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Spotlight on Educators: Keturah A. Townsend

For fourteen years, between 1899 and 1913, Keturah (Kate) Townsend taught Roslyn’s African American children in the segregated one-room “Colored School” annex operated by School District #3 in a frame building on Tower Street. Recalled by a peer as “an excellent teacher” and “a wonderful disciplinarian,” little is known about Keturah Townsend. While she was well known and widely respected in the community, there is little documentary evidence of her life in Roslyn. What information we do have comes from newspaper accounts, reminiscences of former residents, and digitized documents found in the Ancestry database. The only extant image of her shows her standing at the rear of the classroom in a photograph that appeared in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper in 1907.


Born in Flushing in 1849, Keturah Townsend lived with her parents and siblings in that community until she enrolled in the Hopedale Home School in Milford, Massachusetts sometime in the late 1860s. She began her teaching career in News Ferry, Virginia, teaching formerly enslaved children and adults in schools operated by the Freedmen's Bureau. According to an announcement in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper, she also taught at the Colored School in Jamaica, Queens. Her extensive experience and expertise as an educator was recognized when she was hired by Roslyn’s Board of Education in 1899. In summing up her educational background and teaching experience, a Brooklyn Daily Eagle reporter stated, “That she is well equipped for her work is well understood by the board of trustees and her associates.”


Though we can't know for sure, it is possible that the figure standing behind the rows of students is Miss Townsend.

Despite her knowledge and experience, Keturah Townsend’s experiences teaching in Roslyn differed from those of her white counterparts in several ways. While there was one teacher for each grade level in the Village School, Townsend taught a single class composed of children in grades one through eight in a one-room building located near Silver Lake. She taught all levels of all academic subjects as well as art and music. She was relieved of the latter in 1906, when Mary B. Willis, an art teacher from the Village School, began providing the children with one hour of instruction in art and music each week.


Although she was liked and respected in the community, her professional stature did not prevent her from being disrespected in social situations. Although intended as an exemplar of Katherine Mackay’s character, a story related by longtime resident Eda Hicks Seaman during an oral history recorded in 1968 describes an example of the type of disrespect Keturah Townsend likely faced on a regular basis.


“She had all the teachers up [to Harbor Hill estate] one time for tea. Of course Miss Townsend was there, the colored teacher. The butler took their coats. And when they were leaving he got them ready for each one. Mrs. Mackay noticed he was pushing [Miss Townsend’s] coat aside and getting all the white teacher’s coats. Mrs. Mackay went and got Miss Townsend’s coat.”

Despite petitions to discontinue the segregated elementary school, the Board of Education voted at the May 1913 annual meeting to retain the “Annex for Colored Scholars.” The next month, Keturah Townsend resigned from her position, ending her fourteen-year tenure preparing Roslyn’s African American students for the rigors of high school studies. Nothing is known about her later life, although the 1915 New York State Census indicates that she continued to live in a small house on the shore of Silver Lake for at least a few years following her retirement.


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