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William Seraile uncovers the history of the colored orphan asylum, founded in New York City in 1836 as the nation's first orphanage for African American children. It is a remarkable institution that is still in the forefront aiding children. Although no longer an orphanage, in its current incarnation as Harlem-Dowling West Side Center for Children and Family Services it maintains the principles of the women who organized it nearly 200 years ago.
The agency weathered three wars, two major financial panics, a devastating fire during the 1863 Draft Riots, several epidemics, waves of racial prejudice, and severe financial difficulties to care for orphaned, neglected, and delinquent children. Eventually financial support would come from some of New York's finest families, including the Jays, Murrays, Roosevelts, Macys, and Astors.
While the white female managers and their male advisers were dedicated to uplifting these black children, the evangelical, mainly Quaker founding managers also exhibited the extreme paternalistic views endemic at the time, accepting the advice or support of the African American community only grudgingly. It was frank criticism in 1913 from W. E. B. Du Bois that highlighted the conflict between the orphanage and the community it served, and it wasn't until 1939 that it hired the first black trustee.
More than 15,000 children were raised in the orphanage, and throughout its history letters and visits have revealed that hundreds if not thousands of “old boys and girls” looked back with admiration and respect at the home that nurtured them throughout their formative years.
Weaving together African American history with a unique history of New York City, this is not only a painstaking study of a previously unsung institution of black history but a unique window onto complex racial dynamics during a period when many failed to recognize equality among all citizens as a worthy purpose.
William Seraile —
William Seraile is a professor emeritus at Lehman College, City University of New York,where he taught African American history for 36 years. His most recent books are New York's Black Regiments During the Civil War and Bruce Grit: The Black Nationalist Writings of John Edward Bruce.
Seraile, William. Angels of mercy: white women and the history of New York's Colored Orphan Asylum. Empire State Editions, 2011. 287p bibl index afp; ISBN 9780823234196. Reviewed in 2012mar CHOICE.
Basing his book on extensive research in New York's Colored Orphan Asylum's annual reports and the unpublished minutes of its board and executive committee, Seraile (emer., Lehman College, CUNY) recounts the history of the institution founded in 1836 until its close in 1948. The story of the first orphanage for African American children in the US is a tragic one, punctuated by its managers' heroic efforts to fend off repeated challenges of racial discrimination, severe financial difficulties, and outright hostility, exemplified in the Civil War Draft Riots, when the orphanage was burned down. Seraile, author of books on the Civil War and black nationalism, makes elementary factual errors about the history of orphanages, such as when they went out of existence, and he fails to contextualize the many policy changes the managers instituted. The book's title suggests a sympathetic interpretation, but the author undermines an empathetic understanding of the institution's difficulties by overemphasizing unrepresentative negative incidents and frequently criticizing the asylum's leaders for failing to take a militant stance. General readers and undergraduates will be put off by the study's excessive detail and misled by its historical errors and presentist interpretation. Researchers and faculty will find the author's frequent summary of the asylum's unpublished sources useful.
Summing Up: Optional. Faculty/researchers. -- E. W. Carp, Pacific Lutheran University