Colored School No. 4 (1849-1894)

The Colored School No. 4 Building - 128 West 17th Street
Public Domain Image

In 2023, New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission voted to designate the former “Colored School No. 4” a protected landmark from demolition or significant alterations, preserving its architectural and historic features. Eric Leroy Adams, the 110th mayor of New York City since 2022, designated $6 million to restore the historic buildings and their educational value that preserve a school built for Black children and reconnect forgotten history as a sense of culture in Chelsea and the United States.

In 1849, at 128 West 17th Street in a three-story mid-block brick-attached building in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City, a schoolhouse was constructed during the era of slavery by the New York City Public School Society is the only known surviving school building in Manhattan that served African Americans during a mandated period of segregation. By 1884, the institution’s name was changed to Grammar School No. 81 while adding an evening Adult Education component. While adhering to the 13th Amendment, when the Board of Education ceased to use “colored” in school names, the school was no longer legally segregated. Within 17 years after its construction in 1860 and five years before the United States Congress ratified the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery, the legally segregated Colored School No. 4 became one of eight public primary schools for Black students in the city with approximately 2,377 attendances.

Colored School No. 4’s principal was Sarah Jane Tomkins Garnet. The spouse of the abolitionist Henry Highland Garnet, Sarah Jane was the first African American female principal in the New York City public school system. She brought numerous skills to the school. In addition to her leadership, she taught the foundational courses and incorporated her work at the school with her business as a seamstress in Brooklyn. She served as superintendent of the Suffrage Department of the National Association of Colored Women.

There were several educators and students at Colored School No. 4 who became prominent, including the composer and violinist Walter F. Craig and Joan Imogen Howard, who became a manager at Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. Susan Elizabeth Frazier became the first Black woman to be included on New York’s eligible list for full-time teaching positions. She was assigned to an integrated public school in the city in 1896.