On November 2, 1787, the African Free School opened its doors. Demand grew rapidly, and the Manumission Society opened a second school. At its peak in 1822, enrollment in the schools reached 800 students, and in the 1820s and 1830s, enrollment remained steady at 600-700 students.
In 1830, Charles C. Andrews, a teacher at the Male School, published a work on the history of the institution, entitled The History of the New-York African Free-Schools, from Their Establishment in 1787, to the Present Time; Embracing a Period of More Than 40 Years; Also A Brief Account of the Successful Labors of the New York Manumission Society; with an Appendix. Fortunately, the book has been digitized by Google (free e-book available here), preserving a fascinating, near-contemporaneous history from the head of the institution.
“The first New-York African Free School was instituted in the year 1787; soon after the organization of the Manumission Society of this city. The Society, viewing with commiseration, the poor African slave, and exerting all lawful means to ameliorate his sufferings, and ultimately to free him from bondage, extended also its care to the children of this injured and long degraded race amongst us, by imparting to them the benefits of such an education, as seemed best calculated to fit them for the enjoyment and right understanding of their future privileges, and relative duties, when they should become free men and citizens.”
Some of the first members of the New York Manumission Society were George Clinton, Alexander Hamilton, William Shotwell, Lawrence Embree, Robert Bowne, Willet Seaman, John Keese, John Jay, John Murray, Jr., Melancton Smith, Matthew Clarkson, James Duane, and James Cogswell.
Andrews noted that the “designs” or goals of the New York Manumission Society were:
“1st. To effect, if possible, the abolition of slavery in this state, by procuring gradual legislative enactments.
2dly. To protect from a second slavery such persons as had been liberated in the state of New-York, or elsewhere, and who were liable to be kidnapped, and sold to slave dealers in other places.
And 3dly. To provide means for educating children of color of all classes.”
Andrews himself is an interesting and controversial figure in the history of the African Free School. The New York Historical Society states:
“The schoolmaster of the New York African Free School for over twenty years, Andrews is a somewhat controversial figure. Because the Manumission Society chose to hire Andrews, a white man, to replace the school’s former schoolmaster, the black John Teasman, some historians see Andrews as an instrument of the Manumission Society’s mixed feelings towards African American students. Andrews did certainly offend some members of the black community. In 1831, he was forced to resign.”
Contemporary historians have noted that the schools were a potential tool of social control for freed blacks in New York City and noted that many graduates were unable to find jobs that utilized their education and skill set, but it is undeniable that they provided a positive educational opportunity for thousands of students.
In her book In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626-1863, Leslie M. Harris writes:
“The success of the schools was evident in its top graduates. A small number of students whose parents were willing and able to allow them to remain at the school for the full array of courses received an education prepared them for college and other advanced degrees. Many black leaders of the radical abolitionist movement of the 1830s and 1840s obtained their early education at the African Free Schools in the 1820s and 1830s.”