As a not-for-profit child welfare agency, Harlem Dowling-West Side Center for Children and Family Services works to develop confidence, resilience, academic skills, and adult/family support to be the foundation for helping Harlem’s children become responsible, self-sufficient adults.
Harlem Dowling was one of the first charitable institutions in the United States dedicated to children, and the very first to provide for “children of color”. Founded in 1836, over 183 years ago, as the Colored Orphan Asylum by two Quaker women, Anna Shotwell and Mary Murray, the orphanage quickly outgrew its first home, on West 12th St. near Sixth Avenue. By the 1840s, twenty years before the Civil War, larger quarters were constructed on Fifth Avenue between 43rd and 44th streets. The women hired James McCune Smith, the first African American doctor in America, to provide for the orphans. On July 13, 1863, during the draft riots, those who objected to fighting in the civil war burned the asylum to the ground. Miraculously, none of the 233 children residing at the orphanage were killed. The orphanage relocated first to 51st Street, and then to 143rd Street between Broadway and Amsterdam.
The orphanage continued its work through the Civil War and into the twentieth century, following the trajectory of social welfare practices. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Colored Orphan Asylum was among the most vigorous charitable institutions in the nation. The Astors, the Vanderbilts, the Murrays, Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass were among its strongest advocates. The orphanage had begun providing scholarships, enabling its older youth to attend college or professional school. As the nation entered World War II, the orphanage, renamed the Riverdale Children’s Association, moved to a sprawling facility situated on the Hudson River in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. Eleanor Roosevelt served on the Endorsement Committee, Orson Wells, Oscar Hammerstein II, Lena Horne, Joe Louis, Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson, Fiorello LaGuardia, and numerous others were giving generously of their time and talents. As President Truman entered his second term in office, 8,500 people from all across America were contributors. As the idea of orphanages fell away, the Riverdale Children’s Association became a child-welfare and foster care organization.
In 1969 Executive Director Jane D. Edwards joined forces with Alice Hall Dowling, the Board President of Spence Chapin Services for Children to form the Harlem Dowling Project in order to better serve the young mothers of Central Harlem who were unable to care for their newborn infants. In 1989, the former Colored Orphan Asylum, known at the time as the West Side Center for Children merged with the Harlem Dowling Project to become Harlem Dowling-West Side Center for Children and Family Services.
Today, the 183-year-old tradition of uplifting humanity stands undiminished. In 2012, Harlem Dowling-West Side Center and The Children’s Village, Inc. formed a strategic alliance. Today, Harlem Dowling-Westside Center is an affiliate of The Children’s Village. With a shared history dating back to the early 1800’s in Manhattan, both charities share a common vision and passion for children, families and our communities. Today, as it was at our founding, our commitment to our children, families, and communities remains unconditional and unwavering.