“It was on Thursday, the second of April, 1846, that several ‘benevolent ladies’, says the record, met in the lecture room of the Brick Church in Beekman Street, New York City, for the purpose of relieving the destitute condition of the families of our seamen.
Business was prospering in New York that spring of 1846… The East River waterfront was thick with spars of clipper ships in from China, from South America and the Indies. Smoke billowed from the funnels of steamers like the Cambria and the Great Britian arriving from Liverpool after fifteen days… Trade was brisk with foreign ports now that the threat of war with England over the Oregon boundary was lessening; although peace loving citizens looked grave over the news from Texas, where American troops under General Zachary Taylor lay waiting to cross the Rio Grande.
War clouds were forgotten, however, that Thursday afternoon in the Brick Church. The ladies listened intently to the Rev. B.C.C. Parker of the Episcopal Floating Chapel as he described the needy condition of the families of sailors and the necessity of providing for their destitute children, and following an earnest prayer for guidance delivered by the pastor of the church, they determined to form a society “to afford relief and protection to the destitute children of seamen…by providing an asylum for them, with proper arrangements for their health, comfort and education.”
Mrs. Peter Stuyvesant was elected the first directress and 19 other ladies bearing such well-known names as DePeyster, LeRoy, Kissam, Morgan, Aspinwall and Decatur were selected as members of the board of managers. Thus began The Society for the Relief of Destitute Children of Seamen.
For this first board of managers deciding where to locate the home for seamen’s children, Staten Island presented advantages over every situation in the neighborhood of the city…removed from the temptation and expense incident to a city resident…its convenience of access, salubrity of air… gave it preference over every other location.
“During the first year 24 children were cared for at an expense of approximately $1800. Three years later the number of children had more than doubled and quarters larger than the rented house in Stapleton, near the steamboat landing, to which the Society had moved after a short stay in a rented house in Port Richmond were needed. Five acres of land were leased in New Brighton from Sailors Snug Harbor and a new building made to accommodate 100 children was completed in 1852″. (Annual Report of 1946)
The buildings of the Institution are situated on Staten Island, but the children, almost without exception, come from the City of New York, many of them having lived in miserable tenements where they knew no comforts of a home. To those who were familiar with those cheerless abodes, our asylum must appear a blessing which can hardly be estimated. In it the children are not only sheltered, fed, and clothed, but instruction is given them to cope with life’s future struggles. (Annual Report of 1880)
In 1858 as part of the Society’s interest in getting away from caring for children in institutional settings, the agency participated in the “Orphan Trains” that were sponsored by the Children’s Aid Society. The “Orphan Trains” transported older children to communities and farms out West where they would be taken into someone’s home and possibly learn a trade. In some cases children were “adopted” into caring loving homes and treated as a part of the family while some were simply treated as indentured servants.
Despite all of this the directors of the Society largely viewed the “Orphan Trains” as a means towards individualization. They felt that there were too many disadvantages to institutional life and in a report in 1881 wrote: ” to those who have been familiar with asylum education, it is well known that this training in not the best for teaching self-reliance, without which it is not easy to meet and overcome the rubs of life.”
For many years, the lives of the children remained completely centered amid the institution. In 1886, the first step away from this type of life was made when some of the older children were sent to a nearby public school. Attendance at neighborhood churches and Sunday schools was encouraged. Finally, in 1904 public school attendance was opened to all the children living in the Home. This trend towards the integration of the child into the total community sphere was now the trend in child welfare. In 1904 President Theodore Roosevelt convened a conference on children and the Society for the Relief of Destitute Children of Seamen was cited as an example of progressive thinking on the care of children.
The agency which had cared for nearly 4000 children in a 73 year period in its “Old Home” had come to recognize that the “Home” was obsolete. After consulting leading Child Welfare experts of its day, the Board of Managers decided that institutionalizing children was no longer the best plan of care and two new smaller cottages were made for the boys and girls.
In November 1926, Marshall Cottage was completed and housed ten girls and two housemothers. It was named in honor and in memory of Charles H. Marshall, a New York attorney and benefactor of the Society for 45 years. Younger children and those with special needs were placed in foster homes. In 1932, a second cottage for boys was opened. It was named Willard H. Jones and located at 216 Davis Avenue near enough to Marshall Cottage to allow for a friendly exchange between both groups of boys and girls.
In 1937 and based on a need for the agency to remain”…up to date and keeping with the times”, the agency’s name is changed from The Society for the Relief of Destitute Children of Seamen to the Society for Seamen’s Children.
1947 saw an important change to the charter of the Agency because it was the first year that the inclusion of non-seamen children was served.
The Society began 165 years ago, within a compassionate atmosphere to provide quality care for children and families of economically and socially indigent seafaring fathers from Staten Island, and the Port of New York. Continuing this longstanding tradition, the focus of the Society’s service has grown to include a wide array of programs for children and for families coping with adversity.
In 1976 the agency opened an office in downtown Brooklyn to provide better access and services to children placed in foster homes in Brooklyn and Queens. In 1999, a satellite office was opened in Brownsville, Brooklyn to accommodate the children and families in East New York. Indeed, these changes have facilitated easy accessibility of services for its culturally and ethnically diverse populations. The fall of 2011 will see the integration of these two offices into one location in Brownsville to meet the increasing needs of our families.
In 1998, in recognition of the agency’s historical roots, the agency’s name is revised to Seamen’s Society for Children and Families and its logo is revised to reflect this change.
Thus, through the years, the philosophy of the Agency has developed to the point where our thinking is centered on meeting the needs of the individual child as we provide new and innovative programs and continue to set the example of progressive thinking in the development of the child. While under our care, Seamen’s feels its responsibility is to strengthen the ties the child has with his/her parents and relatives in what ever way possible so that hopefully the child is returned to his/her own familial situation. Thus, today Seamen’s has grown to become a full service child welfare agency meeting the needs of children and families in New York City.