By Scott Etkin
Community Board 7 this week approved a proposal to add a secondary street name to the southwest corner of 95th Street and Central Park West honoring Catherine “Katy” Ferguson, who began life as a slave and later became a pioneering educator and social worker in New York City.
The board’s recommendation still needs approval of the city council. It came after two UWS institutions – the Alexander Robertson School (3 West 95th Street) and Second Presbyterian Church (6 West 96th Street) – gathered 100 signatures of support from the community for a sign marking Catherine ‘Katy’ Ferguson Way, commemorating an overlooked historical figure who was key in providing education for children from poor families.
Catherine Ferguson (1779-1854) was born into slavery and in 1789 became the first black member of what was then known as the Scotch Church (today’s Second Presbyterian). At 18, “she began New York’s first ‘Sabbath School’ in her home – not ‘Sunday School’ as we know it today, but a school for poor children who had to work on weekdays,” according to Second Presbyterian’s website.
Ferguson never learned to read, but she championed education for others. Sunday school was the “only place where African American women could shine in terms of their education,” according to Rev. Derrick McQueen of St. James Presbyterian in Harlem. McQueen spoke last week when Community Board 7’s Transportation committee gave its unanimous approval to the supplementary naming proposal. “Sunday schools were the forerunners for early education for underserved and underprivileged people in the country,” McQueen told the committee.
The Scotch Church where Ferguson first worshiped was founded in 1756 in what’s now the Financial District. In 1789, Alexander Robertson, a church elder, donated a house and lots on Pine Street for the city’s first coeducational elementary school, according to Second Presbyterian’s website. The congregation moved uptown over the years – its current location on West 96th Street dates back to the 1890s. In 1917, it officially changed its name to Second Presbyterian Church, and in 1928, “an agreement was made with a developer for a residential building [with a new church] and school in its base.”
The Alexander Robertson School – a nonprofit, nonsectarian institution – already honors Catherine Ferguson’s legacy through a literacy program named after her. Ferguson is also the namesake of the building’s largest classroom. “There are a lot of projects [honoring Ferguson]. This is not just a frivolous thing that we’re looking into with the secondary street naming,” Keyarrah Bell-Flynn told the CB7 committee this month. Bell-Flynn is a member of the school’s administration who has done extensive historical research on Ferguson’s life and work.
The proposed sign would be on 95th Street, closer to the Alexander Robertson School than the Second Presbyterian Church, in recognition of Ferguson’s impact as an educator. The proposal includes using her nickname “Katy” because children used to call her “Aunt Katy,” according to Bell-Flynn.
Representatives from the school and church said they hope the honorary street name will inspire others to learn more about Ferguson. “Lifting up this particular person,” said Rev. Thia Reggio of Second Presbyterian, “who is a pivotal person but like so many enslaved person’s histories was obscured by the white members of the church, we feel is really important.”
The proposal awaits final action by the city council and the mayor before a new sign can be authorized.