African Dorcas Society—an early PTA?

Trouble is brewing in California over the inequities inherent in having schools subsidized by Parent Teacher Associations which buy iPads, musical instruments and books for school libraries. Sometimes these parent groups pay for music and art teachers to supplement the regular classes. According to an NPR story I heard on the radio last week, some California schools receive an average parent donation of $1000 per pupil each year. Naturally school districts where families cannot contribute money for these extras cannot offer their students equal opportunities. Is it fair in a democracy for wealthier parents to be able to provide extra funding for their own children but not for others? That is a question taxpayers should be asking themselves, but it is certainly not a new one.

Back in the pre-Civil War days when education for Free Blacks was just starting in the Northern States, a group of women in New York City formed the African Dorcas Society. Slavery was abolished in New York in 1827, and the Black population in the city increased dramatically.engraving of African Free School Leaders of the Black community, and some white leaders, recognized that the children of these newcomers would need education. Several schools had been established for this purpose, but many families did not send their children to school. The reasons were easy to understand. Not only was children’s labor valuable to the parents, many of whom were struggling, but often the children did not have warm clothing and shoes that would make it possible for them to get to school in bad weather.

The African Dorcas Society was organized by Black women and was one of the first societies in which women met independently and planned their work without the supervision of men. The women divided themselves into sewing circles to make, mend and alter clothing for poor children. They also solicited contributions from well-wishers. For several years the group flourished and supplied clothing to enable children to attend schools. Unfortunately there were many New Yorkers who did not believe that former slaves could or should be educated and there was opposition to the Society’s work as well as the schools themselves.

We all know what happened in the decades that followed, leading up to full emancipation for all American slaves and to the slow establishment of education for all Americans. The struggle still continues to ensure that all children are given the resources necessary for them to attend schools and to take full advantages of education. But during this Black History Month, we should pay special tribute to the multitude of anonymous men and women who worked to make education available to all the children in their community. It’s been a long, hard struggle and it is not over yet. Equal education for all is one of the ideals we have to struggle for every month year after year.

You can read more about how the Black community fought for education and equality during the early 19th century in Leslie M. Alexander’s detailed history African or American? Black Identity and Political Activism in New York City, 1784-1861. It’s a fascinating account of forgotten history.

Who was Helen Jewett and what was her profession?

Prostitution is one of the oldest professions in the world but aside from stories about the horrors of human trafficking we seldom hear much about it. Prostitution has flourished throughout history, but the individuals who work in the sex trade mostly keep a low profile. Even today

Sex worker statue in Amsterdam.
Sex worker statue in Amsterdam.

there are very few places except Amsterdam where sex workers are acknowledged and even honored by a public statue. In past centuries, prostitution was a topic often whispered about but seldom mentioned in public.

English majors may have read the Victorian novels that portray “fallen women” as outcasts aware of their pariah status. Remember Nancy in Dickens’ Oliver Twist who described herself as an “infamous creature” and is brought to tears of joy when a “respectable” woman says a kind word to her? Dickens was sympathetic to the problems of prostitutes, but he still portrayed them as beyond the reach of normal life and in need of rescue. Was 19th century prostitution really like that? Was it populated only by outcasts who had been seduced and betrayed by a man and by wantons who had an abnormal desire for sex? Or is it possible that it was a reasonable career choice for some women?

Recently I came across a book about Helen Jewett, a young prostitute who apparently lived a comfortable life in New York City during the 1830s. She was suddenly swept into prominence by a violent crime that made her famous throughout the East, but she has long since vanished from history. Her death, of course, was tragic, but it is only because she died violently that we have learned about how the sex trade in New York operated during the decades before the Civil War.

The first surprise for many of us is to learn that prostitution was not illegal in New York, as it was in most states, at the time. The police did not care much about people’s private sex lives, although they might arrest women for disorderly conduct or vagrancy. Keeping a brothel was illegal, but the crime was not often prosecuted. New York was growing very quickly during these years and many young men poured into the city seeking jobs. Most people accepted the idea that young men would seek out sex and that the women who provided it were a normal part of it city’s population. Prostitution was not defended by respectable men, and middle-class women were assumed not to even know about it, but it wasn’t until the early 20th century that it actually became illegal.

All of this was the background for the story of Helen Jewett, who moved from Maine to New York and joined the ranks of those women earning their living in the sex trade. I will write more about her in my next post, but if you want the full story, you might want to read Patricia Cline Cohen’s well-researched book The Murder of Helen Jewett.