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I learned that the bronx orphan asylum was the next destination for the asylum that was burned during the civil war
JUNE 10TH, 2002
NY1 will spotlight the Bronx this week, taking a look at some of the hidden treasures the borough has to offer. We begin our special coverage with a two-part series on the first orphanage to take in children of color.
NY1 Bronx Reporter Dean Meminger has the story, and we kick off “Bronx Week.”
The story of the Colored Orphan Asylum is one few people are aware of. It closed in 1946, but two women are trying to restore its place in history.
“It was the first institution in the country to provide out-of-home care for colored children,” says Melba Butler of the Harlem Dowling Center for Children’s Services. “No other organization or institution would take black children back in the 1800's, so this institution was started in 1836 to provide a safe place for colored children.”
Karen Franklin is with the Hebrew Home for the Aged in Riverdale. For the last two years, she and Butler have been working to uncover the work of this forgotten institution.
“My interest began when I got a call from a woman in Florida who wanted help with her family history,” says Franklin. “She had been an orphan here, and it turns out she had a Native- American family history, and we were able to help her find the name of her tribe and her father, and that really got me started.”
The Hebrew Home for the Aged bought the Riverdale property where the colored orphanage last stood. The building that once housed children now houses senior citizens.
This was the last location for the orphanage, which was in Manhattan until it became a target in the Civil War draft riots of July 1863. The orphanage, then on Fifth Avenue and 44th Street, was set ablaze by angry whites who did not want to fight in the Union army. The orphans escaped unhurt.
In 1905, ground was broken in Riverdale overlooking the Hudson River, and the main building and cottages were built for the children to live in, continuing the orphanage's rich history.
“It was founded by two Quaker women, and as the story goes, they found two little children in the doorway of a Lower East Side building and there was no place to take them because none of the orphanages of the time would take colored children,” says Butler.
Hundreds of files of the children are locked way in a basement, and there are also many others who little is known about buried in cemeteries in the Bronx and Westchester – hundreds of children who died of various illnesses and accidents.
“We are trying to restore the identities of these children and trying to find out who these kids were,” says Franklin. “One of the projects that we feel very strongly about finishing first is making a stone monument in memory of these children with their names and their dates on it. As part of that, we’re also trying to find their families.”
Franklin and Butler also want to put together exhibits to help New Yorkers find the history of the Colored Orphan Asylum.
JUNE 11TH, 2002
In part one of this report, Bronx Reporter Dean Meminger revived the little-known history of the Colored Orphan Aslyum, which shut down in Riverdale in the 1940s. Continuing NY1’s weeklong spotlight on the Bronx in Part Two, Meminger interviews former residents with fond memories of their time there.
Some Harlem seniors still get excited about their days at the old Colored Orphan Asylum.
“My vivid memories are like Peter Pan, like, ‘I don’t want to grow up, I just want to stay in this place and not ever go’” says former orphanage resident Margaret Sinclair-Wade. “We had strawberries down the hill, we could go over into the monk’s territory and around Mount St. Vincent. That’s what I remember - the long walks to the corner store.”
The Colored Orphan Asylum opened in in the 1830s and closed in 1946. Sinclair-Wade and two other seniors now living in Harlem were at the Riverdale location during the 1940s.
Children who were at the facility were there for a variety of reasons. Some where orphaned when their parents died, while others were sent to the orphanage by the courts.
The facility was the first institution in the country to take in children of color. But by the time the 1940s rolled around, the term “Colored Orphan Asylum” became troubling. Some were bothered by the word "colored,” while others feared the term “asylum” would make people the residents had mental problems.
So, the name was changed to the Riverdale Children's Association.
Fitz Harvey was 15 when he came up with the new title in 1944. He was congratulated by then-Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and activist Paul Robeson. He was also given a $25 war bond.
“Robeson and the mayor were equal figures for me,” Harvey recalls. “It was nice, but the war bond was it,” he says, laughing.
The orphanage in Riverdale was in a rural setting, where academics, athleticism and culture were stressed.
“We were taken to Radio City Music Hall,” says former resident Madelynne Marshall, “and our background was very good because we got all of the classics and music and everything. I would know the ‘William Tell Overture’ and everybody called it the ‘Lone Ranger Song,’ and that was not the name of it at all. Everybody was so amazed that we were so well-versed in different things.”
Marshall, Harvey, Sinclair-Wade and some of the orphanage’s other former residents have started an annual reunion to keep in touch with old friends.