A once segregated school in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan is one step closer to landmark status, all due to the efforts of a local Black historian. For years, Eric K. Washington has been fighting to preserve the building once known simply as Colored School No. 4, one of the few left standing from the slavery and later segregation eras. Not only did the institution serve as an educational facility for the Black children of New York during a time where schooling for African Americans was not prioritized, the building itself also provided safety and security in a very real way during one of the city’s deadliest race riots.
In 1863, the New York Draft riots broke out into neighborhood streets as working class white men protested being called into service during the Civil War. According to NBC News, its reported that a total of 119 were left dead after Black New Yorkers were targeted, beaten to death or lynched, though the toll may actually be closer somewhere to 1,200. As a mob formed outside of Colored School No. 4 while class was in session, the students remained inside of the building, safe from the violence below them.
While the building is now covered in mold and graffiti with decaying fixtures and broken glass windows, Washington is hoping that the city soon recognizes its historical significance, and jumps on board with efforts to preserve its legacy.
In 2018, Washington filed an initial request to have the building evaluated to be granted landmark status. But after four years and little response from city officials, the historian has launched a grassroots campaign hosting lunch and learns via Zoom about the building’s history, and gathering petition signatures.
“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 told NBC News.
Many believe this to be of particular importance given the neighborhood’s current landscape.
“It is crucial to create this touchpoint of African American history in widely gentrified Chelsea, which is a tourist area in New York City, and in the world,” said Thomas Lunke, a Chelsea resident and an urban planner, currently serving as an advisor to Washington.
As a result of Washington’s work over the years, and with the support of people like Lunke, Brent Leggs, senior vice president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and local organizations that have submitted their own requests to have the building preserved, the commission has recently stated that it has “decided to prioritize further research of former Colored School No. 4.”
Washington and Leggs have also spoken out about how labeling a structure as one of “architectural significance” is a racist practice, noting that it appears much easier to grant landmark status to former slave quarters that continue to show evidence of historical oppression.
“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,” Leggs said. “But that is most important in confronting America’s past.”