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Maritcha Lyons: Racial Equality Activism and Shaping the NYC Public School System

How did one woman’s lifelong fight for racial equality shape the New York City school system? How might growing up around activism inspire a young person to create change? How many people have heard the name Maritcha Remond Lyons?

Maritcha Lyons was Albro and Mary Lyons‘ third child, born into a free black community in Lower Manhattan on May 23, 1848. Maritcha’s parents ran a sailors’ clothing store to cover their work as conductors on the Underground Railroad; the fight for freedom and racial justice underscored Maritcha’s entire childhood. Maritcha was ill a lot as a child, but she was always eager to get an education. Maritcha attended Manhattan’s Colored School #3.

In the summer of 1863, 5 days of racial violence ensued. The Draft Riots, ultimately targeting free black New Yorkers, made the Lyons’ home on Vandewater Street one of their many targets. As a teenage, Maritcha saw her family’s home attacked several times by a white mob, and New York was not safe for her anymore.

To avoid additional danger, Albro and Mary sent their children to Rhode Island. Maritcha was promptly denied admission to Providence High School on the basis of her race. Her family then became very involved in the statewide campaign for desegregation, led by other black activists and abolitionists. 16-year-old Maritcha testified before the state legislature and they won. In 1969, Maritcha Lyons was the first black graduate of Providence High School.

After graduation, she moved back to Brooklyn and started her teaching career at NYC’s Colored School Number 1, the first African Free School in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. After 30 years of experience, she moved into a leadership position at Public School #83, which was integrated. She was the second black woman to serve as assistant principal (and the second black woman to train educators) in New York City’s school system.

Throughout her teaching career, she was also an activist, musician, orator (she once won a debate against Ida B. Wells!) and writer. She spoke in favor of civil rights and even opened a home in New York for migrants. Maritcha was a member of the Colored Women’s Equal Suffrage League, fighting for women to get voting rights. Maritcha never married or had children; she spent her life committed to equality for the subsequent generation. She died at 80 years old in 1929; she’d fought for education–for herself and others–since the age of 16.

Who are the figures that shaped your city’s systems? Who is telling their stories now? Today, over 1 million young people are in the NYC Public School System. Yet how many New Yorkers recognize the name Marticha Lyons? What is at risk if her story is forgotten?