At the Colored Orphan Asylum of New York


Battiste family admission record from the New York Colored Orphan Asylum.

Founded by Quakers, the Colored Orphan Asylum offered a rare home for orphaned African-American children in the nineteenth century. Some parents (especially single or widowed mothers) also boarded children they were unable to support on their own.


Charles and Josephine appeared in the 1850 census as living in the orphanage. The census, however, remained silent about their origins or the reason for their institutionalization.

However, the orphanage's admittance records (at the top of this page) reveal that their father, Charles A. Battiste, Sr., died of consumption. Their mother survived their father but was unable to support the children on her own. The source also indicates that four siblings (Charles, Josephine, Sarah, and Edward) arrived at the orphanage in 1849, but two died of illness soon after their arrival.

In Manhattan, the Battistes and their mother met James McCune Smith (perhaps not for the first time). Smith was a leading African-American activist, writer and doctor. In fact, he was the country's first African American to receive a medical degree. Given racial prejudices, he had to travel to Scotland to study medicine. After returning to the United States, he provided medical services at the orphanage in addition to his private practice and his abolitionist activities.

For our story, it is important to note that McCune Smith had several connections to Central College. He was friends with the country's first African-American professor, Central College's Charles Reason, who he refers to as "gentle Charles" in his writings. Smith also wrote for Frederick Douglass' Newspaper, as did Professor George B. Vashon, another African-American professor from Central College. Most importantly, McCune Smith was good friends with Gerritt Smith, the largest benefactor of the college.[1]

Given the role of associates of Central College in his social network, McCune Smith may have steered the Battiste siblings to Central College. The timing certainly suggests that this happened. If so, orphanage records do not mention Central College. They do, however, show that McCune Smith helped them continue their education. In 1854, those records reveal, McCune Smith arranged for Josephine, the elder sibling, to move to Pittsburgh to attend an "institute," most likely Charles Avery's Allegheny Institute, which educated African-American youth. In early 1855, the orphanage returned Charles to his mother to be "sent direct to college."


However, Charles still lived at the orphanage at the time of the 1855 New York state census. There must have been some sort of delay, or Charles, like his sister, may have spent time at another institution before moving to Central College. Charles and Josephine first appear in Central College's student directory for the 1856-57 academic year.

The Sons and Daughters of Freedom