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Angels of Mercy

White Women and the History of New York's Colored Orphan Asylum

William Seraile

Publication Year: 2011

William Seraile uncovers the history of the colored orphan asylum, founded in New York City in 1836 as the nation's first orphanage for African American children. It is a remarkable institution that is still in the forefront aiding children. Although no longer an orphanage, in its current incarnation as Harlem-Dowling West Side Center for Children and Family Services it maintains the principles of the women who organized it nearly 200 years ago.The agency weathered three wars, two major financial panics, a devastating fire during the 1863 Draft Riots, several epidemics, waves of racial prejudice, and severe financial difficulties to care for orphaned, neglected, and delinquent children. Eventually financial support would come from some of New York's finest families, including the Jays, Murrays, Roosevelts, Macys, and Astors.While the white female managers and their male advisers were dedicated to uplifting these black children, the evangelical, mainly Quaker founding managers also exhibited the extreme paternalistic views endemic at the time, accepting the advice or support of the African American community only grudgingly. It was frank criticism in 1913 from W. E. B. Du Bois that highlighted the conflict between the orphanage and the community it served, and it wasn't until 1939 that it hired the first black trustee.More than 15,000 children were raised in the orphanage, and throughout its history letters and visits have revealed that hundreds if not thousands of old boys and girlslooked back with admiration and respect at the home that nurtured them throughout their formative years.Weaving together African American history with a unique history of New York City, this is not only a painstaking study of a previously unsung institution of black history but a unique window onto complex racial dynamics during a period when many failed to recognize equality among all citizens as a worthy purpose.

Published by: Fordham University Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-x

The Colored Orphan Asylum, founded in New York City in 1836, is a remarkable institution that is still in the forefront aiding children. Although no longer an orphanage, its successor, the Harlem Dowling– West Side Center for Children and Family Services, maintains the principles of the women who organized nearly two hundred years ago the...

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pp. xi-xiv

In August 2002, the historian Gerald Horne was in New York researching a book. I was between research projects, and it was his suggestion that I check out the voluminous files on the Colored Orphan Asylum housed at the New-York Historical Society...

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pp. 1-7

Despite the 1827 abolition of slavery in New York State, African Americans in Manhattan and elsewhere were treated with contempt and, at times, with cruelty by much of the state’s white population. Blacks in white churches were assigned to sit in separate pews or in high balconies crudely referred to as ‘‘nigger heaven.’’ They had to stand on the...

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1. The Early Years, 1836–42

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pp. 8-30

As the New York Orphan Asylum, founded in 1809, admitted only Caucasian children, it came as no surprise when Quaker women established the nation’s first orphanage for children of color.1 Originally slaveholders, in 1774 New York Quakers placed sanctions on members who bought and sold slaves. In 1778, they removed slaveholders from...

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2. Fifth Avenue: Growth and Progress, 1843–54

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pp. 31-53

The move to Forty-third Street and Fifth Avenue on May 1 was chaotic. The orphanage’s staff had to transport furniture and household goods—along with children of various ages—through Manhattan streets clogged with private and public carriages and wagons ferrying goods around the island. This section of midtown Manhattan was not the glamorous area it is today, with banks, expensive shoe stores, jewelry...

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3. Disaster and Rebirth, 1855–63

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pp. 54-75

All deaths are occasions for sadness, but some cause more grief than others. The 1853 passing of longtime Colored Orphan Asylum supporter Anson G. Phelps was an instance for lamentation. Phelps was president of the New-York State Colonization Society for twelve years and a prominent merchant. That institution eulogized him by noting...

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4. Harlem, 1864–83

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pp. 76-96

The managers faced the new year of 1864 with a great deal of anxiety. Some of the younger children had been traumatized by the sacking of their home. Less traumatizing but still problematic was the reality of rising operational costs. The ladies were allocated sixty cents a week per child for the maintenance of 180 children, which was ‘‘the average...

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5. Harlem, 1884–1906

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pp. 97-119

The first half of 1884 was a busy period in the life of the institution. Despite its early intent to care specifically for orphans, the institution now had more half-orphans and destitute or neglected children than orphans. To better reflect the mission of an institution that also admitted children sent by magistrates for delinquency, a new name was...

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6. New Start in Riverdale, 1907–22

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pp. 120-157

The trustees were determined that their new home in Riverdale would be modeled on the cottage system, which was then in vogue. The New York Juvenile Asylum had embraced the cottage system in 1897 as a way to enforce discipline and ‘‘to stimulate the intimacy of family life.’’ The imitation of home life consisted of using knives and forks instead...

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7. Riverdale: Trials and Tribulations, 1923–36

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pp. 158-177

The beginning of 1923 found the asylum in a financial crunch, an all-too-familiar situation. Three thousand dollars were needed for the boarding-out department. Even though there were unpaid bills totaling $10,327.32 and the finance committee had sent out appeal letters, the trustees had their legal adviser, Wilson M. Powell, invest twenty-two...

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8. From the Colored Orphan Asylum to the Riverdale Children’s Association, 1937–46

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pp. 178-208

The glow from the centennial celebration quickly faded, and the COA faced growing internal concerns over their ability to care properly for children, amid continuing problems with finances and the developing external criticism of their leadership. The absence of trustees’ and executive committee’s minutes for the period of 1937 through November...

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pp. 209-212

The demise of the Riverdale orphanage was a sad event in the history of an institution that dated to 1836—nearly a mere decade after slavery was abolished in the Empire State. The founders and early managers were mainly women who sought to do God’s will by caring for the uncared: the abused and forsaken black child. They took on this...


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p. 213-213

Appendix A: Founders of the Colored Orphan Asylum, 1836

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p. 213-213

Appendix B: Original Male Advisers to the COA, 1836–37

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pp. 213-214

Appendix C: Early COA Major Financial Supporters in the 1830s

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pp. 214-216

Appendix D: COA Managers/Trustees,* 1837–1946

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pp. 216-232

Appendix E: First Directress/President*

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p. 232-232

Appendix F: Superintendent/Executive Director*

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pp. 232-233

Appendix G: Locations of the COA’s Homes

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pp. 233-234


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pp. 235-264


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pp. 265-272


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pp. 273-288

E-ISBN-13: 9780823249275
Print-ISBN-13: 9780823234196
Print-ISBN-10: 0823234193

Page Count: 220
Publication Year: 2011

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Colored Orphan Asylum and Association for the Benefit of Colored Orphans (New York, N.Y.) -- History.
  • Women philanthropists -- New York (State) -- New York -- History.
  • Women, White -- New York (State) -- New York -- History.
  • African Americans -- New York (State) -- New York -- Charities.
  • Orphanages -- New York (State) -- New York.
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