New York African Free Schools and Their Convention Legacies

Dorcas Society

One of many woman-led community groups, the Dorcas Society was founded in 1828 with the intention of helping to clothe the children of the New York African Free Schools (NYAFS). These women met weekly to mend donated clothing and create garments for both male and female students that attended the NYAFS. While they sewed, they read abolitionist literature, which demonstrates their alignment with the work of the Colored Conventions, abolition movement, and other community activism groups. NYAFS schoolmaster Charles C. Andrews extols their efforts in his History of the New York African Free School and includes their 1829 annual report in his History to show the fruitfulness of their labors on behalf of the children of NYAFS. Like many women’s groups of the time, the work of the Dorcas Society reveals how essential women were to the continued operation of schools for Black children and for promoting a positive sense of self that comes from attending school. These women’s work was integral to the successes of the children of NYAFS and to their community at large.

The work of the Dorcas Society directly contributed to the moral and intellectual wealth of their communities and promoted positive racial futurity. The importance of the Dorcas Society was emphasized repeatedly in both the Liberator and Freedom’s Journal, exalting the Dorcas Society for its benevolence, good works, perseverance, and importance in keeping Black children of New York educated. A writer in Freedom’s Journal urges young Black women in other cities to form their own Dorcas Societies to clothe and help school children.

As scholars have theorized–including Carla Peterson, Mary Kelley, and others–women’s work in the home and in the community was always already political in nature even if it hasn’t been acknowledged as such. As Nancy Fraser suggests, work like that performed by the Dorcas Society constitutes social reproduction, which supplies the “social glue” necessary for any and all collective community/social action. “[W]ithout [social reproduction],” Fraser writes, “there would be no social organization—no economy, no polity, no culture.” Historically the responsibility of social reproduction fell heavily on women, who were expected to give of their time and energy just by virtue of being mothers, daughters, or sisters. Too often, historians have read this perpetual giving as the result of sentimentality rather than as work that advances political achievement and benefits their communities. In recognizing and researching the social reproduction that the women of the Dorcas Society were responsible for, we validate their work as political agents and continue the legacy that the Colored Conventions Project has begun.