New York African Free Schools and Their Convention Legacies


“Nothing perhaps, is better calculated to raise the character of youth to the esteem of all worthy men, than a proper attention to good manners,” wrote eadmaster Charles C. Andrews in his History of the New York African Free Schools (1830). Having good manners offered much to the school. The Lancasterian System, for instance, relied on peer instruction, so it was necessary that students showed deference to one another for this system to operate. Andrews designed lessons to incorporate good manners into the curriculum, citing a 1790 pamphlet, The School for Good Manners, as inspiration. This pamphlet, written by C. C. Dean of the Massachusetts Sunday School Society, contains rules of etiquette addressed to “you,” thereby making the lessons applicable to both the boys and the girls at Andrews’ school.

For Andrews, good manners appeared to be one method of racial uplift. In a note to the parents of his students, Andrews warns, “Your words, your manner, your actions, are all observed and practiced by your children. Therefore strive to think twice before you speak to, or in the presence of a child.” Andrews, in other words, sought to “raise the character” of his students’ parents as well by encouraging them to practice good manners at home.

Andrews, seemingly unconscious of his paternalistic tone in his letter to the parents, may not have considered how an African American audience would have received The School for Good Manners. For instance, one lesson from the pamphlet is, “Be humble, submissive, and obedient to those, whose authority, by nature or providence, hath a just claim on your subjection….” An audience of white children, whom Dean was almost certainly writing for, would have received this message very differently than an audience comprised of the children of current or former slaves. After all, it’s precisely the belief in a “just claim on [their] subjection” that the delegates at the Colored Conventions worked to unsettle. The 1853 Call for the Colored National Convention, read by NYAFS #2 alumnus, James McCune Smith, stated, “Our warfare is not one where force can be employed; we battle against false and hurtful customs, and against the great errors of opinion which support such customs.” Smith, who likely wrote the Call, seems to have responded directly to this lesson instilled by The School of Good Manners in his refutation of the “customs” and “errors of opinion” which falsely shaped a “just claim on [their] subjection.” In this instance, Smith recognized that the work of the delegates would need to overturn lessons as basic as those taught in school. Other lessons from the pamphlet, however, were less problematic. “Be ever desirous of learning” and “Love the school” are two of the pamphlet’s chief precepts, and indeed, the NYAFS alumni at the conventions were among the primary advocates for education in the convention debates. The final precept—“Covet future honor, which only virtue and wisdom can procure”—seems to have both adumbrate and encapsulate the work of the NYAFS alumni at the conventions: using their education to fight for future honor.

See below to browse through Dean’s The School of Good Manners or click here to read the whole text. 


Researched and written by Daniel J. Pfeiffer. Edited by Simone Austin.


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

Colored National Convention (1853: Rochester, NY), “Proceedings of the Colored national convention, held in Rochester, July 6th, 7th, and 8th, 1853,”, accessed November 15, 2016, Link.

Dean, C. C. The School of Good Manners. Boston, 1790.