The Amazing Philanthropist Who Founded Williamsburg’s First Public Schools
So many of the wealthy in today’s world are both so selfish and self-interested that it’s easy to believe that rich people do not think of those who have nothing. The story of Grahams Polley, the great Williamsburg philanthropist, however, shows that wealth and concern for the poor and for public education are not mutually exclusive. Polley only lived to be thirty-four years of age, dying in a riding accident in 1860 and leaving behind a wife and ten children. His charity was legendary and left a legacy still felt today.
Polley was born in Manhattan to a poor family. He never had the chance to go to school for himself and he never learned to read or write, but he died as a bank president with a fortune of $40,000. He was determined to use his wealth for the public good and his chief interest was ensuring that all of Williamsburg’s children got educated.
In the economic panic of 1857 he opened a grocery store, providing so much credit to his neighbors that he lost $6,000, but Polley felt it was his duty to his neighbors to feed them during those bad economic times and never once considered closing the unprofitable market. He was amazingly generous to his employees, who were totally devoted to him. He paid them when they were sick. He even kept trusted employees who had died on the payroll so that their widows could keep collecting a salary. He gave them gifts at Christmas and Thanksgiving and helped them in a hundred ways.
A self-made wealthy business owner, it was not his money that won him hearts, but his charity. His charity was a quiet, unpretentious generosity. All his life, evidence of suffering and distress easily moved him, especially with children. He had once been poor himself and he never forgot the pain of poverty. He acquired wealth, but it never changed him. He was never pompous and always remained a man of a quiet demeanor and simple tastes. He was moved by the suffering of the poor, probably because he could recall his own childhood poverty far too well. The race, creed or color of the poor did not matter to him—he bestowed his largess on anyone who was in need. Someone said of him that his heart was never cold, nor his hand closed to the appeal of want or suffering.
His great love was schools. At a time that the rest of Brooklyn did not have free public schools, he financed the founding of public schools in Williamsburg, including one for black children, something almost unheard of in the 1840’s. In his day, Williamsburg was an independent town and thanks to Polley Williamsburg had public schools before its neighbor Brooklyn did. Polley financed the founding of all five local public schools. The schools he founded in 1849 were: P.S. #1 in 1849—North 6th between Kent and Wythe; P.S. #2—North 3rd between Wythe and Berry; P.S. #3—North first between Berry and Bedford; and P.S. #4—Rodney Street Near Ainslie.
He gave principals carte blanche to buy what they needed. Polly spent large sums of money buying school books. He secretly gave the principals money to buy winter clothing and shoes for the indigent. He rewarded kids with good behavior with books and took care of sick teachers. Polley took whole schools on outings, paying for it all. He purchased paintings, pianos and organs for the schools, but never wanted to take credit.
When he died in Williamsburg just before the start of the Civil War, everyone grieved and thousands turned out for his wake. The schools he founded and generously funded became part of the Brooklyn public school system and continue to this day. His great legacy lives on after him.