Thanksgiving at the new Colored Orphan Asylum

Every year on the Friday after Thanksgiving, the daily newspapers in late 19th century New York ran articles summing up how the holiday was celebrated by the “inmates” in the city’s many institutions.

From the Tombs to the missions to the almshouses of Blackwell’s Island, the papers reported what dishes were served and how the meals were received by inmates and any special guests (like benefactors or religious leaders) alike.

In 1875, The New York Times covered Thanksgiving dinner at the Colored Orphan Asylum.

“At the Colored Orphan Asylum, 143rd Street and 10th Avenue, there are 200 inmates, under the superintendence of Mr. O.K. Hutchinson they yesterday had a pleasant festival.”

“At 12:30 o’clock, the children, who range from two to 12 years of age, were regaled with the following bill of fare, each article being supplied at their pleasure: roast turkey, homemade bread, mashed potatoes, turnips, rice pudding, and apple pie. The afternoon and evening were spent in playing and singing.”

It’s not an especially descriptive writeup—but the colorful illustration at top (from 1874) provides a richer sense of what the dining room of the asylum looked probably looked like a year later on Thanksgiving.

Still, neither the image or the article hint at the terrible backstory of the Colored Orphan Asylum (unlike the captions on the second and third illustrations, both from the 1880s).

In a vile act of racism, the asylum’s longtime home, on Fifth Avenue and 44th Street, was burned down during the terrible Draft Riots that rocked New York for days in July 1863.

An 1864 report via stated that “a ruthless mob of several hundred men, women and children broke down the front door with an axe, and proceeded to ransack the building and set it on fire…. Thankfully, while the mob was focused on gaining entrance, the superintendent of the Asylum, William E. Davis, and the head matron, Jane McClellan, quietly snuck the children out the back.”

The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910, has more on this shameful part of city history, plus the rise of benevolence that helped fund asylums and institutions.

[Top illustration: Alamy; second and third illustrations: NYPL]

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6 Responses to “Thanksgiving at the new Colored Orphan Asylum”

  1. VirginiaB Says:

    That account of the terrible burning of the orphanage is incorrect in one important point. The rioters themselves stood still to let every child and adult in the orphanage to leave safely before they burned the empty building. It was widely reported in the newspapers of the day. Still a tragic story of course.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Thank you Virginia for completing this account

    • Tone Wells Says:

      No. The rioters themselves didn’t control themselves. The police ( who often joined in race riots against blacks in NY as they did when my grandmother was was a child in 1899 and 1900) bravely held them off. You don’t burn down an active orphanage because you are in control of yourself and acting out symbolically. 120 Blacks were murdered, some lynched. As it is today, the mobs true anger wasn’t rationally caused by race but class.

  2. Blakeney Says:

    Lots of old New York history, a first hand accounting of the draft riots, and a brief mention of the attack on the Orphan Asylum (page 79) can be found in George Washington Walling’s 1887 book: Recollections of a New York City Chief of Police. It can be found on Google Books and read for free online or downloaded as a PDF:


    1863 Jeffrey Bernard

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