Ira Aldridge's Life in New York City

Article excerpt

Daniel Aldridge (2) had wanted his son Ira to follow in his footsteps and become a preacher. To this end he enrolled him in one of the two African Free Schools that had been established in New York City by the Manumission Society "for the special purpose of opening the avenues to a gratuitous education to the descendants of an injured race, who have a strong claim on the humanity and justice of our State." (3) A more explicit purpose was to educate "young men of colour, to be employed as teachers and preachers among the people of colour in these States [New York and New Jersey] and elsewhere." (4)

The first of these institutions had been opened in November 1787 with a single schoolmaster and twelve pupils. (5) In 1791 a female teacher was employed to instruct girls in needlework. (6) However, the school did not have a permanent building until one was constructed on Cliff Street in 1796. By then it had 122 pupils--63 males and 59 females, with an average attendance of about 80. (7) The curriculum consisted of reading, writing, arithmetic and geography, "with sewing, & c, in the girls' school." (8) When this school burnt down in 1814, a replacement measuring 30 by 60 feet, sufficient space for about two hundred students, was built at 245 William Street the following year. This later became known as African Free School No. 1. Within a few months of opening, "the room became so crowded with pupils that it was found necessary to engage a separate room, next to the school, to accommodate such of the females as were to be taught sewing." (9)

Apparently there was a great demand in the black community for basic elementary education, and many more of their youngsters were sent to school. As early as 1787 even the children of slaves were being admitted if they had permission from their masters. (10) By 1817 there were 308 students of both sexes enrolled, ranging in age from six to fifteen, and it was estimated that nearly three thousand children had received some education at the African Free School since its founding thirty years earlier. (11) This may have been a fairly rosy picture. Eve Thurston has pointed out that

    The children were often wretched products of miserable housing and
    sordid surroundings. They were crowded into dilapidated buildings;
    they had worn and tattered supplies (despite an occasional generous
    donation). Their teachers came and went with unsettling speed; their
    learning too often consisted of parroted Scripture passages. In the
    background was the question raised by John Jay [chairman-president
    of the Manumission Society]; "What was to become of them?" There
    might be a use of teaching the girls needlework, but of what value
    was either formal instruction or practical demonstration to the
    boys? In most cases backbreaking labor was their outlook, their only
    outlook. "To what am I graduating? What trade is open to me?" one of
    the most promising graduates is supposed to have cried. Naturally
    the more intelligent and sensitive were the ones who felt their lack
    of expectations keenly. (12)

Yet Thurston provides evidence that the African Free Schools did produce some remarkable graduates--not just Ira Aldridge but also "Dr. James McCune Smith; Henry Highland Garnett [a famous minister and abolitionist]; Alexander Crummell, [a prominent missionary in West Africa] who ... went to Cambridge University; George T. Downing, businessman and labor leader; Charles L. Reason and Charles L. Redmond, educators." (13) Others had gone on to earn college degrees at Amherst, Dartmouth, Bowdoin, Princeton and Columbia. (14) This was an impressive record. As early as 1820 John Pintard, the founder of the New York Historical Society, was praising the school for turning out "prodigies of genius." (15)

A richer curriculum may have been offered now, described in an address discussing the African Free Schools in New York and New Jersey as follows:

    The usual term of study shall be at least four years, and longer if
    the Board deem it expedient. …