Encyclopedia of New York City

Colored Orphan Asylum

School and shelter for black children opened in 1836 by Mary Murray and Anna Shotwell. It was managed solely by women for more than a century and attained celebrity before the Civil War as a model institution. Fewer than a third of the asylum's inmates were orphans, and about the age of twelve most were returned to their parents or placed in positions as farm laborers or domestic servants. After its building at 43rd Street and 5th Avenue was destroyed by a mob during the draft riots (1863) the asylum was rebuilt in 1867 at 143rd Street and Amsterdam Avenue. In 1907 facilities were constructed in Riverdale according to the "cottage plan," a reform of the Progressive era that reorganized large, dehumanizing philanthropic institutions into campuses of smaller, home-like "cottages." The first black member of the board of directors was appointed in 1939, the first man in 1940. In 1944 the asylum was renamed the Riverdale Children's Association. After a controversy over conditions in the orphanage was aired in the press, it was decided in 1946 to discontinue institutional care and concentrate on foster care and dispersed small-group settings. The campus in Riverdale was sold to the Jewish Home for the Aged, and the offices of the association moved with medical and dental clinics to East 79th Street. In 1968 the association launched a program to preserve families by providing referrals, counseling, and other services rather than place children in foster care. It moved to Riverside Drive and 168th Street, changing its name to the Westside Center for Family Services. In March 1988 the Westside Center merged with Harlem-Dowling Children's Services.

From Cherry Street to Green Pastures: A History of the Colored Orphan Asylum at Riverdale-on-Hudson, 1836-1936 (New York: Riverdale Children's Association, 1936)

120th Anniversary, 1836-1956 (New York: Riverdale Children's Association, 1956)

Carleton Mabee: "Charity in Travail: Two Orphan Asylums for Blacks," New York History 55 (1974), 55-77

Mike Sappol: "The Uses of Philanthropy: The Colored Orphan Asylum and Its Clients" (thesis, Columbia University, 1990)

-Mike Sappol

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