A Woman to Know: Sarah J.S. Garnet

It goes to show you can get things done, you don't have to accept things as they are, you can change them for the better. — Raul Rothblatt, a parent who suggested a Brooklyn school be renamed in honor of Garnet

(image via New York Public Library)


Sarah grew up in Weeksville, an all-black community in Brooklyn's Crown Heights area, founded by African-American freedmen in the early 19th century. Because her father, Sylvanus Smith, had helped establish the neighborhood, he taught his daughter early on about the importance of political involvement and franchise.

In the 1850s, Sarah worked as a teacher, navigating the politics of a segregated school system. She rose through the ranks to eventually be named principal of Grammar School No. 4 in Brooklyn in 1863 — right in the midst of the Civil War. She'd retire in 1900, after 30-plus years of working in New York schools. At one point she even served (at the same time!) as principal of two different institutions.

Her new job made her the first African-American woman to serve as a public school principal, but that wasn't Sarah's only "first." In the 1880s, she became the first African-American woman to found a suffragist organization, the Equal Suffrage League. She remained involved in suffragist causes until she died in 1911.

Just this month, Sarah's name made headlines yet again. The Teunis G. Bergen School in Brooklyn's Prospect Heights neighborhood has for years recognized the name of a prominent slaveowner. Parents asked that the Bergens no longer be honored at a school where 40% of the students are black. After discussing the change with students and faculty, the school will now be renamed the Sarah Smith Garnet School, in recognition of Sarah's legacy.

As one of the parents told The City, the children at the school "were thrilled with [Sarah's] background, and thought she was someone to look up to."

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