Colored Orphan Asylum, Harlem, 1872

If you were black and orphaned in New York in the 1800s, there was nowhere to go but the cruel streets. So in 1836, three Quakers, Anna and Hanna Shotwell and Mary Murray, founded the Colored Orphan Asylum to provide assistance to homeless and destitute black children. It was the first such institution in America. In 1846, the brilliant and socially-minded Dr. James McCune Smith, the country’s first licensed black medical doctor, became the orphanage’s medical director, where he and other like-minded members of the black community encouraged the children of the orphanage to seek skilled jobs when they left the orphanage.

Housed in a four-story building with two wings of three stories each, on Fifth Avenue between 42nd and 43rd Street, the building was home to an average of 400 children annually.

The orphanage is remembered best not for the good it did, but for what happened to it on July 13, 1863. On that day a hate-filled mob of white men and women ransacked the building, looting and burning it to the ground, igniting the New York City draft riots of 1863. The 233 children in residence were led to safety by the matron, barely escaping with their lives.

Two firemen, Chief Engineer Decker and Paddy McCaffrey showed exceptional bravery trying in vain to put out the fire, risking their lives to help save the orphans from the fire and the angry mob.

The orphanage was re-established on 51st Street and later moved to 143rd Street between Amsterdam and Broadway in Harlem.


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This is an original 1872 halftone print of the Colored Orphan Asylum at 143rd Street and Tenth Avenue in New York City. This building was completed in 1868 to replace the former Asylum that was burned by rioters in July of 1863. (Please note that there is printing on the reverse.)

Period Paper is pleased to offer a rare collection of halftone prints of New York City. These images provide an important historic visual record of 19th century New York City including its churches, schools, public buildings, parks and cemeteries, Police, Fire, Health and Quarantine Departments, prisons, hospitals, homes, asylums, dispensaries, morgue and all municipal and private charitable institutions. These halftone prints are in excellent condition and will be of interest to the collector of New York City history and architecture.

Buy it here.

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