The Remarkable African American Suffragists of Albany NY

Recently historians have been extensively researching the problems of African American women African American women joining with white women to fight for the right to vote. In most instances white suffragists ignored Black women working for the cause, and in the worst case they actively discriminated against African American women.

But new research has yielded a remarkable discovery from Albany in 1880. In that year Black and white women in Albany joined together to fight for women’s suffrage. It started in early 1880 when the New York State Legislature enacted a law (known as the “School Suffrage Law) allowing women to vote in school elections in April, 1880.

C. Mary Williams

When the Albany Woman’s Suffrage Society was formed to organize women to actively participate in the vote it included an African American woman, C. Mary Douge Williams, was selected as a Vice President for the 11th Ward, in what is now known as Arbor Hill. The inclusion of an African American woman in this effort was nothing short of groundbreaking; there is no evidence this was happening anywhere else in the nation. And the result of Mary’s involvement was startling.

The Suffrage Society leadership appears to have made an excellent strategic decision in its choice of Mary Williams. In 1880 there was no more well-respected family in Black Albany than the Douges. Mary was the perfect choice to organize Albany’s African American women to vote. She was 48 and her family lived at 25 Lark St. near the corner of Livingston Ave., close a small enclave of the people who had represented the powerful and elite of Albany’s Black community.

Mary was quite successful. The April 1880 “National Citizen and Ballot Box” edited by Matilda Jocelyn Gage* reported, “…half a dozen colored females headed by Mrs. C. Mary Williams, Vice President of the County Woman’s Suffrage Society went to the place of registration in Eleventh Ward and had their names enrolled. They were followed by an immense crowd of white and colored people, and when they issued from the place of registry on the street, were cheered in an hilariously boisterous fashion. Mrs. Williams is a stately mulatto of considerable education and refinement.”

We found the names of 28 women who successfully voted in the 1880 School Suffrage election (based on reporting from newspapers of the time). Of these women, almost 1/3 (9) were African American, yet at the time African Americans made up less than 2% of the city’s population.

Who Were The Women?

Mary Williams was the daughter of Michael and Susan Franks Douge. At a young age Mary became a teacher in Albany’s segregated Wilberforce school, and subsequently married the principal Henry Hicks. After his death and the Civil War she went to Virginia and South Carolina to teach Black children. There she met and married Andrew Williams; the couple returned to Albany, and lived with her parents.

Susan Douge voted in the 1880 election as well; she was 74. She was born free in Albany, the daughter of Mercy and John Franks from Dutchess County. (It’s quite possible that Mercy and John were once enslaved by the Franks family of the Hudson Valley and New York City which included several generations of slave importers and traders.) Susan had been a founder of the African American Female Lundy Society in Albany in 1833. The Society was named after Benjamin Lundy, a fiery white abolitionist publisher of a well-known anti-slavery newspaper. (Lundy visited Albany in the late 1820s and made quite an impression.) It provided mutual relief and aid to members of the African American community, aided freedom seekers who came through Albany to escape slavery, and supported the efforts of both Black and white abolitionists.

Michael Douge was said to have come from a family that left Haiti during the 1790s Revolution in that country. He was a well-known barber and member of the Underground Railroad (UGRR) in the Albany from its earliest days. He was major figure in local Black civic affairs, and attended the first New York State Colored Convention, held in Albany in 1840, as well as subsequent local conventions. After the enactment of 15th amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1870, which permitted Black men to vote, Michael was an integral part of the Black Republican politics in the city.

The Douges were the “power couple” of African activists and anti-slavery abolitionists in Albany for decades, dating back to the 1820s. Their marriage in 1827 was announced in “Freedom’s Journal”, the first African American newspaper published in the U.S.

Most of the other African American women who voted in 1880 shared similar backstories.

Ann Bell was 67, the widow of Henry Bell who had been a trustee of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME)Church. In 1880 she was living at 169 Second St. in Arbor Hill, supporting herself as a laundress. Living with her was her son Charles, who worked as Pullman railroad sleeping car porter. Charles had served in the 54th Massachusetts, the first “colored” regiment raised in the North during the Civil War. He survived the Battle of Fort Wagner (memorialized in the movie “Glory”). In 1880 Ann was president of the Female Lovejoy Society, founded in the late 1830s. The Lovejoy Society was another female African American mutual relief association. (The Society was named after Elijah Lovejoy, a white radical abolitionist newspaper publisher murdered in 1837 by an angry anti-abolition mob in Illinois.)

Living with Ann was her sister Diana Williams, age 68, who also voted in the 1880 school election, and Diana’s husband John Williams. John had served as a trustee of the AME Church with Henry Bell. In the 1840s and 1850s John Williams was a member of the UGRR. After the 15th amendment was enacted he became active in Republican politics, and in the successful effort to de-segregate Albany public schools in 1873.

Frances Butler Dorsey, age 42, lived at 156 Third St. with her husband Sylvester Dorsey. He had served in the 26th NY CT (colored troop) regiment in the Civil War. In 1880 he was the armorer of the Albany Zoave cadets of the 10th NY National Guard unit (white) at 80 State St. In 1880 Frances was a member of both the Lundy and Lovejoy Societies.

Frances’ father John Butler had been a barber on the city and we believe he was member of the local UGRR. He had also been an active member of the local African Temperance Society, a group that included many members of the UGRR. Frances’ uncle was Dr. Thomas Elkins (her mother’s brother), a well-known Black physician, dentist and pharmacist. Elkins was a key member of the Albany UGRR Vigilance Committee, and conducted induction physicals for local men enlisting in the 54th Massachusetts in the Civil War.

Dr. Thomas Elkins

Her younger sister Isabella was married to Thomas Sands Pennington. Pennington was the son of Rev. James W. S. Pennington, a key figure in the anti-slavery fight for decades. He was a close friend of Frederick Douglass; Pennington performed the marriage between Douglass and his first wife Anne Murray, immediately after Douglass’ escape to freedom. Her brother-in-law Thomas had apprenticed under Dr. Elkins in the 1850s when Frances was a teenager (and was probably a member of the city UGRR), and served in the 20th NY Colored Troop regiment in the Civil War. In 1880 he was the only Black pharmacy owner in Saratoga Springs.

Matilda Leggett was 29 and single. She lived at 158 Third St. (next to Frances Dorsey) in Arbor Hill with her widowed father Henry. He had been employed by the Delavan House Hotel, along with Stephen Myers, who was the head of the UGRR in Albany at the time. In the 1880 census Henry is listed as a cook and Matilda as keeping house.

Both Matilda’s parents are identified as being born in Schodack, NY in Rensselaer County in the 1820s. Based on available historical data we believe their families had been enslaved at one point by the Leggett family which spanned the Hudson Valley to New Yok City. (The Leggett-Hunt African Cemetery has recently been re-discovered in Hunt’s Point in Brooklyn. )

Julia Lawrence Myers was 35, had 2 children and lived at 169 Third St. (very close to Frances Dorsey and Matilda Leggett). She was the wife of Stephen Myers Jr., son of Stephen Myers who had been the supervising agent of UGRR in Albany in the 1850s. Her husband was employed at the New York State Capitol. It’s quite possible her father Peter Lawrence may also have been a member of the UGRR. Both her father and husband were active in Republican politics in the 11th ward in Arbor Hill in 1880. In 1919, long after the death of both her husband and father Julia was active in Albany County Republican politics.

Anne Shelve was 43 and lived at 49 Lark St. (close to Susan Douge and her daughter Catherine Williams) with her husband Dyer, a hotel waiter and their 3 children. She and her husband were relatively recent transplants from the District of Columbia. Her husband was very active in Republican politics for many years. Ann was member of both the Lundy and Lovejoy Societies in 1880.

Sarah Sandford Smith was 58. She was born in Albany. Sarah was the only Black woman who voted in 1880 who did not reside in Arbor Hill. In 1880 she lived at 410 Madison Ave. just below Lark St. (the house was destroyed by fire in 2017) with her husband Joseph A. Smith. For decades Sarah was a stewardess on the People’s Line, which sailed steamboats between Albany and New York City (in the late 1850s her daughter Mary Jane joined her). The Line transported so many freedom seekers before the Civil War the boats were sometimes called “abolition ships”. Sarah was a member of both the Lundy and Lovejoy Societies, and had served as an officer in both organizations at various times.

Joseph was originally from Charleston, S. C., the son of a white merchant and an enslaved mother. His father sent him North about the time of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. He had an extensive career working as a steward/butler and concierge in private homes and hotels, and appears to have used those connections a peripheral part of the UGRR in the 1850s. In 1880 he was the head usher at the United State Hotel in Saratoga Springs. (His book “Reminiscences of Saratoga”, published in 1897, is fascinating.)

Why Did so Many Black Women in Albany Vote?

There are many reasons, but first and foremost, women had been excluded in the 15th Amendment. African American women in Albany stood shoulder to shoulder with Black men since the early 1800s, creating an African American community where they could live as free Black people (although slavery didn’t end in New York State until 1827). They had fought for education for their children, had been instrumental in the establishment and survival of the Black churches that were the foundation of the Black community, and they too had been part of the fight against slavery and worked in the city’s UGRR.

The real answer may be quite simple. The newspaper stories of the time recount white women being refused the right to register to vote, or if registered, actually vote. They were often harassed, ridiculed and even physically threatened at polling places. No law enforcement came to their defense; no judge would help them. But that appears not to have happened in the polling places where there was active involvement of Black men – specifically in the 11th ward of the city. Although there were small Black-only enclaves in the ward, it was not segregated, and it appears to be the one ward in the city, based on the addresses of women who voted in 1880, where white and African American women were allowed to register and to vote without incident.

*Gage co-authored with Stanton and Anthony the first three volumes of “A History of Woman Suffrage” in 1879.

Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor

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