New York African Free Schools and Their Convention Legacies

Margaret Odle

An exemplary student at the New York African Free Schools (NYAFS), was chosen to give public addresses on at least two known occasions, including a valedictory address. Odle, like so many women and girls of her time, would seem to disappear beyond the touch of written record, but even the meager records that exist of Odle’s life help to construct an image of an educated African American girl in the 1830s. She was one of the star students at the NYAFS, which, unlike many schools of its time, was open to both boys and girls and provided each with a liberal arts education and opportunities to showcase their achievements.

During the examination days at the school, the top students were selected to perform speeches to an audience of both white and African American community members. Although some of these speeches were written by headmaster Charles C. Andrews, they nonetheless afforded a platform to recognize individual talent from among the student body and within the community. For girls at this school, this honor would not have been unusual; school records indicate that girls were often singled out over male peers for their accomplishments.

On the 1821 examination day, Odle delivered the introductory address. In this script, Odle speaks to her fellow students, exhorting them to perform well that day, and she implores parents and the school’s benefactors to support the student performers who follow. The theme of gratitude echoes through the valedictory speech that Odle delivered in 1822. Here, she again thanks the school and its benefactors, and she also expresses confidence and relief that her young brother, John, would continue on in the care of its teachers. She concludes with particular thanks to her instructress in needlework and gifts the school a needlework sample to serve as a model for other students.

One way to read this closing is as a nod to her intended future. Educated Black women who tried to join the workforce, instead of or in addition to marrying, likely struggled to find employment, but needlework was a marketable skill. However, Margaret’s merit as a scholar brought her back to the NYAFS, if only for a short while. In his 1830 history of the school, Andrews lists five “persons, educated by this society, that have been advanced to the stations affixed to their names,” and one is “Margaret Odel [sic] (late), Teacher of African Female School, Hudson.”

Although we do not have a precise year for her death, we can assume that Margaret died around or before the age of 20. The archives from the school do not list her age at the time of her graduation in 1822, but it is likely that she was in her early teens when she left the NYAFS. Andrews marks Odle as “late,” or deceased, in his 1830 history, making it apparent that she died young.

It is difficult to find any further information about Margaret in public record, not least because census reports of her time did not prioritize collecting information about young, unmarried Black women. But as a star pupil and a teacher, Margaret’s efforts were well aligned with the cause of education taken up so robustly by some of her fellow NYAFS alumni in the Colored Conventions of the next several decades.

Credits

Researched and written by Amanda M Greenwell and Daniel J. Pfeiffer.

Sources

“Addresses and Pieces Spoken at Examinations, 1818-1826.” New-York African Free School records, 1817-1832, vol. 3. The New York Heritage Society Digital Collections, Link. Accessed 26 Sept. 2016.

Andrews, Charles C. History of the New-York African Free-Schools. New York, 1830.

“Margaret Addle’s Address.” New-York Historical Society, Link. Accessed 26 Sept. 2016.

King, Wilma. African American Childhoods: Historical Perspectives from Slavery to Civil Rights, Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

White, Shane. Somewhat More Independent: The End of Slavery in New York City, 1770-1810. Georgia UP, 1991.