every day. He came across the origins of the building while researching for a book he wrote about one of its graduates. 

“It’s exciting that it’s a done deal — it’s officially a landmark,” said Washington. “All my fingers were crossed constantly.”

Washington filed the request for evaluation application with the landmarks commission to save the building and worked with other history advocates, Community Board 4 members, and Councilmember Erik Bottcher to keep up momentum. He described the inside of the school as dilapidated, of course, but still awe-inspiring. 

“It’s an eerie feeling,” said Washington. “You imagine you hear the voices. You imagine you see the figures of teachers and students who have been there, visitors coming through these doors, and you start to make the mental connection of what it must have been like.”

School No. 4 is at 128 West 17th Street in the Chelsea neighborhood, according to the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC). It was built in 1849 by the New York City Public School Society since it predates the city’s Board of Education (BOE), which was established in 1853. The society designed the building to have four huge (25-foot-wide) windows on each floor and separate entrances for boys and girls. It could hold about 300 kids. 

Washington said that the building had previously been occupied by white students, but was left to Black students in 1860 when they received better accommodations. 

Manhattan’s Black communities and institutions, like School No. 4, were targeted by angry white mobs during the 1863 draft riots. New laws at the time stated that Black men had to fight with the union during the Civil War. Principal Sarah J. S. (Tompkins) Garnet and school staff fought to keep students safe as others were lynched across the street by violent white mobs, said the LPC.

Garnet was not only a brave woman—she was one of the first Black female principals in city history and a noted suffragist who founded the Equal Suffrage League of Brooklyn, according to the Historic District Council.

The building did not have an official name, just various numbers throughout the years it was functional. The derogatory term “colored” in reference to Black people was eventually dropped in 1884. 

After several hearings and public testimony, the LPC unanimously voted on Tuesday, May 23, to landmark the historic school building. School No. 4 joins a group of important landmarks associated with Black history from the Civil War era, including the Houses on Hunterfly Road; First Free Congregational Church; Lamartine Place Historic District; and other homes of abolitionists in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Queens; and former “Colored” School No. 3 in Brooklyn.

“Former Colored School No. 4 represents a difficult, and often overlooked, period in our city’s history, and in the ongoing pursuit of equity and social justice here in New York City,” said LPC Chair Sarah Carroll. 

Mayor Eric Adams, who went on a short tour of the “remarkably intact” school last week, also pledged $6 million in funding to rehab the school.

“As the second Black mayor in New York City history, the significance of this landmark designation is not lost on me, and I am proud we are investing $6 million to rehabilitate former Colored School No. 4 so that this painful, yet important, piece of history is preserved,” said Adams in a statement. 

Along with seven other Black-only primary schools, School No. 4 helped educate about 2,377 students, said the LPC, and continued to serve the Black community until 1894 when the city shut down segregated schools. Most notably, School No. 4 had prolific Black teachers and students, such as Garnet, teachers J. Imogen Howard and Susan Elizabeth Frazier, classical violinist Walter F. Craig, and chief porter James Henry Williams.

“Historic sites like this are crucial reminders of those who came before us, whose courage and ambition helped shape our city and chart the course to becoming the incredible city we are today. We stand on the shoulders of the young men and women that attended this school, and while they may be gone, I am honored to ensure they will never be forgotten,” continued Adams.

School No. 4 is technically city property under the Department of Sanitation (DSNY). From 1936 to 2015, it was used by sanitation as a satellite office and locker facility, said the city. For the past several years, it has been vacant and suffered some water damage. The city said that an engineering investigation and redesign work are currently underway, and the renovation is expected to be completed in 2027.

“The Department of Sanitation is proud of our role [of] protecting New York City’s neighborhoods, and in this case, that also means protecting a neighborhood’s history,” said DSNY Commissioner Jessica Tisch. “Mayor Adams has made a critical investment in preserving an important piece of Black history in New York City, and ‘New York’s Strongest’ will do our part to make sure that future generations know both about the harm caused at this site and about the resilience of the New Yorkers who resisted it.” 

Washington said that ideally, the community would like to see the building become a cultural and educational center with programming space. 

Bottcher said in a statement that this investment comes at a time when other states are trying to erase Black history. “We’re celebrating it,” said Bottcher. “Saving this building has been one of the Chelsea community’s top priorities, and I want to thank Mayor Adams for hearing us out and coming through with this critical investment.”