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This Day In History: February 28th
Missionary and educator Elias Neau became a known figure in New York for his benevolence. The France native sought refuge in the United States and once he arrived, he spent his life spreading The Gospel.
Neau was born in France but fled the country in 1679 due to religious persecution. Despite briefly finding freedom, he was forced into slavery in 1692. When he was freed in 1698, he decided to raise money before making his way to New York. Neau was licensed by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG) in 1704 and became a missionary to the enslaved population.
Throughout his life, Neau faced many obstacles because of his religion. Yet he was moved by his faith to aid the enslaved community and native Americans. With this idea in mind, he asked the Church of England and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel to support him in opening a school for these two neglected populations.
The enslaved population living in New York City at the beginning of the 1700s was approximately 1,500 and a majority of them were illiterate. Both the Church of England and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel agreed to support him in opening the school. On February 28, 1704, Neau opened his school, which initially began with visits to the homes of the enslaved community.
He then received permission to open a classroom on the upper floor of his home. Neau was instrumental in teaching his students how to pray. The student’s day would include praying, singing, and instruction from Neau. Students and teachers would also meet on Sundays to have service and perform baptisms. By 1708, Neau had more than 150 students attending his school.
However, just four years later, in 1712, there was a slave revolt in New York that led to fires and murders throughout the area and outraged residents. Neau’s school was not responsible for the riot, but residents were looking to punish anyone who could be connected to the enslaved community. Neau temporarily scaled but his work, but the school reopened and was protected by the church and governor.
Elias Neau continued leading his school and performing missionary work until his death in 1722. The school was then led by different pastors, missionaries, and teachers up until the American Revolution.