Black Gotham Stories

The Mulberry Street School

Penmanship with drawing of the exterior of the school

Drawing of the Mulberry Street School by John Burns, a student

In 1785, New York City’s Manumission Society established its first African Free School for the education of young black males. After the addition of a separate institute for girls, the schools were incorporated in 1794. As enrollment increased, the society decided to build a schoolhouse on William Street big enough to hold about 200 male and female students. In 1820, the boys were transferred to a new building further North on Mulberry Street able to accommodate up to 500 students, while the girls stayed in the William Street building.  In the 1820s, Peter Guignon attended the Mulberry Street School along with many young men who would eventually grow up to be prominent community, and in some cases national, leaders.

Since public education was considered a matter of charity, these African Free Schools received limited financial aid from both the City Corporation and the State Legislature. On the surface, the African Free Schools’ white trustees seemed to be in full agreement with the black community over the importance of education. The two sides joined forces to inform parents about the schools, enroll children, and keep up student attendance. Despite such collaboration, however, neither the black community nor the white trustees could ever really agree on what the students’ education should consist of. What lay at the heart of their differences was the “proper” place of free blacks in the nation—were they to be common laborers or professional men, domestic workers or teachers?

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