Abstract and Keywords
The demise of the Colored Orphan Asylum at Riverdale was a sad event in the history of an institution that dated to 1836. The founders and early managers were mainly women who sought to do God's will by caring for abused and forsaken black children. They took on this mammoth effort at a time when African Americans were shunned by society. Oppressive laws prohibited much of their daily contact with their fellow white residents unless they were in a subordinate position. The white women, many of whom personally abhorred the horrors of slavery and who wished to do God's will by feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, did so at the risk of “unsexing” themselves in the eyes of their less Christian contemporaries. Men and women of means such as John Jacob Astor, R. H. Macy, Theodore Roosevelt Sr., William Jay, Anna Jay, Caroline Stokes, and many others contributed generously to the betterment of the orphan black child.
The demise of the Riverdale orphanage was a sad event in the history of an institution that dated to 1836—nearly a mere decade after slavery was abolished in the Empire State. The founders and early managers were mainly women who sought to do God's will by caring for the uncared: the abused and forsaken black child. They took on this mammoth effort at a time when African Americans were shunned by society. Oppressive laws prohibited much of their daily contact with their fellow white residents unless they were in a subordinate position. The white women, many of whom personally abhorred the horrors of slavery and who wished to do God's will by feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, did so at the risk of “unsexing” themselves in the eyes of their less Christian contemporaries. These women achieved remarkable gains by forging a close alliance with some of New York City's finest families. Men and women of means such as John Jacob Astor, R. H. Macy, Theodore Roosevelt Sr., William Jay, Anna Jay, Caroline Stokes, and many others contributed generously to the betterment of the orphan black child.
The early managers eagerly sought the assistance of African Americans (even though they kept them at a distance) to advance the development of the asylum. Men and women of color were eager in return to assist the orphanage by donating their funds or the fruits of their labors, bringing to the institution foodstuffs or, lacking these, their muscle power to aid the ladies with physical work.
The destruction of their Fifth Avenue building in 1863 led to their migration to Harlem, which was not yet the Promised Land for thousands of African Americans. But with the demise of the building came (p.210) slowly but continuously a decline in membership of the old type of manager who genuinely wanted to help the black race. Their replacements were certainly concerned with assisting children in need, but they had no real interest in developing or maintaining a relationship of equality with the leaders of black New York. Their perpetuation of the myth of white paternalism guided them well into the first third of the twentieth century, when finally forces beyond their control or comprehension forced them to realize that they could neither ignore Negroes nor wish them away. Harlem, only a few miles from the Riverdale, Bronx, property, was becoming not only the capital of black America but also a community beset with a multitude of problems that called for cooperation between the races. It was unfortunate and ironic that when Riverdale finally called upon Harlem for help, the institution was dying from a lack of funds. The wealthy philanthropists of the nineteenth century had died or found other causes more worthwhile than saving a few black children from the awful fates of the world. Criticized by social service agencies, the government, and the press, the Colored Orphan Asylum had no choice but to look to Harlem for salvation. Harlem, at first reluctantly but then more steadily, stretched her arms out to Riverdale. The gesture was genuine, but the effort was too little and far too late.
The selling of Riverdale in 1948 ended that period of the institution's service for orphans, but it did not terminate the existence of the Riverdale Children's Association. Over the past sixty years, the organization underwent a series of mergers, and now it is the Harlem Dowling-West Side Center for Children and Family Services. The mission of the Colored Orphan Asylum was to care for African American orphans and neglected or abused children. Today, Harlem Dowling's mission is to assist children and families in crisis, to provide foster care and adoption, and to help families live in an environment that is stable and nurturing. Young mothers who are at risk of having their children removed from the family home are provided with individual/ group counseling and mentoring to assist them with parenting and life management skills.
Whatever faults Riverdale had—and they were many—some of the children, now adults whom I befriended, who were there in the early (p.211) 1940s recalled their time with fond memories. Harlem Dowling has organized several reunions, and I entertained on a warm June Sunday in 2003 five in my Harlem home. A seminar in 2005 at Lehman College in the Bronx brought together some of the alumni of Riverdale. All of them had nothing but fond memories of the place, and for them it was a lifesaver. Most were not orphans; few of the children housed at Riverdale in the 1940s were. Many were delinquents sent by the courts; others simply ran away from home far too often. Regardless of the situation that brought them to Riverdale, they all felt that their time there had given them a sense of family in a supportive environment. Louis Eaddy confided that Riverdale provided the environment for self-development. He entered the institution with two siblings and viewed his time at Riverdale (1933–1946) as “heaven,” because to him “everything about it was perfect.” He and others learned to ride horses at Riverdale and picked strawberries, apples, and cherries.1 Fitz Harvey was sent to Riverdale by Family Court, which he declared “kept me off the streets.”2 Hearing their glowing words about an institution that was severely criticized for neglect made me better understand why it was common for former residents of the orphanage to send their own children there when financial reversals or the death of a spouse led to a family breakup. When I came across a child in the admission records whose mother or father had resided in the orphanage, I initially thought that perhaps there was a sense of profound shame that one who had left the orphanage had to face the humiliation of sending their own flesh and blood back to an institutional setting. Instead, my conversations with former residents convinced me that the orphanage was for them a place that they could look back on as being “home.” That same sense of belonging was expressed in some of the letters indentured children sent to their teachers, the matron, or the superintendent. Orphanages had their faults, but for many it was a place that gave them a positive identity. Today, politicians, social workers, and child welfare reformers have expressed deep concerns and criticisms of the foster care system, which has generated headlines of abusive treatment of young children. Some have called for the return of orphanages as a solution to caring for children in need. This interest in orphanages as a possible solution to the child care crisis has received (p.212) academic interest. The scholar Richard B. McKenzie, who wrote The Home: A Memoir of Growing up in an Orphanage, described his experience at the Barium Springs Home for Children in North Carolina in positive terms, despite the hardships he faced. McKenzie has aired his concerns that despite all the criticism of orphanages (which now are directed at foster care), living there did represent for many a family situation that allowed the children to develop self-confidence, gave them the ability to relate to others, and helped them to learn how to function in a group. Those who favor a return to the establishment of orphanages argue that children are better off there than they are in a home with abusive or neglectful parents or in a situation where they are shuttled between indifferent or predatory foster parents. It is his contention that while life in an orphanage was not idyllic, it provided stability, permanence, companionship, and a value system that taught hard work and self-reliance. Whether there will be a return to orphanages is a debate that must be worked out by politicians and child welfare workers. For Louis Eaddy, who spent thirteen years at Riverdale, there is no debate. Like others that I have spoken with, he was devastated when Riverdale had to close its doors in 1946. He bemoans the fact that for today's child, the courts send you to prison instead of to a home such as Riverdale, where a child can find himself without being influenced by hardened criminals.3
Harlem Dowling-West Side Center for Children and Family Services continues to care for children of all races and ethnicities, and the successor to the Colored Orphan Asylum looks forward to its two hundredth anniversary in 2036, as it daily reaches out in the spirit of Anna Shotwell and Mary Murray to assist families in need.