Past Features

April 11, 2005 (Vol. 1, No. 6)

Symposium on New York's First Orphanage for African American Children

Courtesy of the Harlem Dowling-West Side Center for Children and Family Services

When: Thursday, April 14, 9 a.m.-3:30 p.m.

Where: Music Building, East Dining Room

Former residents of the first orphanage in New York City to care for African American children will gather at Lehman College to reflect on their experiences and to take part in a symposium that will consider both the history of the institution and broader issues in the child welfare movement.

Professor William Seraile of Lehman's Black Studies Department will deliver the keynote address, "Mysteries of the Nineteenth Century Revealed through Letters and Anecdotes." Other speakers will include a representative from the Bronx Historical Society and faculty members in the College's Sociology and Social Work Department.

The orphanage, known as "The Colored Orphan Asylum of the City of New York," opened in Manhattan in 1837 but was burned to the ground during the Draft Riots of 1863. It later reopened in the Riverdale section of the Bronx on the grounds of what today is the Hebrew Home for the Aged at Riverdale. In the 1940s, due to growing concern over use of the word "colored," the orphanage was renamed The Riverdale Children's Association. It finally closed its doors in 1946, having cared altogether for more than 3,000 children.

The symposium is cosponsored by the Lehman Department of Black Studies, the Hebrew Home for the Aged and the Harlem Dowling-West Side Center for Children and Family Services (whose parent organization operated the orphanage).

Karen Franklin, director of the Hebrew Home's Judaica Museum, will recount the stories of 58 orphans who were buried in an unmarked plot in Kensico Cemetery. The children died after the turn of the century, often from disease.

Melba Butler, executive director of the Harlem Dowling-West Side Center for Children and Family Services, has been working with Ms. Franklin to fund a memorial for the former orphanage's site. She will interview orphanage alumni as well as Brian Purnell, research director of the Bronx Oral History Project at Fordham University, who will share the results of his related project.

For more information, call Professor Seraile at (718) 960-7720.