A School for Slaves

There were about 1,500 African-American slaves living in New York City at the beginning of the 1700s, nearly all illiterate and intellectually degraded. Elias Neau, a French Huguenot who had found asylum in New York after being persecuted, imprisoned, and driven out of his native France for his Protestant religion, was moved by his faith to aid slaves and native Americans in his new city. He asked the Church of England and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel to support him in opening a school for these two neglected populations. They agreed.

In the beginning, Neau was only permitted to visit slaves from house to house at the end of their work day. Eventually he got permission to open a classroom on the upper floor of his home. His students would arrive, and all would kneel and pray Christian appeals which Neau taught them for the first time. Then Neau would instruct for about two hours. Students and teacher would sing a psalm to close and then pray again. On Sundays, students and teacher would meet again for instruction in the steeple of Trinity Church. In the afternoon the church rector would teach them, and baptize those he considered ready for that rite. By 1708, Neau had 200 black pupils.

In 1712 there was a slave riot in New York resulting in murders and fires, and Neau’s school was criticized by outraged residents, though only one of his students had been involved. After a period of laying low, the school was again opened, protected by the church and encouraged by the governor. The faithful Neau continued to lead it until his death in 1722. Then a series of other missionaries, schoolmasters, and pastors extended his effort up to the era of independence. A 1764 report back to the funders of the school at the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel recorded that “not a single black” instructed and baptized through the school “had turned out badly or in any way disgraced his profession.” This encouraged additional support for schools assisting African Americans and Indians in other places.

  • James Anderson, History of the Church of England in the Colonies (Rivingtons, 1856) volume III, pp. 327-332