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

Article excerpt

William Seraile, Angels of Mercy: While Women and the History of New York's Colored Orphan Asylum. Fordham University Press, New York, 201 1 , $27.95, 287 pages, illustrated

Not until Professor William Seraile's Angels of Mercy: White Women and the History of the Colored Orphan Asylum has anyone researched and written a complete history of New York City's "Colored Orphan Asylum" on Fifth Avenue from its humble beginning in 1836 to 1946 when it turned to foster care. There are of course some who heard in their history classes how in 1863 during the Civil War its children fled the fire and smoke when rampaging racist mobs invaded and burned their home to the ground. |But this grim part of the Civil War is rarely taught until college courses.|

Seraile who recently retired after 36 years at Lehman College, vividly details that sad and painful day, and goes on to tell about the children who attended, white Quakers who founded and ran it, and how its reach into the present made it a window on and important part of our city.

Angels of Mercy tells a tale of children and adults who had to weather many storms. From the beginning it suffered from underfunding and the casual paternalism of its Quaker women founders and others who were products of the city's traditional white elite families bearing names such as Murray, Astor, Roosevelt, Jay, Mott, Varick, Sutton, and Lenox. In clear, attractive prose he captures how over different decades a multicultural city uneasily grappled with the pressing problems of race, liberty, childhood and humanity. He lays out the courage of the Quaker women who created and maintained an orphanage in a city seething with racial animosity, and explores their sad inability to see their best allies were nearby, not white, and so much wanted to participate.

It was many years before the sponsors were able to acknowledge the need for and fully accept participation from New York's African Americans. But from the outset African American New Yorkers tried to pour in both important goods and services and financial aid. …


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