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Mon, 08.06.1866

The Howard Colored Orphans Asylum Opens

Howard Colored Orphan Asylum

*On this date in 1866, the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum is celebrated. This was one of the few American orphanages to be led by and for Blacks.

It was on Troy Avenue and Dean Street in Weeksville, New York City. Black Presbyterian minister Henry M. Wilson, black widow Sarah A. Tillman, and white general Oliver Otis Howard founded the Home for Freed Children and Others. It was originally used by freedwomen new to the northern United States as a place for their children while they searched for work. Their children were used as indentured servants to area families for a small payment going to the child.

While it had some financial support from white patrons, namely Gen. Howard, for whom it is named, the orphanage was staffed and managed primarily by blacks due to Wilson's membership in the African Civilization Society which supported all-black organizations and segregated black schools. By 1868, the institution's finances were in disarray due to Wilson's mismanagement. In 1888, it was renamed the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum and moved to Brooklyn with Rev. William Francis Johnson, a blind preacher, as the Superintendent. Under Johnson's leadership, the institution frequently obtained donations from black churches, black speakers, and more coverage in the news, creating close ties to the Black community.

In the 1890s, the institution moved away from the indentured system to train students in industrial education to prepare them for the practical world of labor, business, and agriculture but which would limit formal studies.  Hampton Institute recommended that four-fifths of the students be engaged in institutional training, and Booker T. Washington was tapped to secure funding from leading philanthropists. An annex was built first, and in 1899, a campaign was organized by Rufus L. Perry to build a school on an adjacent lot with funds secured from the state. In 1902, it was discovered that Johnson greatly mismanaged the orphanage's funds, spurring an investigation by the New York Comptroller and a grand jury.

Johnson left the institution following the investigation, and the board of directors reorganized itself to include more white males rather than blacks and women. The demographic reorganization was done at the suggestion of the New York Comptroller to obtain more white donors. Rev. Powhattan E. Bagnall was elected as superintendent by the board as a replacement for Johnson.

In September 1906, Congolese pygmy Ota Benga was exhibited in the Monkey House of the Bronx Zoo. Controversy quickly ensued, and many prominent African American leaders, including Superintendent James H. Gordon, objected to the exhibit. By September 29, Benga was transferred to the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum, where he was given a room and treated as a visitor.

In 1908, the institution was renamed Howard Orphanage and Industrial School, and a white Quaker, L. Hollingsworth Wood, was named its president. In 1910, the State Board of Charities deemed the Brooklyn location unsafe due to an investigation charging the institution with unsanitary conditions. The orphanage moved 250 children from the Brooklyn location to a 572-acre (231 ha) farm in Kings Park, Long Island, to teach practical skills in 1911. Upon founding, Howard Orphanage and Industrial School planned to utilize the four existing cottages to house the 200 children and build more to house upwards of 1,000 pupils once funds could be secured. In 1913, Washington visited the school, writing favorably of the experience.

The property had originally consisted of two large farms and was later converted into a similar educational experiment for Jewish people to move away from tailoring and sweatshop occupations in the Lower East Side to agriculture, but the project later failed. By the mid-1910s, the institution was again in dire need of more funding to house greater numbers of orphans due to the influx of people moving north for work during World War I. In 1917, a committee that included George Foster Peabody, Oswald Garrison Villard, and W.E.B. DuBois was formed to campaign for $100,000. However, by the end of the year, the campaign ended, unable to secure the funds during the war.

Lack of funds and war shortages contributed to the institution's low coal supply and inability to repair burst pipes due to freezing temperatures. The asylum gradually deteriorated due to a lack of funding. It closed in 1918 after an incident involving burst water pipes, which resulted in two students contracting frostbite and having their feet amputated. The farm became the property of W.P. Anderson, Commissioner of Agriculture for Russia, who transformed it into an agricultural school for Russian boys. Upon its closure, trustees began using funds for tuition for black students in Brooklyn. In 1956, it was renamed the Howard Memorial Fund.

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