Written by Rachel Walman
In late August it begins: finishing up summer homework, shopping for a new binder or pair of shoes, and finally walking into the building where kids will spend the next nine months learning. It’s back-to-school time! When the school year kicks into gear, so do family programs here at the New-York Historical Society. While we have fun events planned for those out-of-school hours — like our Battle of Brooklyn Family Day this Saturday or our Historic Halloween Ball on October 30 — we thought we’d celebrate this special time of year by showing you some school-related gems from our collection not currently on view to the public. What they reveal about learning in the past might surprise you!
New York started a school for children of African descent in 1787
The New York African Free School was chartered by the New York Manumission Society in 1787 and welcomed its first class of 40 students in a one-room school house on Cliff Street in 1791. This was New York’s first and only school dedicated to the education of black youth, most of whom were still enslaved and would be until 1827. The purpose of this school was to teach children of African descent to support themselves outside of slavery. Boys were prepared for careers as sailors, a relatively well-paying job for black men, and girls were largely educated in the domestic arts. While the all-white teaching staff of the school believed their students were fit for better lives than those under slavery, they did not believe they were equal to white students. Despite not being trained for it, some African Free School students went on to achieve beyond what was expected of them. James McCune Smith, whom you can learn more about in the DiMenna Children’s History Museum, went on to become the first black doctor in New York with a medical degree, and Ira Aldridge became the most famous black actor of the 19th century. The New-York Historical Society has the archives of the African Free School, and you can explore them in our special collections library and online here.
Girls Sewed for Credit
Whether educated at home by tutors, in free schools, or in special academies for the wealthy, the culminating project of a girl’s education was often an ornate piece of embroidery called a sampler. Samplers were samples of a girl’s skill at embroidery and consisted of painstakingly rendered alphabets and numbers, and later into the 19th century, images, poems or bible verses. Samplers displayed a girl’s erudition in multiple ways: girls had to embroider a fancy form of the alphabet on their samplers to show they knew their letters. Being able to read and write was crucial for their future presumptive roles as wives, who would monogram family linens, and as mothers, who would monitor their children’s education. Being able to sew elaborately was also evidence of a girl’s patience and good breeding. The New-York Historical Society has a large collection of girls’ samplers, some by girls as young as six or eight. We even have one made by Rosena Disery of the African Free School, completed just before she graduated at age 15.
Older Students often taught younger ones
Massachusetts is home to America’s first public school, the Boston Latin School, founded in 1635. Despite having a tradition of public education that extends that far back, it actually took quite a long time for the U.S. to develop a system of educating all children. Enter the Lacasterian (or Lancastrian) Monitorial System of Education. This model, developed and promoted by Joseph Lancaster starting at the turn of the 19th century, allowed a single educator to educate potentially hundreds of kids by first training a smaller group of older students who then passed on that training to larger groups of younger students. These older students were called monitors, and they became eligible for their duties around age 14. New York City’s first public schools, founded under the aegis of the Free School Society, all incorporated the Lancastrian model for about fifty years. By 1826, there were 11 public schools in the city serving around 6,000 students using this method. Educational reform movements in the 1830s and beyond made the Lancastrian model passé, but the first generation of public school pupils were taught, for most of their pre-college years, by teens instead of professional teachers.
So is school better or worse today than in the past? You tell us! Keep the learning going by visiting the New-York Historical Society for some family fun, or tell your kids’ teachers to bring them here on a field trip like the kids in the above photo from the mid-20th century! Some school traditions never go out of style.