Landmark commission taking action on historic Colored School No. 4

Preservation advocates are pushing to protect this forgotten school for Black children from the mid-1850s.

Manhattan’s last known “colored” schoolhouse has struggled for four years to gain landmark protection, the New York Times reports. 

A campaign led by African American historian Eric K. Washington seeks to preserve the historic building at 128 West 17th Street known as former Colored School No. 4. The weather-worn space has been vacant for years. Preservation advocates are pushing to landmark this forgotten school for Black children from the mid-1850s.

Earlier this week, a public hearing was scheduled by the Landmarks Preservation Commission to discuss the potential landmarking of the site. 

The “Colored School No. 4” was staffed by African American teachers from 1860 to 1894. In the evening, the space served as a school for adult-student learning. At the time, schools were segregated in New York City. Students and staff were often subjected to racial harassment and threats. A mob of working-class whites attacked the schoolhouse during the Draft Riots of 1863.

The school was closed in the mid-1890s and veterans later used it as a clubhouse. The building also housed the Department of Sanitation until seven years ago, PIX 11 reports.

Washington is leading the effort to highlight the cultural and historical significance of the building. He envisions it being transformed into a museum and community center in the near future. For now, Washington is fighting to ensure developers don’t demolish it due to the damaged roof and internal water damage, according to The New York Times.

Washington filed a formal request with the Landmarks Preservation Commission in 2018 to protect the property. The commission recently voted and determined that the building “merits consideration and is currently studying its potential for designation” as a landmark, said Zodet Negrón, a Landmarks Preservation Commission spokeswoman in a statement, per The Times.

“As the only known surviving former ‘colored school’ in Manhattan, it is a reminder of the history of racist segregation policies in New York City and has important associations with the Black community in 19th-century New York,” the statement continued. 

A public hearing will be scheduled next.

“There are woefully too few places you can cite that represent the African American experience in New York, which goes back to its history in New Amsterdam,” Washington said in an interview, The Times reports.

“It’s as old as New York, and there are very few surviving buildings that represent that experience and those that do exist we lose so rapidly to development,” he added.

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