UPDATE: The designation matter discussed in this article has been scheduled for a discussion and vote on Tuesday, May 23, 2023.
BY SCOTT STIFFLER | The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) is following through on expected protocol, following an action taken at their February 14 meeting. There, on a day an outside observer would later note fell on both Valentine’s Day and Frederick Douglass’s birthday, the gathered LPC membership voted unanimously to give a little love to a City-owned building in Chelsea, by calendaring (aka scheduling) it as a topic at their 9:30am meeting of Tuesday, April 25. (To view that meeting, click here.)
The collective content of that Public Hearing—whether coming in the form of pre-submitted email/written communication or testimonials given in real time as the Hearing unfolds via Zoom—will be considered by the LPC as landmark designation is considered for the three-story structure at 128 West 17th Street.
After the public hearing, the Commission will vote on the designation at a public meeting.
Its potential for that classification first came to LPC’s attention by way of information Eric K. Washington collected while conducting research for his 2019 biography, Boss of the Grips: The Life of James H. Williams and the Red Caps of Grand Central Terminal. Williams, it was discovered, had been educated in the West 17th Street building during its years as a segregated public school for African Americans (1860-1894).
As Chelsea Community News noted in our report of June 23, 2022 (click here to read it), Washington used the Williams connection as part of his supportive material for approaching the LPC in November of 2018 with an RFE (a Request for Evaluation, once acted upon by the LPC, determines if a property meets the basic criteria for designation). Washington noted at the time that “woefully too few sites” granted landmark status “reflect the complex historical trajectory, milestones, and breadth of the African American experience in our great city.”
That discrepancy resonated with the LPC, whose subsequent investigation over the next few years (including substantial pandemic-era downtime) led to CCNews receiving an April 21 email statement which strongly suggests a supportive stance on the matter:
“The Landmarks Preservation Commission is considering designating the former Colored School No. 4 as a landmark because it is important as Manhattan’s only known surviving example of a racially segregated school from the period between the Civil War through the post-Reconstruction era,” said LPC spokesperson Lisa Kersavage. Built from 1849 to 1850, she noted, it became a segregated “Colored School” in 1860, “and continued to serve Black students until it closed in 1894. The school afforded crucial opportunities and skills to Black students as they struggled against the discrimination and inequities that were part of their daily life.”
Thus, in its clear understanding of the building’s significance, the LPC finds itself in rare, near-perfect alignment with the outside designation advocate—Washington—whose determination to see the former school remain standing in perpetuity has never waned. The author, Black New Yorker, and public independent historian keeps finding relevant facts and connections, and has, along the way, amassed an ever-growing coalition of allies, activists, electeds, historians, architects, and motivated advocates, many of whom have signed Washington’s online petition to Designate Chelsea’s Former Colored School No. 4 as a New York City Landmark. (Washington’s fact-packed history of the school and assessment of its significance is reprinted from his petition page, at the end of this article.)
Support has aso shown itself in the form of LPC-addressed letters and/or statements of support from the full board of Manhattan Community Board 4, NYC District 3 (aka Chelsea) Council Member Erik Bottcher, The Municipal Arts Society of New York, Save Chelsea, the Hon. Robert W. Snyder, Manhattan Borough Historian, The 100 West 17th and 18th Street Block Association, The Council of Chelsea Block Associations, New York Landmarks Conservancy, and, as the old saying aptly goes in this case—many, many others.
The show of strength in numbers and commonality of cause is important, said Washington. “Even though it feels likely,” he said, of the coveted designation status, “I think it’s still important for the public to participate. It’s like voting—a way to affirm how you feel, and it’s also going to be an opportunity to hear from others about why it’s important to them.”
Noting the building serves as “an important reminder of the institutionalized racial discrimination in our city and a testament to those who went to and helped build these learning facilities,” The April 25 meeting is “an important opportunity to encourage the Commission to move ahead with designation,” wrote Village Preservation Executive Director Andrew Berman, in the organization’s April 19, 2023 E-newsletter.
Noting the building’s Chelsea location puts it “just outside the bounds of our neighborhoods,” Berman said Village Preservation has long been supportive of landmarking efforts “both because of the exceptional citywide significance of this site and because of its connections to our neighborhood, where earlier “Colored Schools” were located in the 19th century and where significant figures connected to the institution lived.” Bestowing designation status, noted Berman, will encourage the LPC to “act upon other long-ignored African American and other civil rights-related historic sites in our neighborhoods and throughout New York City also still crying out for recognition and protection.”
In a move that indicates thorough alignment with Berman’s call to action, LPC Chair Sarah Carroll had this to say, just prior to her call for the February 14 vote on the matter of calendaring: “I’m hoping we will see more designations, more thinking on the part of the Commission, related to not just its school buildings, but schools; the kind of the cultural history and specifically the African American cultural history of educational institutions in the city. There are many stories and important sites to consider. So I’m very, very, very proud to think that we’re to participate in this particular potential calendaring.” (Click here to read CCNews’ article about the calendaring vote.)
Said Washington to CCNews, just prior to the April 25 LPC Public Hearing, “I’d be remiss not to make additional mention to some of the other events and places associated with the school. I’m always fearful when we talk about landmarking buildings—that the focus falls away from the people. History is not just about dates and addresses. I’d hope that would be something that landmarks could really hear.”
IF YOU WANT TO SPEAK AT THE TUESDAY, APRIL 25 9:30AM LPC PUBLIC HEARING:
Hearing information is available on LPC’s website. Click here to access that page, which includes the Zoom link, the agenda with times, the signup link, and the email address for testimony submissions.
The signup to speak closes at 7am on the day of the hearing. People who sign up in advance are called first. To sign up, click here.
In addition to attending the meeting via Zoom, you can watch it on LPC’s YouTube channel (click here to access it). Those watching on YouTube will not be able to testify (for that, you must attend via Zoom).
After the public hearing, the Commission will vote on the designation at a public meeting whose date has not yet been determined.
Attend via Zoom by clicking here.
Attend via phone by dialing (toll-free) 877-853-5257.
The Webinar ID is 861 9593 2555. The Passcode is: 168052.
The following is from a Petition of Support page organized by Eric K. Washington. To access the Petition, click here.
Manhattan’s former Colored School No. 4 at 128 West 17th Street, now a disused city-owned Department of Sanitation premises, is a remarkably extant relic of New York City’s 19th-century racial-caste grade school system. In November 2018 a request for evaluation (RFE) of this Chelsea property was submitted to the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC). The agency promptly concurred — and not surprisingly, as it had designated Brooklyn’s kindred Colored School No. 3 in 1998 — that the schoolhouse “may merit consideration for designation as an individual landmark.” But three years hence, there have been no substantive updates.
Built circa 1853, the unassuming 3-story structure was for thirty-four years, from 1860 until 1894, consigned to African American children and teachers. Best known as “Colored School No. 4,” it was actually known successively as Colored School No. 7 (1860 to 1866), Colored School No. 4 (1866 to 1884) and Grammar School No. 81 (1884 to 1894). The schoolhouse served the numerous working-class African American families of the area, then part of the so-called “Tenderloin Precinct.” Its decades-long use spanned the Civil War, the postbellum Reconstruction Era and New York’s ensuing gritty-bordered Gilded Age.
New York has woefully too few extant sites that reflect the complex historical trajectory, milestones and breadth of the African American experience in our great city. Justice dictates that we preserve this rare surviving “colored schoolhouse” in Manhattan, and honor the impressive lives that filled its rooms.
Some of those figures included:
Rev. J.W.C. Pennington (1807-1870) — abolitionist, orator, minister, writer, educator
William Appo (1808-1880) — musician, composer, educator
Florence T. Ray (1856?-1920) — writer, educator
J. Imogen Howard (1848-1937) — writer, educator, NYS manager at 1893 World’s Fair
Oscar James Dunn (1826-1871) — first Black Lieutenant Governor of Louisiana
Henry Highland Garnet ((1815-1882) — abolitionist, orator, statesman
Henry Ossian Flipper (1856-1940) — first Black graduate from West Point
Sir James Bain (1818-1898) — Lord Provost of Glasgow
Walter F. Craig (1854-1933) — violinist, composer, orchestra leader
Richard M. Robinson (1855-19__?) — composer, Bd of Ed Ass’t Supervisor of Music
S. Elizabeth Frazier (1864-1924) — first Black teacher in mixed NYC public school
Ednorah Nahar (1873-1916?) — dramatic elocutionist
James H. Williams (1878-1948) — Chief Red Cap Porter at Grand Central Terminal
Sarah J.S. ‘Tompkins’ Garnet showed her mettle within the very first months of her thirty-one years as the school’s redoubtable principal, as when a racist white mob set upon the schoolhouse during New York’s infamous Draft Riots of July 1863. By the time the school closed in 1894, Garnet’s diligent corps of African American teachers had long made it a singular pillar of the Black community.
Colored School No. 4 was integral to an informal plexus of other late 19th-century Black schools, churches, enterprises, missions and societies that gave anchor to lower Manhattan’s growing African American enclaves as they drifted upwards to west side neighborhoods like Hell’s Kitchen and San Juan Hill. Its graduates and teachers were the progenitors of myriad citizen leaders who would effectively build the community of Harlem, even farther uptown, into the renowned 20th-century capital of Black America.
Please sign this petition to join the more recent actions of the local community board (CB4), neighboring block associations, historical societies, numerous agencies and individuals who have appealed to the LPC to expedite the unduly pending evaluation of this unheralded heritage site. Sign to urge Mayor Eric Adams; Landmarks Preservation Commission Chair Sarah Carroll; the State and National Registers of Historic Places; Department of Sanitation Commissioner Jessica Tisch; and Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine to actualize the rightful designation of the former Colored School No. 4 building as an individual cultural landmark.
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