Past and Present: The Howard Colored Orphan Asylum, Crown Heights

Photo: Brooklyn Public Library

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

Charity in post-Civil War Brooklyn was as segregated as the society at large. When it came to the large institutions that were built to help the orphaned or the elderly, they were all geared to helping just one group of people, keeping everyone separate. The Jewish orphans went to the Jewish Orphan Home; the Methodist elderly went to the Methodist Home for the Aged. The Catholics, Baptists, Swedes, Irish, males and females all had their services and institutions carefully divided to serve members of their own groups. It was just The Way It Was Done. And of course, it goes without saying that the Negroes had their own separate institutions as well.

There was a Home for Colored Aged, as well as the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum. Both were in what is now Crown Heights and unlike many charitable institutions for black folks, they were not just set up and run by well-meaning rich white philanthropists or charities, without African American input. Both of these institutions were run by and for African Americans themselves. Not surprisingly, they both came out of the town of Weeksville.

Weeksville was a successful black middle class town established by James Weeks, a black longshoreman. The town was built on land Weeks had purchased from a black man named Henry C. Thompson, who had, in turn, bought the land from the estate of Lefferts Lefferts. Much of Brooklyn’s black population was living in the Downtown/Dumbo area by the late 1830s, early 1840s. Many there were seeking to find a home where racism and segregation would not stop their advancement in education, jobs, or even a place to worship. If white society wouldn’t give them opportunities, then they were determined to build somewhere where they could determine their own destinies. Weeksville gave them that chance.

Today, Weeksville is known only for the small surviving enclave of houses that make up the Weeksville Heritage Center, but the town was much larger than that, and made up a large part of the eastern part of Crown Heights. Here the residents built homes, businesses, stores, churches, a school, established a newspaper, and founded charitable institutions to take care of the youngest and oldest amongst them. The Howard Colored Orphan Asylum was one of those institutions. It once stood at 1550 Dean Street, on the corner of Dean Street and Troy Avenue.

The Orphan Asylum was founded in 1866 by members of the African American community. It began as the Home for Freed Children and Others, and was run out of a home until donations were made to form the Brooklyn Howard Orphan Asylum in 1868. The institution was named for General Oliver O. Howard, the Union Army general who was put in charge of the Freedman’s Bureau after the war, and led Reconstruction efforts to help the former slaves adjust to freedom. Howard was also a minister, was known for his piety, and was called the “Christian general.” Howard University, located in Washington DC, was named after him, as well.

General Howard and his wife came to Brooklyn to aid in the organization and fund raising for a permanent home, and with the help of a wealthy Brooklyn banker named Trask, they were on hand with Weeksville residents as the cornerstone of this building was laid. William Mundell, a prominent Brooklyn architect, the designer of the Williamsburg and Park Slope Armories, among other things, was the architect of this three story structure.

The first director of the organization was the Rev. William F. Johnson. The administration of the Orphan Asylum, as well as the staff, was all black, a rarity in Brooklyn and New York charities for Negroes. Brooklyn’s white philanthropic elite were still very much involved in fundraising. The Asylum was a popular charity, and it took a lot of fund raising to keep it operating. The institution was soon packed with babies and children, some of them without parents, some placed there because their parent or parents were unable to care for them, due to poverty, alcoholism or jail. All of Brooklyn’s orphanages were run the same way.

The older children went to school, and were also taught domestic skills for jobs after they aged out of the home. The orphanage was a staple of the charitable scene in the newspapers. A women’s auxiliary was established to aid in fund raising, and there were many mentions of dinners, events and fairs organized to raise money. Often, groups of children entertained the audiences with hymns and the singing of spirituals. This too, was a regular occurrence at all orphanages. Nothing opens the wallet more than cute little kids singing.

A fire on the third floor almost spelled disaster for the institution in the cold winter days of January, 1902. A stove placed too close to the wainscoting caused the wood to ignite, with thick smoke sending two hundred children and staff into the street. The fire department was able to extinguish the fire without too much damage to the room. The children had filed out of the building in an orderly way and there was no panic. Firemen praised the staff and children for keeping their heads in a frightening situation. The damage was repaired, and life in the orphanage continued.

By 1902, Rev. Johnson was quite elderly, and had gone blind, but he was still in charge of the Howard Orphanage. There were some charges of financial impropriety and nepotism that year, a story I’ll look at in greater detail at another time. The investigation proved too taxing for the Reverend’s health, and he stepped down. He died the next year, in October of 1903. Rev. Johnson had run the institution from the beginning, and over a span of almost 40 years. There would be several other successors, but each only stayed for a few years before leaving.

By 1909, the management of the Howard Orphanage was in the hands of R.M. Whiting, who was white. He took on an institution that was too small for the number of children under its care, and too small to adequately educate and train the kids for their lives after Howard. By 1911, the administration decided to sell the building and move to a new farm home out on Long Island. The new Howard Asylum would be in the country, and would be based on the principals of Booker T. Washington of the Tuskegee Institute.

They proposed to build an industrial school, where boys would learn farming skills, carpentry, masonry and other trades. Girls would learn cooking, sewing and other domestic arts. There would be more room there, and the children could live in smaller cottages, wear their own clothing, not a uniform, and develop skills for the workplace. All of the trades and skills offered were domestic service, farm or tradesmen’s jobs. They were not offered classes in white collar jobs like bookkeeping, secretarial skills, skilled manufacturing, or even sales jobs. And forget aspirations to any kind of profession like doctor, lawyer, teacher or the like.

The Howard Colored Orphan Asylum left Brooklyn for Long Island in 1911. The building and grounds were sold to the Nassau Railroad Company, which operated trolley car lines in Brooklyn. They tore down the orphanage and used the large lot as a depot and repair shed. The trolley car lines eventually became part of the Metropolitan Transit Authority, and when buses replaced trolleys, the site became a bus depot and repair center, which it remains to this day.

What happened to Howard? It operated in St. James, Long Island until 1918. The children worked the farm and learned trades, and were then “placed out” of the institution into individual homes when they turned 16. In 1918, the orphanage was forced to close its doors in the midst of a freezing rough winter when pipes froze that January in the under-insulated cottages. Two children had to have their feet amputated because of hypothermia. The property was foreclosed on, and the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum was no more. Donations still continued to come in, and the trustees used the funds to help educate needy black children in Brooklyn. In 1956, the organization became the Howard Memorial Fund, and still is in existence. GMAP

Photo: Brooklyn Public Library

Photo: Brooklyn Public Library

Photo: Google Maps

Photo: Google Maps

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