Meet Sarah Smith Tompkins Garnet 

Meet Sarah Smith Tompkins Garnet The First African American Female Principal In The New York Public Schools

Early Life and Teaching Career

Born in 1831 in Brooklyn to prosperous farmers Sylvanus and Ann Smith, Sarah Smith Tompkins Garnet (maiden name Minsarah Smith) began working as a teacher’s assistant at just 14 years old in 1845. She continued her studies by attending several teacher training institutes, laying the foundation for her later career advancement.

By 1854, Garnet secured a position teaching at the segregated African Free School in Williamsburg. Her exceptional dedication to education was rewarded on April 30, 1863, when she broke barriers by getting appointed the first-ever African American female principal in the New York Public School system.

Leading Pioneer at Public School Number 81

As principal, Garnet oversaw Grammar School Number 4, later known as Public School Number 81. She spent nearly 40 years leading P.S 81 before retiring in 1900, just as New York repealed its law allowing segregated schools.

Beyond leading her school, Principal Garnet found time to open a successful dress shop from 1883 to 1911. The businesswoman also took part in early civil rights and women’s suffrage efforts, including co-founding the influential Equal Suffrage Club advocacy group for Black women in Brooklyn in the late 1880s.

National Influence and International Recognition

With deep political, educational, and entrepreneurial experience, Sarah S.T. Garnet’s prominence extended nationally by getting named Superintendent of the Suffrage Department of the National Association of Colored Women.

Just before her death, Garnet’s impact reached the international stage. In 1911 she attended the Universal Races Congress conference in London alongside activist sister Dr. Susan Smith McKinney Steward. There Garnet connected with leading Black scholars like W.E.B DuBois from around the world.

When she passed away shortly after returning to New York at age 88, Garnet left behind an unmatched legacy as an inspirational pioneer educator and leader for future generations.