On June 8, 2016 at 10:15 am, Harlem Dowling-West Side Center for Children and Family Services and the Hebrew Home at Riverdale honors the 57 children and staff buried in unmarked graves at Kensico Cemetery, in Valhalla, New York. Former residents of the Colored Orphan Asylum, along with their families and dignitaries, commemorate the children that were laid to rest between 1901 and 1967 in the orphanage’s cemetery lot. Though few records from the early 20th century exist, death certificates reveal the causes of death for many as tuberculosis, pneumonia, or other respiratory problems.
The Association for the Benefit of Colored Children in the State of New York (known as the Colored Orphan Asylum) was renamed Riverdale Children’s Association following its move to Riverdale in 1904. After having occupied several locations in Manhattan since its founding in 1836, including a site on Fifth Avenue that was burned down during the 1863 draft riots, it was hoped that rural Riverdale would provide a healthier environment for the children. When the orphanage closed in 1946, its Riverdale property was purchased by the Hebrew Home, whose first residents moved there from the Home’s original Harlem location in 1951.
The belated dedication of the cemetery monument has come to fruition as the result of previous collaborations between Harlem Dowling-West Side Center and Hebrew Home at Riverdale, including two alumni reunions. Harlem Dowling-West Side Center for Children and Family Services was created by the merger of the West Side Center for Children founded as the Association for the Benefit of Colored Orphans in the City of New York; and Harlem Dowling Children’s Services, established in 1969.
Funding for this project was made possible by an anonymous donation in memory of Holocaust survivor Martin Gruenbaum, 1923-2014. Having lived through the horror of Mauthausen and four other concentration camps, Mr. Gruenbaum cherished a life of freedom in the United States. According to the donor: “He did not allow his early life experience to doubt his belief in humanity, kindness, trust, and loyalty. He always held a special place in his heart for the Black soldiers who liberated him.
For more information regarding the history of the Colored Orphan Asylum, the novel Angels of Mercy, written by William Seraile, is available with a $50 donation.