Profiles in Preservation

Eric K. Washington

As it first appeared on Black in Historic Preservation's Instagram on 15 May 2023:

Latest update from Black in Historic Preservation:

Annnnnd we’re back …

Did someone say it’s Preservation Month?

Yes? Great! An opportunity to highlight a Black person who is historic preservationing (new word?) … heritage conservationing (alas, another new word?) … spreading some love to a building/site/sacred space.

First up:

Eric K. Washington!

Eric K. Washington is an independent scholar, researcher, historian, author, and owner of a consulting firm Tagging the Past based in Harlem, NY. Most notably, Eric is the author of a book entitled, “BOSS OF THE GRIPS: The Life of James H. Williams and the Red Caps of Grand Central Terminal” (2019). James H. Williams (1878-1948) was the chief porter of Grand Central Terminal's Red Caps. Akin to the Pullam Porters of Chicago, the Red Caps were Harlem-based Black men whom James organized into essential workers of the most highly regarded railroad station in the United States. The coveted jobs contributed to a growing Black middle class at the time. 

Boss of the Grips has received several recognitions:

Winner — Herbert H. Lehman Prize

for Distinguished Scholarship in New York History

The New York Academy of History

Winner — GANYC Apple Award

for Outstanding Achievement in Book Writing (Nonfiction)



Finalist Brendan Gill Prize

The Municipal Art Society of New York

Williams, a child of Black people who White people formerly enslaved in New York City, was one of many notable graduates of a school in Manhattan. Writing this book inspired Eric to learn more about this school and to in turn advocate for an important, and perhaps one might say “hidden gem” in New York City.

Since 2019, for 4.5 years, Eric has been advocating for local New York City landmark designation for Colored School No. 4 (built in 1850), a 19th-century schoolhouse at 128 West 17th Street, in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. It is the last remaining school of its kind, a segregated, “colored school”, in Manhattan that the New York City Dept of Education created in the 19th C. The other colored school in New York City that remains standing is in the borough of Brooklyn and is now a private residence. [Side note: For anyone reading this who is not aware, New York City is comprised of five boroughs (don’t forget Staten Island!!), within each borough are many neighborhoods.]

Excerpt from Eric’s letter of testimony in support of landmarking: “In Spring 1863 Sarah J.S. Tompkins (later Garnet) replaced the late principal Charlotte Smith, and began her own 31-year tenure as the school’s driving spirit. Within just months, the infamous New York City Draft Riots tested her mettle: a white mob attacked the school in session. Barricading the doors, Tompkins’s teachers effectively thwarted the rioters’ evil mission, but that scene of savage terror remained vivid months later to those, ‘colored children . . . under the charge of Mrs. Tompkins, [showing] gratitude for their escape from death during the late riots.’ ”

Thanks to Eric’s perseverance, the NYC Landmarks Commission will vote on landmark designation next week, on Tues., May 23. Please, if you’re able, write a letter in support of designation and submit it to LPC by 5pm on Fri., May 19. Eric’s letter is in this post as an example. Visit the link in bio to learn more on how to submit a letter.

And, learn more about Eric K. Washington and support Black in Historic Preservation by subscribing to the Black Preservationists Directory. Visit the link in the profile to learn how.

PS - Last year, Eric found Black in Historic Preservation on Twitter and asked me to submit a letter of support for Former Colored School No. 4’s landmarking. It was my honor to do so and I will share it in a separate post.

@BlackInHistPres is a program / offering of @wrkSHapkiloWatt

a Black woman-owned business that illuminates possibilities in architecture, historic preservation, owner’s representation (construction project management), and racially equitable narratives and interpretations of historic sites.


- k. kennedy Whiters, AIA (kW), @wrkSHapkiloWatt

Cite this Article in APA Format:

Whiters, K. (15 May 2023) Profiles in Preservation: Eric K. Washington. Retrieved from <Insert Date Retrieved>.

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