Catherine Ferguson: Black Founder of a Sunday School

By Hartvik, Allen | Negro History Bulletin, January-September 1996 | Go to article overview

Catherine Ferguson: Black Founder of a Sunday School


Hartvik, Allen, Negro History Bulletin


The life of Catherine Ferguson, who was often called Katy (1) by those who knew her, warrants attention because she founded an early Sunday school in New York City which sought to provide the poor with the basic rudiments of an education. She was also among the first to provide care for the homeless urchins who, out of the necessity created by destitution, roamed the streets of the city fighting for and stealing what they needed. Catherine is rarely mentioned by historians today because her own illiteracy prevented her from writing about her experiences. She did, nevertheless, respond to the needs of the poor in an era which the poor were notably neglected.

Catherine was born on an unknown date in 1779, while her slave mother, Katy Williams, was being transported from Virginia to New York City. (2) At the age of eight, Catherine was separated from her mother when the latter was sold by their master, a Presbyterian elder residing on Water Street whom Katy referred to only as R. B., apparently to conceal his identity and thereby protect his family from embarrassment. The anguish caused by this separation probably produced her concern for destitute children in later life.

Catherine was a deeply religious woman, adhering to the Presbyterian faith of her Master. At the age of ten, she assured R. B. that, if given her freedom, she would serve the Lord forever. Her request was denied, possibly out of consideration of her tender age.

Her freedom was subsequently obtained when a lady of the city (3) purchased Catherine, then about sixteen or seventeen, for the sum of $200, giving her six years to repay the amount. The arrangement was later changed when Catherine's benefactor agreed to accept eleven months service in lieu of $100. Divie Bethune, a prosperous New York merchant, raised the remainder. (4) Thereafter, Katy earned her living as a professional cake-maker for weddings and parties.

Married at eighteen, Catherine had two children, both of whom died young. Her husband remains obscure, as she, and those associated with her never mentioned him.

Sometime before 1814, when Catherine resided at No. 52 Warren Street, "she regularly collected the children in the neighborhood, who are accustomed to run in the street on the Lord's day, into her house and got suitable persons to come and hear them say their catechism, & c." (5)

It is interesting to note that Katy, herself illiterate, should be the founder of a Sunday school. Actually though, much Sunday school learning involved the memorization of hymns and scriptures. (6) Katy had committed much of the Bible to memory (7) and was probably quite capable of hearing the children recite versus. It is more likely that the persons she invited to the school, which included Mrs. Isabella Graham and the rev. Isaac Ferris, (8) taught the children reading and writing.

Before 1810, Sunday schools were generally condemned by ministers who resented lay persons teaching the Bible and were, therefore, independent of church control. (9) The precise date that Mrs. Ferguson's Sunday school commenced is not known, but it was around 1814 (10) that the Rev. Dr. John Mitchell Mason of the Associate Reformed Church on Murray Street, which Katy attended, invited her to relocate the school in the lecture room of the church. The school thereafter became known as the Murray Street Sabbath School.

Katy's biographer in the New York Daily Tribune said that the Sunday school in the Murray Street church was the first in the city (11), a statement that is not confirmed by other evidence. Edwin W. Rice writing on the history of Sunday schools, indicated that a Sunday school was "formed about 1803 in New York, by Mr. and Mrs. Divie Bethune and also by Mrs. Isabella Graham." (12) It is likely that several small independent schools were founded before 1814 but which received little or no public attention. It is also possible that Catherine's school was among these. …

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