The last racially segregated school still standing, ‘Colored school No.4’ in Chelsea, finally reached landmark status and Mayor Eric Adams unveiled a $6 million plan to rehabilitate the aging structure.
The 174 year old structure is still owned by the city but has been vacant for the past six years after its last occupant, the NYC Department of Sanitation, vacated the building.
But after unanimous vote on Tuesday, May 23 by city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission officially approved the Chelsea school at 128 W. 17th Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenue as an official landmark, ending a years long push by community activists and local politicians.
“As the second Black mayor in New York City history, the significance of this landmark designation is not lost on me, and I am proud we are investing $6 million to rehabilitate (Former) Colored School No. 4 so that this painful, yet important, piece of history is preserved,” said Mayor Adams. “Historic sites like this are crucial reminders of those who came before us, whose courage and ambition helped shape our city and chart the course to becoming the incredible city we are today. We stand on the shoulders of the young men and women that attended this school, and while they may be gone, I am honored to ensure they will never be forgotten.”
The leading activists behind the push for landmark status was Eric K. Washington, an historian and author. He wrote a book in 2019, “Boss of the Grips: The Life of James H. Williams and the Red Caps of Grand Central Terminal,” about the life of a man who went to grammar school at ‘Colored school No. 4’ named James H. Williams. He learned the importance of the school for the black community while researching for his book and was surprised to find the building was still intact. “I recognized that it was a pillar to the black community in Lower Manhattan in the 19th century. It was part of this informal network of other schools, churches and institutions that blacks relied on for communication and support. Those elements struck me as something worth saving—that’s why when I saw the building was what it was, I put in the RFE [Request for Evidence] application. After the hearing, it was close to 3,000 signatures.”
Washington says the name ‘Colored school No. 4’ should not be forgotten. “The term ‘Colored school’ would be condescending now because we don’t use that term anymore—but this was a common term in the 19th century,” Washington said. “After you have something that’s yours, you make it into something, and it was a pride of place.”
The building which was last used by the New York City Department of Sanitation has been vacant and while its structure is deemed to be in stable condition it has the normal problems of a building constructed in 1849. It became one of ten “colored” schools in the public school system in 1860 and is the last known surviving school from that era of segregated education.
More recently, it has experienced water damage from a leaky roof. Advocates hope it becomes a museum or community center for young and old people focusing on black history. Washington says that the facade of the building which has remained largely unchanged since it was first erected in 1849 will be preserved.
“At a time when states are trying to erase Black history, we’re celebrating it,” said New York City Councilmember Erik Bottcher who also campaigned for its preservation. “Saving this building has been one of the Chelsea community’s top priorities, and I want to thank Mayor Adams for hearing us out and coming through with this critical investment.”
“The landmark might be an example to towns across the country that are struggling with this authoritarian influence over the education system, which is just anti-education.” Washington added.
“I recognized that it was a pillar to the black community in Lower Manhattan in the 19th century.” Eric K. Washington, author and activist
“At a time when states are trying to erase Black History, we’re celebrating it.” City Council Member Erik Bottcher.