2003-02-08 / Community

Center Salutes Black History Month

Center Salutes Black History Month

Harlem Dowling-West Side Center for Children and Family Services celebrates its 167-year tradition of serving New York City’s children during Black History Month.

Harlem Dowling was founded in 1836 as the first orphanage in the United States to care for African-American children. The agency’s history includes a devastating fire during the anti-draft riots at the start of the Civil War recently noted in the film, "Gangs of New York." Today, Harlem Dowling continues to thrive as a not-for-profit child welfare agency, with locations in Far Rockaway and Jamaica.

"Black History Month provides an opportunity to reflect on our 167 years of service to New York’s African-American children and families," says Melba Butler, Executive Director, Harlem Dowling-West Side Center for Children and Family Services. "Our agency was created in response to specific needs within the African-American community. Today, we continue to capture the spirit and mission of our founders including our current capital campaign to build a new home for Harlem Dowling."

After a campaign by two Quaker women, Anna H. Shotwell and her niece Mary Murray, to try and persuade New York City officials to house and educate the city’s African-American orphans, they founded The Association for the Benefit of Colored Children. The Association quickly grew and relocated to Fifth Avenue between 43 and 44 Streets in Manhattan. In 1863, thousands of anti-draft rioters protesting the Conscription Act vented their frustrations by setting the orphanage on fire and destroying it. Remarkably, all 233 children made it safely to a local police station. Soon after, the Association relocated to 51 Street where workers on the new building found an explosive device on the boiler, narrowly avoiding a disaster.

In 1879, the Association changed its name to The Colored Orphan Asylum and Association for the Benefit of Colored Children in the City of New York. The orphanage was able to expand its services to aid destitute children who were not orphans, and provide them with an education and life skills.

Around the turn-of-the-century, the orphanage broke the ground on its fifth home and becomes one of the first organizations in New York City to use a "cottage system" of separate home-like residences. In 1911, the New York Board of Education took over the Orphanage School, which became P.S. 49 in the Bronx. Foster care programs were introduced to the orphanage in 1919, and soon more children lived in foster care than in the orphanage. By the 1930’s, the Association had cared for an estimated 9,000 children since its founding.

In the late 1960’s, the Association no longer needed a large facility to house children, due to the success of its foster care and boarding programs. The agency relocated to a townhouse on 158 Street and Riverside Drive, where it was renamed the Riverdale Children’s Services. At the same time, Jane Edwards, Executive Director, and Alice Hall Dowling, Board President of Spence Chapin Services for Children, initiated the Harlem Dowling Project. This pilot program addressed the need for an agency based in Central Harlem to serve mothers unable to care for their newborn babies and unwilling to venture outside their community to access services. Recognizing their common goals, Riverdale Dowling in 1989 to become Harlem Dowling-West Side Center for Children and Family Services.

Today, Harlem Dowling-West Side Center for Children and Family Services serves more than 2.500 inner-city children in Central Harlem, Washington Heights and Southeast Queens. Programs include foster care, adoption, preventive services, and related assistance to children and their families to enable them to live in a stable and nurturing environment. Harlem Dowling strives to be "part of the solution" for New York City’s families and children.

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