New York African Free Schools and Their Convention Legacies


Historian Shane White suggested that throughout the nineteenth century, African American New Yorkers were constantly called upon to perform their freedom—acting out their positions as free and equal citizens—on the streets, in the courts, and in the theaters. The Colored Conventions in particular presented a platform through which African Americans were able to perform their role as citizens, offering them a sense of agency otherwise denied by the local and national government. As the “Conventions” of the Convention Exhibit posits, “At a time when Blacks were so often denied political inclusion, much less leadership, [the] acts of embodied rhetoric, oratory and debate [apparent at the conventions] are practices of rhetorical art and political resistance.”

For several of the delegates, these moments of performative freedom and political resistance can be traced back to childhood as apparent through the records of the New York African Free Schools Examination Days. Beginning in the late 1790s, the NYAFS routinely held public examinations of their students during which different classes performed school exercises before peers, teachers, parents, and the general public.

While it is tempting to read the Examination Day performances as a “particularly painful form of minstrel show,” according to Anna Mae Duane, we should view these students “not as helpless children mouthing the words penned by their benefactors” but, rather, “as participants in the vital performative culture of their city, participants who knew that they were trying on different identities that would be embraced, or repulsed, by the black and white New Yorkers who watched them.” Often mirroring the rhetorical acts of the Colored Conventions, the performances of the NYAFS Examination Days offer a unique opportunity to analyze these moments of performed citizenship and political resistance.

This section presents an exploration of such moments attempting to unpack the acts of political resistance apparent throughout the Examination Days in the student work performed, produced, and printed.


Written and researched by Mariel Smith. Edited by Simone Austin


Brooks, Daphne. Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850-1910.

Dabel, Jane E. “Education’s Unfulfilled Promise: The Politics of Schooling for African American Children in Nineteenth Century New York City.”

Duane, Anna Mae. “‘Like a Motherless Child’: Racial Education at the New York African Free School and in My Bondage and My Freedom.”

Examination Days: The New York African Free School Collection. New-York Historical Society. Columbia U Digital Knowledge Ventures. Accessed Oct. 10 2016.

Levander, Caroline F. Cradle of Liberty: Race, The Child, and National Belonging from Thomas Jefferson to W.E.B. DuBois.

Roach, Joseph. Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance.

White, Shane. Stories of Freedom in Black New York, Harvard Univerisity Press