New York African Free Schools and Their Convention Legacies

Curriculum at the NYAFS

“It is education — it is the cultivation of the mind and the heart, which teaches them to be honest, makes them quiet and orderly citizens, and leads them to a knowledge of the means, whereby they may insure not only their happiness in the present, but in the world to come.” – A Visitor to the NYAFS

The New York African Free Schools (NYAFS) provided both its male and female students with a “good thorough English education” in traditional subjects such as, arithmetic, reading, writing, spelling, geography, elocution (speaking), and art (Andrews, 46). Students also studied more “practical” subjects such as, navigation and astronomy for the male students, and sewing for the female students.

Under the Lancasterian System, which was structured by principles of “Order and Discipline,” the students at the NYAFS had regimented daily structures. Each day was divided by subject, and each hour was ordered through a series of bells, whistles, and commands that organized students from one subject to another. Class was in session from 9:00 until noon, and again from 2:00 until 5:00 every day of the week, except for Sunday. Wednesday and Saturday classes only met for the morning session.

This page of the exhibit features some of the subjects that students at the NYAFS studied. In addition, there are brief descriptions of the pedagogy and content of Lancasterian-inspired education at the NYAFS.

Under the guidance of women such as Lucy Turpen, Mary Lincrum, Eliza J. Cox, and Mary Ann Cox, the NYAFS cultivated a sewing program for female students. Perhaps due to the visual and practical product of sewing and knitting exercises, students’ needle and knit work were often displayed at examinations and fairs. Most of the evidence of the girls’ work comes from records of production and visitor reports.

Charles Andrews, for instance, wrote of the success of these young seamstresses at one of the school fairs:

“The knife and the needle are often put in earnest requisition, and active operation, to accomplish in the estimation of the young mechanic, or the seamstress, some important piece of work, which when done, often displays an ability and judgement that, if suitably encouraged, would tend to future usefulness, perhaps to eminence, in advanced stages of life, most beneficial to themselves, and to the public” (Andrews, 108).

The idea of “future usefulness” as a seamstress was particularly important to these Black female students. While their education in academic subjects created a generation of politically and philanthropically-minded women, their skills in sewing and knitting provided them with a means of making money in a nation in which they were doubly oppressed as African-Americans and as women.

While Andrews pointed to futurity in his description of sewing, it is worth speculating on the immediate practicality of sewing at the NYAFS, as well. The efforts of the Dorcas Society suggest a need for clothing NYAFS students, especially during the winter months. The list of products completed at the NYAFS by students included “dresses for scholars, 13” among other items of clothing such as socks, suspenders, shirts, and collars. This evidence suggested that these women were responsible for providing clothing for some of their classmates through their education in sewing and knitting.

At the NYAFS, students learned reading, spelling, writing, elocution, and grammar. These subjects were often practiced through repetition. For example, less advanced students practiced writing in sand, while more advanced students used slate or paper. Often, students copied portions of the scripture to practice writing. During reading sessions, students gathered in a semicircle and practiced reading, as pictured to the left. We also know that students had access to a school library, and advanced students were allowed to borrow books from this collection. The library was stocked by donations from members of the Manumission Society, friends of the NYAFS, and by the Class of Merit.

This education ensured that students were not only literate, but active producers of literary work and essays. Records suggest that the onus of originality weighed heavily on students, as their “unaided” written production acted as proof of the educability and intelligence not only of the individual student, but of African Americans in general. One student, George R. Allen was asked to prove his ability by producing a piece of poetry “locked up in a room alone” (Andrews, 64).

Students also gave speeches to the public on examination days. While “originality” is difficult to locate in these moments, the act of speaking and writing publically had an impact on these students, many of whom went on to serve as delegates for the Colored Conventions.

“On Slavery,” by George R. Allen


Slavery! Oh, thou cruel stain,
Though dost fill my heart with pain :
See by brother, there he stands
Chain’d by slavery’s cruel bands.
Could we not feel a brother’s woes,
Relieve the wants he undergoes ;
Snatch him from slavery’s cruel smart,
And to him freedom’s joy impart ?

Despite their exemplary education, many students left the NYAFS, in Andrews’ words, “doomed to encounter” prejudice and contempt because of their race (Andrews, 118). In order to prepare students for careers available to them, advanced male students studied Astronomy and Navigation at the NYAFS as “a large portion of the most intelligent lads go to sea, after leaving school” (Andrews, 86). Indeed, sailing did attract many young Black men in the nineteenth century. Henry Highland Garnet, for instance, worked on several sea voyages while still a teenager. James McCune Smith remarks on the efficacy of this education when writing about one of his classmates, George R. Allen:

“His knowledge of navigation stood him in good stead some years after, when being at sea, as a sailor, the captain and mate of the vessel, a whaler, both died ; the men were at a loss of what to do, when George, taking up the sextant, told them he could navigate ; at first incredulous, they gladly yielded to this proofs of ability, and he brought the ship safely into New Bedford.” (22)

In founding the NYAFS, the Manumission Society wrote, “Unquestionably, the most efficient means of promoting the moral improvement of this degraded portion of the human family, is the institution of schools” (Andrews, 54). The “moral improvement” of students at the NYAFS was practiced through their religious and intellectual educations. For example, each morning of class opened with a reading from the Scriptures, and students often learned to write by copying biblical text.

This moral and religious education was often displayed during public performances on examination days, to the gratification of supporters of the institution. One visitor to the school remarked that crime was low among those who had attended the NYAFS, suggesting “the effects of this excellent school upon the moral condition of the blacks” (Andrews, 46). One visitor remarked:

“Indeed, if any additional evidence were wanting in favor of the superior and commanding excellence of the monitorial system, it is to be found in this institution, where the poor children of color of our city, are rescued from the complicated evils that belong to their situation, placed in a course of mental and religious improvement, that enables them to look forward to the time when, through their instrumentality in part, the degradation that belongs to the color, and their names, shall be wiped off, and Ethiopia shall stretch forth her hands, unstained by slavery and unrestrained by the collusions of ignorance and idolatry.”


Researched and written by Amy Fehr. Edited by Simone Austin


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

Lancaster, Joseph. The Lancasterian System of Education with Improvements. Baltimore, 1821. Hathitrust. Link.

Fig. 1. Andrews, Charles C. The History of the New-York African Free-Schools. New York, 1830. pp. 43. Hathitrust.

Fig. 2. Lancaster, Joseph. The Lancasterian System of Education with Improvements. Baltimore, 1821. pp. 51. Hathitrust.

Fig. 3. Andrews, Charles C. The History of the New-York African Free-Schools. New York, 1830. pp. 92. Hathitrust.

Fig. 4. Lancaster, Joseph. The Lancasterian System of Education with Improvements. Baltimore, 1821. pp. 28. Hathitrust.