Chelsea building may win landmark status as last segregated school

City Councilman Eric Bottcher is among those pushing to have the nearly 175 year old building that is a reminder of the city’s segregated past preserved. The Landmarks Preservation Committee is set to vote at a public hearing on May 23 capping a multi-year campaign started by historian Erik K. Washington.

| 28 Apr 2023 | 08:57

A building in Chelsea which was the last Manhattan school to be segregated may gain landmark status if local activists who have been pushing for five years have their say.

”I want this to be one of my legacy items as a council member,” said City Council member Eric Bottcher.

It was historian Erik K. Washington who got the ball rolling in November, 2018 when he first asked the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission to evaluate the former Colored School No. 4 in Chelsea as the fist step in declaring it an official landmark.

He had been researching a book on James H. Williams, “Boss of the Grips” about the Afro-American porter at Grand Central who had become the first chief red cap porter.

“Williams graduated from the school, and it sparked my interest when I realized the building is still here in Chelsea,” Washington said in an interview with NBC News 4 last year.

Washington wrote that the school was a “three-story, beige bricked building that once protected hundreds of Black children.” He said it was “important refuge for Black New Yorkers after the Civil War.” During the draft rights in New York City in 1863 when white protestors went on a rampage to object to conscription laws in the Civil War, a mob had assembled outside the school. The principal barricaded the doors, and the white rioters who eventually killed 119 in three days, soon found other targets.

Located at 128 West 17th Street, the three-story brick edifice is the only known surviving school building that exclusively served African-Americans in the city. It is now vacant and deteriorating but it is owned by the city which had most recently used it as offices for the City Sanitation Department.

Aside from James H. Williams, a number of significant historical figures are associated with the structure. According to a statement by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, ardent suffragist and champion of social justice Sarah J. S. (Tompkins) Garnet served as principal of the school. In that role, Garnet was one of the first African American female principals in the New York City public school system. Susan Elizabeth Frazier, who attended the school as a student, became New York City’s first African American teacher assigned to an integrated public school. J. Imogen Howard, who taught at the school, was later a manager at Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition.

The nearly 175-year-old building exhibits pre-Civil War design and tells an important piece of the story of the civil rights struggle and fight for desegregation in NYC.

On Tuesday, February 14, the Commission voted to calendar the former school, marking the first step in a designation process.

The second step, a public hearing at which the public was able to testify, took place on April 25th.

Next, the Commission will vote on the designation at a public meeting, which is scheduled for May 23, 2023.

“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 a spokesperson for the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

“Built 1849-50, 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.”