Eric K. Washington is a New York-based historian who works to uncover and preserve historical information pertinent to Black life in the Big Apple. For the past four years, he’s been working to preserve Colored School No.4, one of the last remaining school buildings in New York that was created for Black children during the era of slavery and later segregation. The building is located in Manhattan’s gentrified Chelsea neighborhood. Washington first learned of it while writing his book, “Boss of the Grips,” about the life of James H. Williams, the first Black chief train porter in Grand Central Terminal during the 1930s.
“Williams graduated from the school, and it sparked my interest when I realized the building is still here in Chelsea,” Washington told reporters.
Based on his research, Washington discovered that the school served as a safe haven during the New York Draft Riots in 1863, a deadly time in American history when New Yorkers protested new Congressional laws mandating service in the Civil War. As a result, white rioters targeted and lynched Black New Yorkers, the death toll estimated to be as high as 1,200. One of those domestic terrorist mobs landed on the steps of Colored School No. 4 while school was still in session. That’s when Black suffragist and school principal Sarah J. Garnet sprang into action, prompting teachers to barricade the front doors leading to the streets. The rioters’ attempts to break in were thwarted and the schoolhouse survived the ordeal. Now 159 years later, the building still stands but is in dire need of repair, many of the doors and outside walls covered in dust and graffiti.
Four years ago, in November 2018, Washington put in a request for the building to obtain landmark status with NY’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. Since then, the organization has given him little to no response, the veteran historian shifting his focus recently to a grassroots campaign to garner support in the community. Washington has been spending his time hosting “lunch and learn” events online and garnering signatures for a community-supported petition to obtain landmark status. Of the 37,000 spaces around New York City with landmark protection, there are few related directly to the Underground Railroad or antebellum Black history, something Black historians like Washington are hoping to change.
Thomas Lunke, a Chelsea resident and urban planner who is serving as an advisor to Washington says making the connection to Black history in a gentrified neighborhood like Chelsea is “crucial.” While the Commission claims to assign landmark status based on general requests from the public, citing that the site be “architecturally, historically or culturally significant, Washington says the designations can sometimes be given out randomly, favored biasedly toward white or European historical sites. So far, he has gained the support of the Department of Sanitation, who owns the building, and NYC Council Member Erik Botcher whose district includes Chelsea, both writing to the Commission in support of preserving the building.
“The ideal outcome of landmarking the schoolhouse would be turning it into a museum or lyceum of sorts, so people, especially tourists, could learn about the trajectory of African American experiences,” Washington explained.
This isn’t the first time Washington has attempted to preserve a piece of New York’s Black history either, in 2020 the historian partnered with a group to attempt to preserve a site that could have been used as a stop on the Underground Railroad. The commission rejected the proposal quickly citing a lack of “adequate historic fabric,” but Washington says historical documents directly proving Underground Railroad sites are hard to obtain because of the clandestine nature surrounding it. Still, he feels if there were more African Americans making these decisions, they would have the “sensibilities and sensitivities regarding African American history” necessary to make more informed decisions.
Brent Leggs, senior VP of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, went into more detail about the importance of such landmarks in the overall quest to memorialize Black history.
“One of the challenges we face in preserving African American historical sites is expanding the historical understanding beyond the stereotype of racial violence with agency for the Black community. But that is most important in confronting America’s past,” said Leggs.
Washington is remaining hopeful this time around, the Commission recently telling NBC News that it will “prioritize further research of former Colored School No. 4.” If approved, the tattered and worn beige building located on West 17th Street, could soon begin its transformation back to an educational cornerstone and safe haven for the Black community.
Photo Courtesy of Elias Williams/NBC News