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.
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.
Adam Blake Jr. , was the adopted son of Adam Blake Sr., enslaved by “The Good Patroon” at the Van Rensselaer Manor. That mansion was on Broadway in North Albany.
Adam Jr. was born free about 1830 and worked his way up from waiter to restaurant owner to hotel owner. In 1879 he opened the Kenmore Hotel on North Pearl St. (yes, that Kenmore that’s still there). It was the most modern and luxurious hotel in Albany at the time. Blake leased the building, but it had been built to his specifications.
Sadly, Adam died suddenly in summer 1881, at the age of 51, just a couple of months after his oldest son passed way. One can only imagine the grief of his widow Catherine – her husband and first born child had died within 6 months. Catherine was barely 39 , and had 3 daughters and 1 son, all under the age of 10, to raise.
But Catherine was tough. Many people thought she would sell the hotel, take the money and leave. She didn’t despite a number of offers. Now was her opportunity. She ran the hotel for the next 7 years, still under her husband’s name. The Kenmore thrived. And Catherine became well-known and liked in Albany. It’s clear that she and Adam had been partners in business and in life. But few people knew that the best hotel in the Capital City of the largest state was managed by an African-American woman.
In addition to the Kenmore she went into real estate development, and bought land and built houses in a couple of areas of Albany. She became one of the richest women in the city. But like her husband she never forgot those who hadn’t fared so well. She was instrumental in the establishment of the Women’s Exchange, a place where talented women (Black and white) with skills , like fine needlework, could sell their items (think an 1880s brick and mortar Etsy).
In 1887 she pulled off one of the smartest business moves ever. A father and son named Rockwell wanted the Kenmore desperately. She turned them down repeatedly. They finally managed to secure a lease on part of Hotel to try to force her out. Not deterred, Catherine went to building owners surrounding the Hotel, including the new YMCA on Steuben. She secured access to top floors and a couple of ground floor businesses. She broke through walls on the top floors to create hotel rooms, moved the office and some other rooms like parlors on the ground floor, AND the main entrance. The Rockwells were left with a little island in the midst of a Hotel that now covered upper parts of a city block, and almost no access to their island.
Clever Mrs. Blake had outwitted the Rockwells. But about a year later Catherine decided to sell. Because she had enlarged hotel it was worth more, and she cut a slick and lucrative deal for hotel furnishing and contents, and of course, the reputation and goodwill of the Kenmore.
Despite her wealth Catherine wasn’t insulated from racial discrimination, which increased even in the North after the Civil War. In an 1884 letter she noted that many white Americans continued to think of Black Americans as “lazy, stupid and thriftless”.
Catherine and her children remained in Albany for a number of years. Her son Carroll Blake went to Cornell and obtained an engineering degree in the mid-1890s. Two of her daughters married. By 1900 Catherine and one daughter were living with her son and his wife in Brooklyn.
While cruising through old copies of “The Liberator”, the most prominent anti-slavery newspaper in America in the 19th century, I came across a small article from May 3, 1834 that sheds new light on Albany’s Black activism in the early part of the 19th century.
We know a lot about what happened several decades later, but very little about the formative years. In 1827 New York State abolished slavery. ( New Yorkj State was late to the party.)
By 1831 Albany’ had become a hotbed of Black agitation for abolition of slavery in the South and equal rights in the Black community – very much earlier than white abolitionists in the city. While most historians focus on Black activism in Philadelphia, New York City and Boston at that time, Albany was the 9th largest city in America in 1830, and had a Black population of between 700-800. African Americans in Albany were mad as hell about slavery in the South and NYS failure to provide them an opportunity to vote with the same rights as white men.
Members of the Black community had already successfully intervened in court cases that were attempting to send several people (a woman and 2 children) back to the South to be sold in the slave markets in 1828 and 1829.
And then in April 1834 they made their next public move. A “runaway” from a slave state was captured and held in jail (it was at the corner of Howard St. and Eagle St.).According to the article 100 “Negroes” stormed the jail, thronged the jail guards and constables, and rescued the “runaway” and got him away. It appears the guards whomped on the liberators and they didn’t punch back (very smart). Wow.. just wow. . I reached out to a number of historians and they’ve never heard of this.
The men who stormed the jail probably represented at least 1/3 of adult Black men in the City. The article indicates the action was so well-coordinated and timed, it had to have been a planned, not spontaneous (as other such later actions were other cities). And the date of 1834 makes this the earliest incident of this kind that has been described. in the country. Most “liberations” went down in the late 1840s and 1850s.
There are no names identified in the article, but we know who some of the likely suspects are. John Stewart and Michael Douge were fiery 30 something activist barbers.
Stewart had briefly published an incendiary newspaper “The African Sentinel” in 1831 that supported direct action against slavery and slave owners.
His best friend was Charles Morton. Both were agents of The Liberator.
Ben Lattimore, Jr. was the son of the man who had been the leading Black activist in Albany for 20 years, and had stepped into his father’s shoes. The family was probably the wealthiest Black family in the city at the time (they owned a lot of property and ran a thriving grocery store).
In 1834 Ben had recently married a woman born enslaved in Pittstown, Rensselaer County in 1812. Lattimore is identified as a member of the Albany Underground Rairoad (UGRR) , and 1 of 2 Black officers of the Eastern NY Anti-Slavery Society. In 1847 he bought a large farm in south of Glens Falls in Moreau for $3,000 and set up his own UGRR operation with Black and white men in the area.
Other men probably included Stephen Myers, a waiter who would become the supervising agent of the Albany UGRR in the 1850s and William Topp who would have been barely 19.
Topp would later become a wealthy tailor, member of the UGRR, and friend of the white abolitionists Susan B. Anthony, William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips and Frederick Douglass. The group probably included Richard Thompson, who owned an eating house and fruit store (who would become the supervising agent of the Underground Railroad in Albany in the 1840s; Benjamin and Shiperd Paul whose uncle Rev. Nathaniel Paul founded the first Black Church in Albany in the 1820s; John Chambers -another barber, and John Briggs whose son William who would be killed in action while serving with the 54th Massachusetts, the famous “colored” regiment that stormed Ft. Wagner in the Civil War.
For over a century Dr. George Carter was thought to be the first Black graduate of Albany Medical College. But I recently discovered there was a much earlier African American graduate – Dr. Ernest Angus. He graduated from Albany Medical College in 1885, at the top of his class.
His story is wonderful and sad. Ernest Angus came to the U.S. from Antigua in 1881 at the age of 17 with other members of his family. They settled in Albany and by 1883 he was enrolled in Albany Medical College. Back then the College was located on Eagle St. about 4 blocks south of State St.
Black newspapers of the time report him working with Albany’s Dr. Thomas Elkins. Elkins was a Black man who was tutored by Albany Medical College professors in the early 1850s, but never officially became an MD, although the entire city treated him as if he was a physician. He was appointed by Albany’s Mayor Nolan to serve as a local district physician. You may know the name Elkins from Albany’s Undergrounds Railroad (UGRR). He was a member of the Vigilance Committee.
While in med school Ernest also worked for Thomas Pennington. Pennington was the son of a famous Black abolitionist, the Rev. J.W. Pennington. In 1884 Pennington owned the only pharmacy in Saratoga Springs operated by a Black man. Thomas Pennington and Thomas Elkins were the best of friends. When Pennington was in his 20s he apprenticed with Elkins, at the same time Elkins was a member of the UGRR.
Angus graduated with a College prize.
By 1886 Angus was living in New York City. Ultimately he decided to settle in Clarksville, Tenn. By then it appears only Ernest’s father had survived. (There are several burials at Albany Rural Cemetery in 1884 that appear to be his younger siblings.) Sadly, Mr. Angus died in 1887 and is buried in Clarksville. Dr. Angus married a young Black teacher from Arkansas in 1890.
His future looked bright, and he appears set to accomplish great things. In the same year his name appears as one of a group of Black physicians who are holding a convention for Black doctors in the South. At this time most southern (and some northern) Black doctors were denied admission to local medical societies. Their participation in the American Medical Association was not a thing (although it appears that a couple of Black physicians in the North were allowed to join).
Sadly, Dr. Angus contracted tuberculosis. He went to a sanitarium in Colorado Springs, but died there in 1892, barely 28 years old.
Note: In 1895 Black physicians across the country would establish their own medical association, the National Medical Association.
Most everyone has heard of the Harlem Hellfighters. It was the all-Black regiment that fought with great courage and distinction in World War I. It was the regiment in which Sgt. Henry Johnson fought, and for his bravery was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously by President of Obama in 2015.
In late August, 2021 the entire Hellfighters regiment received the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest award Congress can bestow. The Medal dates back to 1776 when it was first awarded to General George Washington. There have been less than 200 recipients in 250 years.
You probably know that Sgt. Johnson was living in Albany when he enlisted in the Hellfighters. But you may not know that there were over 40 other men from Albany who enlisted in the Hellfighters as well, and fought bravely alongside of him. They have been overlooked for about a century and it’s time to give them their due, and tell you about them.
Who were the Harlem Hellfighters?
The Hellfighters was a segregated, all-volunteer regiment mustered in World War I. (The U. S. Army wouldn’t be de-segregated for another 41 years, in 1948 after World War II, by President Truman.) The regiment started out as the 15th NY National Guard (known as the 15th Infantry) and subsequently became part of the U.S. Army as the 369th Infantry.
The men who served came from across New York State and even outside of the State. But the bulk of enlistees were from Manhattan – and most of those from Harlem, which is how the regiment got part of its name.
The men called themselves the “Black Rattlers”. The French called them “Hommes de Bronze” – Men of Bronze. But it was the German name that stuck, “HollenKampfers” – Hellfighters – because they fought like demons from Hell.
Company C – The Men from Albany
So far we’ve identified 45 men from Albany who enlisted in the 15th. We’re confident there are more, but we can’t confirm their military records. Almost half of the men enlisted on the same date – May 15, 1917. We think it’s a safe assumption they went to enlist as groups – in Albany and New York City. This was 5 weeks after President Wilson declared war on April 9, 1917, and 4 days before a universal draft was enacted. The rest of the initial Albany contingent enlisted later that month and in June (Sgt. Henry Johnson enlisted on June 5, 1917) and July. This group became the nucleus of Company C (a/k/a Albany Company) of the 15th.
In July, 1917 the initial enlistees from Albany reported to training camp in Peekskill. We presume most of the men, even given disparities in age (18 to39), knew one another. There were overlapping groups – the men who lived in Arbor Hill in Albany, including a small group of boys who had all attended School 6 on Second St. together, and a group railroad porters. Some of the men had also been members of a very popular Black baseball team the Hudson Giants.
At Peekskill they met the commander of the 15th – a white lawyer from New York City, Colonel William Hayward. Later that summer they were sent to Camp Whitman near Poughkeepsie. During that time the unit was federalized, and became part of the U. S. Army. They were then sent to training camps in the South. The men met with increasing levels of racial discrimination and harassment by civilians and white troops the farther into the South they went. This culminated in the physical assault by white troops of one of the 15th soldiers. Both white and Black soldiers rushed to his defense.
Hayward was a strong advocate for his men. He imposed strict discipline and implored them to ignore racial taunts and insults. Confrontations among white soldiers and civilians, and other Black units had resulted in deaths in the past However, after the physical assault Hayward ensured his men were sent back to New York.
Hayward concluded it would be best to ship the 15th to Europe as soon as possible. He discussed with General John Pershing, the commander of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF), who reluctantly agreed. After several attempts they sailed from New York City, reaching France in late December, 1917; they were among the first American troops to reach Europe.
In their first months in France the men of the 15th weren’t assigned to combat; they performed general labor duties. The deployment of Black troops was a problem for Pershing. His nickname was “Black Jack” because he had previously commanded an all Black unit. But history gives him mixed reviews about his feelings regarding Black soldiers. While he appears to have strong respectfor their loyalty and valor, in his memoirs he indicated they lacked certain abilities. In 1931 Pershing wrote:
“It is well known that the time and attention that must be devoted to training colored troops to raise their level of efficiency to the average was considerably greater than white regiments.”
Colonel Hayward urged Pershing to let his men fight. But it was clear there were large numbers of white troops who would not willingly go into combat alongside Black troops. Black and white regiments had fought in the same line of battle in the last days of the Civil War. And they fought together up San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War. But Jim Crow in the South had spread to the North by 1917. Black and white troops side by side in the trench warfare of World War I wouldn’t work .
At about the same time in March, 1917 that the 15th received its final, formal federal designation as the 369th infantry it was sent to fight under French command. Race was rarely an issue for the French Army. White soldiers and Black troops fom the French Colonial territories in North and West Africa had long fought together.
After training under the French the 15th went into combat May, 1918. They wore American uniforms, but used French helmets and carried French rifles. On May 15, 1918 Sgt. Henry Johnson, while on sentry duty, displayed his courage. He and Pvt. Needham Roberts were attacked by German soldiers. Though wounded, they refused to surrender, fighting in hand-to-hand combat. Johnson killed multiple Germans and suffered 21 wounds.
The 15th went on to fight at Belleau Woods in June 1918. Jim Reese Europe, the Hellfighters’ famous bandleader who brought jazz to France, was injured in a German mustard gas attack outside the village of Maffrecourt where the Hellfighters’ had trained. They continued to aggressively fight their way across France. Casualties started mounting in Company C. In July Privates Charles Jackson, William Randall and George Simmons were wounded; in August Private Cornelius Banks.
At one point when a French General wanted the men to retreat Colonel Hayward told him they would not, “They move forward or they die”, he said. Hayward called them “the Black Tigers”. A captured German colonel is alleged to have said, “They are devils” “They smile while they kill and they won’t be taken alive.”
The Hellfighters pursued he Germans methodically, advancing from trench to trench, where they rested at night. Cpl. Robert DeGroff, on his return to Albany, told the Knickerbocker Press a story about the Germans and the 15th: “.. the Germans tried to capture one of the Negro troops to keep him as a “souvenir”. The German officers tried to take one of the men and send him to the Kaiser, he said. Every night for four months they made attempts by coming to the trenches and speaking in English, hoping to deceive the men into believing them Englishmen”.
The Bravery of the Hellfighters and Company C
In the Helklfighters’ last major offensive in the Meuse-Argonne in September, 1918 Company C was said to have taken “hideous and continuous casualties”. At least eight men were wounded, many of them severely: Sgt. Alfred Adams and Privates Robert Green, Robert DeGroff, Merritt Molson, Wlbur Putnam, Clarence Sickles and William Vedder. It was during this push that the Hellfighters captured the key German position in the French town of Sechault. In October Privates Robert Blackwell, Albert Johnson and George Walker were wounded.
Cpl. Robert Degroff described the last push:
“On our left were French, Moroccan and Algerian troops.. A fierce rain, followed by thunder overtook us. It rained all night. The ground was soaked and made our advance difficult. However, we held out and managed to take five hills from the enemy. We flanked them and the best they could do was retreat to their inside lines. Our chance came, the day of the great American drive, when 750,000 of our soldiers marched forward in a solid mass to drive the enemy from their trenches, and found me in the Champagne sector our division facing a great enemy barrage.
September 28, the day of the great drive, we received orders to advance. As we went over the top hundreds of German airplanes hovered over our heads throwing great bombs which wrought havoc in our lines. It was on this day we suffered our greatest casualties. Despite the fierce enemy machine gun fire, we continued to advance; our lines remaining unbroken. We struck the enemy fierce blows on their left flank. “
At that point Cpl. DeGroff was hit in the back and neck by machine gunfire. The next thing he knew, he was waking up in an army hospital.
The 15th was the first Allied unit to reach the Rhine. By the end of the war the Hellfighters had spent 191 days in combat, more than any other American regiment. At War’s end the 15th had suffered 1,500 casualties, more than any other American regiment.
For its valor and courage, the Hellfighters was presented with the Croix de Guerre by a grateful French government. The citation read:
“Under the command of Colonel Hayward, who though injured, insisted on leading his regiment into battle, of Lieutenant Colonel Pickering, admirable cool and brave, of Major Cobb (killed), of Major Spencer (grievously wounded), of Major Little, a true leader of man, the 369th R. I. U.S., engaging in an offensive for the first time in the drive of September, 1918, stormed powerful enemy positions, energetically defended, after heavy fighting in the town of Sechault, captured prisoners and brought back six cannon and a great number of machine guns,”
We know of three men from Company C who received individual awards of the French Croix de Guerre – Sgt. Henry Johnson, Sgt. Alfred Adams and Sgt. Arthur Tucker, and possibly a fourth, Sgt. Merritt Molson. (171 men in the Hellfighters received individual medals from the French.)
The soldiers who had enlisted in late Spring, 1917 were quickly demobilized. The regiment returned to the United States in early December. It was first to come home; the Hellfighters were part of large parade on February 17, 1919 on Fifth Ave. in New York City, and then up Lenox Ave. through Harlem, among cheering crowds.
And then they returned to their homes. While there was a period of brief celebrity, their accomplishments in the War seemed to matter little in Albany. The men from the 15th attended a large dinner for all returning veterans, and in March, 1919 there was a special dinner in honor of Sgt. Henry Johnson., at which Colonel Hayward spoke.
Most of the men returned to their previous jobs if they were lucky. A couple of men appear to have been provided jobs in the State Capitol as porters or messengers by Gov. Al Smith.
Some, like Henry Johnson, had been so severely wounded they were unable to work at the physical labor jobs they had before the War, so they were left to drift. The story of his bravery and courage had been used by the U.S. government to attract Black men to enlist and to sell War Bonds. Yet he was unable to find steady employment in the city that had lauded him as a hero. Unlike many others his military record does not indicate he was wounded in action, and it appears he didn’t receive a veteran’s disability pension. Johnson contracted tuberculosis and slowly succumbed to alcoholism. He traveled the country, and gave several speeches. In one which raised a furor in newspapers across the country he railed against the racism of the U.S. military and the country in general. He died virtually penniless in 1929 at age 32. He’s buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Veteran’s Organizations -Separate But Equal?
Veterans received a lump sum payment of $80 upon separation from service. There were no general pensions for World War I veterans, only meager disability pensions even for those for who whom there were records, and the system for computing and disbursing pensions inadequate. Efforts by the federal government to facilitate private sector employment for returning veterans were not widely successful (especially for Black veterans), nor were vocational training programs.
And so veteran’s organizations were formed to advocate on behalf of the men who served. But even they were segregated. There was the Admiral Coughlan Post 25 of the VFW in Albany, established in the early 1900s for the local men who had served in the Spanish-American War and the Philippine Insurrection. There was at least one Black member, Sgt. Albert Johnson, who went on to serve in Company C 16 years later. But that was a time before pernicious Jim Crow racism had spread from the South to the North. By 1918 it appears that Black members of Post 25 were not welcome.
We will never know exactly what happened, but a March 16, 1919 article in the Albany Argus indicated that 17 Black men who served in the Hellfighters were admitted to the Coughlan Post – but temporarily. There was a proviso – as soon as they found 25 Black men they were to establish their own VFW post. And so later that year the Albany Hellfighters established their own VFW post – the Lorillard Spencer VFW Post 119. It was named after Major Spencer who had been in charge of the 3rd Battalion of the 15th, (in which Company C served), and was said to have had a special affinity with the “colored troops” as he fought alongside them. He too was severely wounded by machine gun fire in the September, 1918 Meuse offensive. The first known address of the Spencer VFW Post is 641 Broadway in 1921. Sgt. Albert Johnson, who had once been a member of the Coughlan Post was the first Commander of the Spencer Post.
There were other Black men from Albany who served in World War I – some we believe fought overseas, but others who probably never saw combat and remained in the U.S (approximately 400,000 Black men served in World War I). They started their own American Legion Post, the Walter Dixon Post 966, which some of the members of the Hellfighters joined as well. Private Walter Dixon was a young man from Albany who enlisted in the 15th; ; he died in training camp in Peekskill in July, 1917. (In 1944 in the midst of World War II the Dixon Post changed its name to the Henry Johnson Post.) The first Commander of the Dixon Post was James H. Harder.
Who Were theAlbany Men inCompany C?
This is a list of the some of the men from Albany who served with the 369th (most served in Company C – “Albany Company”) gleaned from military and census records, and old newspapers. We believe there are more we have been unable to find.
Sgt. Alfred (Maurice) Adams – born Albany (attended School 6 in Arbor Hill;); lived 83 Orange St. at time of enlistment. Enlisted 6/15/17 in New York City – age 20. Severely wounded in France. August, 1918. Awarded Croix de Guerre. After the War he was employed as Red Cap porter at Union Station for over 30 years, and lived most of his post-War life on North Lake Ave.
Sgt. Albertus (Bert) Anderson – born Camden SC; lived 23 Spruce St. Employed as coachman in 1915. Enlisted 5/22/17 in New York City – age 30. After the War he worked in a scrap metal business.
Pvt. Leroy Baker – born in Rensselaer, NY. Lived in Albany as child. Enlisted 5/15/17 in New York City – age 18. Killed from “accidental wounds” June 29, 1918 in France.
Pvt. Cornelius Banks – born Albany (attended School 6 in Arbor Hill); lived 59 Third St. Enlisted 9/21/17 – age 19. Severely wounded in France in August, 1918. Banks was a founding member of the Spencer VFW Post. Immediately after War he was living at 66 Third St. and working as a porter. At one point he worked for New York State in the 1920s. He lived in Arbor Hill and Sheridan Hollow most of his life. In his later years he worked in construction.
Frank Bembry – born Canton NC; lived 49 Spencer St. Enlisted 7/15/19 – age 32. Deserted 11/17 in New York State.
Pvt. Robert Blackwell – born Easton, MD; lived 167 Third St. He was a married railroad porter at time of enlistment. Enlisted 5/15/17 – age 25. Wounded in France October, 1918. Early member of Spencer VFW post.
Pvt. Harold Caesar – born Rensselaer, NY; lived 146 Sheridan Ave. Enlisted 5/15/17 – age 20. He was active for many years in the Spencer VFW Post, and a member of the Albany Inter-Racial Council formed in 1929. He was employed as a chauffeur and mechanic after the War.
Sgt. Walter Cobbs – born Danville, VA; lived 207 Railroad Ave., Catskill (Mother and rest of family lived in Albany.) Enlisted 4/18/18 – age 22. Brother of Pvt. William Hellicous. Early member of the Spencer VFW Post. Truck driver before and after War.
Pvt. Henry Cole – born Albany; lived on Third St. Enlisted in NYC on 5/15/17 – age 36. Married. Employed as cook at the Albany Hospital for the Incurables before and after the War. Brother-in-law of Pvt. James Harder, first Commander of the Dixon American Legion Post.
Bertham Davis (rank unknown) – born Albany; lived 223 Myrtle Ave. Enlisted age 23. Married with one child. When he returned he continued his employment as an elevator operator. Active in the Spencer VFW Post in early days,
Cpl. Robert DeGroff – born Pittsfield, MA; lived 64 Irving St. Enlisted on 5/17/17- age 27. Married. Wounded September, 1918. Returned to his job as a porter at the NYS Capitol and appears to have subsequently become a construction worker in Albany. He was an early member of the Spencer VFW Post.
Pvt. John Dixon – born in Wilmington, DE. Pvt. Dixon enlisted in the 15th in June, 1916 when he was 38. He was only man we found to enlist before President Wilson’s Declaration of War. At the time of enlistment he lived in New York City. He was initially in Company F, then transferred to Company C, and moved to Albany after his discharge.
Pvt. Julius Dixon – born Ballston Springs, NY; lived 22 Bleecker St. in Albany, Enlisted 7/14/17 – age 19.
Pvt. Walter Dixon – born Albany; lived 168 Third St. Enlisted 7/25/17 – age 18. Died October, 1918 of wounds received in action in Spring, 1918.
Cpl. William Myers Freeman – born Albany; attended School 6 in Arbor Hill, lived 199 Third St. Enlisted 5/15/17 – age 21. (Great Great Grandson of Stephen Myers, supervising agent of the Albany Underground Railroad.) Founding member of Spencer VFW Post and Commander in the 1930s.
Pvt. Robert Green – born Albany; attended School 6 in Arbor Hill; lived 664 Broadway. Enlisted 7/14/17 – age 18. We know little about him except that before the War he played first base for the very popular Tri-City Hudson Giants Black baseball team. He was wounded in France September, 1918. Immediately after the War he was working as a chauffeur. He was a founding member of Spencer VFW Post.
Pvt. William Hellicous – born Catskill NY; lived with family at 17 Second St. Enlisted 5/15/17- age 22. Brother of Sgt. Walter Cobbs. Died in training camp September, 1917.
Pvt. Charles Jackson – born in Great Barrington, MA; lived 23 Monroe St. Enlisted 5/19/17 – age 29. Severely wounded in action July , 1918 and severely wounded again October, 1918. He was a railroad porter before and after the War. Founding member of Spencer VFW Post.
Pvt. George Jackson – born Kinderhook, NY; lived 173 ½ Third St. with family. Teamster prior to enlistment. Enlisted 4/30/17 – age 26. Cousin of James Harder, first Commander of the Walter Dixon Post, and lived with Harder family for decades.
Sgt. William Jackson – born Montgomery, AL. Enlisted in NYC 5/15/17 – age 25. Served in Company F of the Harlem Hellfighters. Moved to Albany after the War. Member of the Spencer Post.
Sgt. Albert Johnson – born Lynchburg Va.; lived 183 First St. Married with 1 child a time of enlistment. Driver for a trucking Co. Enlisted 5/17/17- age 37. Wounded in France October, 1918. Awarded the Croix de Guerre. Johnson’s initial military service was in the Philippine Insurrection in 1900 in which he served on the U.S. Navy Gunboat “Helena”. Immediately after the War he is was appointed as a messenger at the Capitol by Governor Al Smith; he served in that position for decades. He was the first Commander of the Spencer VFW Post.
Sgt. Henry Johnson – born Winston- Salem, NC; lived 35 Monroe St (draft registration card lists his address as 53 Spencer St.). His employment is listed on his registration card as a laborer at the Albany Coal and Wood Co. Enlisted 6/5/17 – age 23. ((The registration card also shows he “made his mark” and it was witnessed, which indicates he was probably illiterate – not an uncommon circumstance for men raised in the South where education of Black children was not a priority.) Awarded Croix de Guerre with the Gold Palm (one of the first Americans to receive the Croix); awarded Medal of Honor posthumously 2015.
Pvt. James Johnson – born Albany; lived 312 Orange St. Enlisted 3/29/18 – age 27. (Tried to enlist in 5/17, but rejected for failure to meet physical requirements.) After the War he became a bank messenger/porter for the First Trust Bank and worked there for several decades. He was active in the Spencer VFW post for many years.
Pvt. Charles Jones – born Elmira, NY; lived 55 Monroe St. Porter NY Central Railroad at time of enlistment. Enlisted 6/18/17 – age 26. Railroad porter after War. (Probably brother of Pvt. Louis Jones.)
Pvt. Louis Jones – born in Elmira, NY; lived 166 Third St. (next to Pvt. Walter Hallicous). Enlisted 5/15/17- age 25. Railroad porter before and after War. (Brother-in-law of Pvt. Charles Jackson; probably brother of Pvt. Charles Jones.) Appears to have left Albany in 1920s.
Pvt. Robert Lodge – born Albany; attended School 6 in Arbor Hill. Enlisted 5/15/17 in New York City – age 20. We think he was the great nephew of John Lodge, who served in the 20th NY “colored troop” regiment in the Civil War. Early member of Spencer VFW Post. Died 1920.
Sgt. George McNamara – born Ballston Spa, NY; raised by grandparents in Albany. Enlisted 5/15/17 – age 35. At time of enlistment, he was a widower living on Dove St. working in a livery stable. He was active in the early days of the Spencer VFW post. After the War he was porter at the Capitol, living on Market St.
Cpl. Foster Molson – born Binghamton NY; lived 49 North Swan St. with family. Enlisted 9/9/18 – age 33 Before the War he was the captain of the very popular Tri-City Black baseball team the Hudson Giants. Brother of Sgt. Merritt Molson. Moved to Queens, NY by mid-1920s.
Sgt. Merritt Molson – born Binghamton; lived 49 North Swan with family. Enlisted 5/15/17 – age 18. Wounded September, 1918. Brother of Cpl. Foster Molson. He was a star track and field athlete at Albany High School and right fielder for the the Hudson Giants. Enlisted in senior year. Returned to high school after War. Active in the early days of the Spencer VFW Post. Graduated Howard University School of Dentistry in 1923 and established a practice in Queens, NY. (Said to have been awarded by Croix de Guerre in History of the Negro in the Great World War, W. Allison Sweeney, 1919.)
Pvt. George Morgan – born Cobleskill, NY. Enlisted 5/15/17 in New York City –age 39. Active in the early days of Spencer VFW Post. Resided 643 Broadway (a boarding house close to Union Station) and worked as a railroad porter in 1920. Clarence Sickles lived in same boarding house.
Pvt. Wilbur Putnam – born Albany; lived 175 Church St. Enlisted 8/16/17 – age 21. Severely wounded in France September, 1918. In 1920 he was living with his family on Dongan Ave. working as a construction laborer. Boarding with the family was Pvt. Edward Taylor.
Pvt. William Randall – born Virginia; address in Albany unknown. Enlisted 5/15/17 in New York City– age 29. Severely wounded in France July, 1918. In 1925 he was working as a porter at Union Station.
Pvt. Augustus (Aubry) Reddick – enlisted from Haverstraw NY, 5/15/17 – age 28. Served in Company F of the Harlem Hellfighters. Moved to Albany after War and was an early member of the Spencer Post.
Pvt. Clarence Sickles – born Albany; grew up next to Pvt. William Freeman on Third St. At time of enlistment lived 89 Orange St. Enlisted 5/15/17 – age 33. Initially in Company F; subsequently transferred to Company C. Severely wounded September, 1918. In the 1920 census he is married and living in same boarding house at 643 Broadway as Pvt. George Morgan, working as porter at Union Station.
Pvt. George Simmons – born Saratoga Springs, NY. Enlisted in NYC 8/17 – age 31. Wounded July, 1918, Moved to Albany after War. (Probably brother of Pvt. William Simmons.)
Pvt. William Simmons – born Saratoga Springs. Enlisted Albany 9/17 – age 23. (Probably brother of Pvt. George Simmons.) We believe he returned to Saratoga Springs after the War.
Pvt. Arthur E. Smith – born Chatham, NY; address in Albany unknown. Enlisted 5/15/17 – age 30. 1920 census lists him as a teamster for a coal company.
Cpl. Edward Taylor – born Hartford, NY; lived 175 Church St. (same address as Pvt. Wilbur Putnam) Enlisted 9/17/17 – age 24. He may have been part of the famed James Reese Europe jazz band of the 369th that took France by storm and created a world wide phenomenon.
Pvt. Lynwood Taylor – born Ashland, Va.; lived in Harlem. Enlisted 6/17. Honorably discharged 7/17 due to physical disability. Moved to Albany after discharge, and in the 1920s was a member of the Walter Dixon Legion Post.
Cpl. William Thomas – born Augusta, Ga.; lived 119 Third St. Employed as an elevator operator. Enlisted 5/15/17 – age 20.
Sgt. Arthur L. Tucker – born Albany NY; lived 5 Chapel St. Enlisted 5/15/17 – age 20. Before the War he was short stop for the very popular Tri-City Black baseball team the Hudson Giants. Awarded Croix de Guerre. In the 1920 census he’s living with his parents on Chapel St. and working as an elevator operator at Whitney’s Dept. Store on N. Pearl St. (Also living in the home was William Brent an elderly Black man who served in the Civil War in a “colored” regiment.) By 1930 he had married, had 4 children, and was living on Third St. and still working at Whitney’s. Tucker was founding member of the Spencer VFW Post for years, and served as Commander several times. He became very active in the county VFW. In later years he was a member of the Albany Inter-Racial Council and the Booker T. Washington Community Center in Arbor Hill.
Pvt. William Vedder – born Schoharie NY; lived 62 Orange St. Enlisted 5/17/17 – age 28. Severely wounded September 29, 1918. Vedder appears to have lived in Albany after the War for a while, but then returned to Schoharie.
Pvt. Harrison Vroman (Vrooman) – born Schoharie NY; lived 62 Orange St. with Pvt. Vedder. Enlisted 5/17/17 – age 20. Vroman returned to Albany after the War, making his home in Arbor Hill. Before the War Vrooman played center field for the Black baseball team the Hudson Giants. It’s quite probable his grandfather was Thomas Vroman, from Schoharie County who served with the 26th NY “colored” regiment.
Pvt. John Wallace – born Selma, Al. Enlisted in Albany 5/15/17- age 39.
Pvt. George Russell Walker – born Catskill NY; attended School 6 in Arbor Hill; lived 240 Livingston Ave. Enlisted 5/15/17– age 18. Severely wounded October, 1918. He was active in Spencer VFW Post for many years.
New York State didn’t abolish slavery until July 1827, so most enslaved persons seeking freedom before that made their way through the New England states where slavery was illegal, although a number made their way to New York City and lost themselves in the crowd.
But after 1827 it was game on in Albany
In 1828 and 1829 the Albany African Association, lead by the Rev. Nathaniel Paul and Ben Lattimore, Jr., Black men, began to intervene in court cases involving people alleged to be enslaved.
It was difficult finding white allies because at that time most white abolitionists believed that American Africans, once freed, should be re-settled outside the U.S. (called “colonization”). This wasn’t out of meanness. They thought it was impossible for African Americans to achieve equal rights and racial justice in the U.S.
By the early 1830s most white abolitionists understood the position of most Blacks- they were born here, they had built the country, and weren’t going anywhere. Some had fathers or grandfathers who had fought on the Patriot side in the Revolution (like Paul and Lattimore, Jr.) End of discussion.
So, by 1833 William Lloyd Garrison and Black and white men (and a few women) formed the American Anti-Slavery Society, bringing together abolitionists across the north. Although the first Vigilance Committee wasn;t formed in New York City until 1835, we suspect that efforts were well underway to help freedom seekers in the City and villages and towns along the Hudson and in the Southern Tier and around the Great Lakes. The Vigilance Committee was the face of the Underground Railroad (UGRR). It included many white abolitionists who could raise money, go to court, and fend off police.
Although the first official Vigilance ￼Committee” wasn’t formed in New York City until 1835, we suspect that efforts were well underway to help freedom seekers in the City and villages and towns along the Hudson and in the Southern Tier and around the Great Lakes. The Vigilance Committee was the face of the UGRR. It included many white abolitionists who could raise money, go to court, and fend off police.
The police were a real problem. Some who attempted to thwart freedom seekers may have thought they were doing the right thing. Enslaved people were property, and they were merely returning property to rightful owners. People helping those attempting to reach freedom were breaking the law; committing an illegal act.
But many others were simply corrupt. They were paid off by the “Slave Catchers” from the South who came North to retrieve “property”.
But we do know that by the first part of 1834 Albany Blacks, under the African Association and the Albany African Clarkson Society (established in 1829) were already rocking and rolling. In April of 1834 at least 100 Black men broke a “runaway” out of the City Jail. (This is one of the earliest documented instances of this sort of collective and very well-organized action by Blacks in the U.S. )
It’s not quite clear when the official Albany Vigilance Committee was formed. Some members like the white Quaker sisters Lydia and Abigail (who would become besties with Frederick Douglass) actually hid escapees and arranged to get them to freedom as well as raising money. Ben Lattimore Jr was probably the wealthiest Black man in Albany; he moved easily among the Black and white communities, and was probably a fund raiser. But he also owned a grocery store, owned a number of properties in Albany, so he was well-placed to secret freedom seekers.
Popular local barbers like Michael Douge and John Stewart could reasonably be expected to get lots of foot traffic of both races to their shops. Richard Wright was a shoemaker. (Wright would become president of the Vigilance Committee in 1844.) Stephen Myers would become supervising agent of the UGRR in later year, was first a grocer and then a waiter. Think of the Vigilance Committee as the Board of Directors and bankers of the UGRR operations.
Within a decade Albany (and Troy) were doing a land office business in help freedom seekers on their way. They came here by all means and from all places.
Basil Dorsey and his brothers escaped from slavery in Maryland in 1837 and made it to Pennsylvania. In 1838 he was re-captured, but escaped to New York where he joined his free wife and two children. He was sent to Albany and then to on to a farm in Charlemont Mass. (Dorsey’s son Charles would marry Emma, the daughter of Ben Lattimore Jr. 30 years later.)
Others went west to Canada through Buffalo and Niagara; some went north directly Canada over the Champlain Canal and still others went northeast through Vermont into Canada. The same man, David Ruggles, who helped Basil Dorsey get to Albany in 1838 helped Frederick Douglass make his way from NYC to New Bedford, Mass. the same year.
There was no single route to freedom. It was a spider web. Options available in the early 1830s changed over time. Some found a place in surrounding communities or even in Albany itself.
By 1842 there were at least 350 men, women and children pouring into the city every year, according to the Rev. Abel Brown, a young white radical abolitionist. Brown was in your face kind of guy, and actually taunted southern slave owners by name once their property was safe in the Albany newspaper the “Tocsin of Liberty”.
His biography, written after his death by his wife, graphically depicts the role of the Albany police. They would obtain a search warrant for one house, and then ignoring the limits of the warrant, conduct illegal searches going from house to house, terrorizing the women and children who were home while the men in family were at work.
According to Brown the Police weren’t just looking for freedom seekers. They would seek free persons of color hoping to sell them into slavery.
No one knows how many thousands of lives were changed as they passed through our City and elsewhere in the North. We know the history of Frederick Douglass, but what became of others is mostly shrouded in the mists of time, although William Still in his 1872 book about the Underground Railroad does include some histories of men and women who went through Albany.
William Topp Lattimore was an African American, born in Albany in 1844.
His grandfather Ben Lattimore Sr. had been one of the few Black men who served in the Revolutionary War.
His father Ben Jr. was a key player in the Underground Railroad (UGRR) in Albany, working as early as 1828 to keep 2 Black children in the city from being sold into slavery in the South. William was named after his father’s good friend, William Topp, another Black man in Albany who was part of the UGRR.
By 1847 he moved the family from Albany to Moreau NY, just south of Glens Falls, where he bought an orchard and established an UGRR station. It was a family affair – and included the oldest of the 11 Lattimore children.
In late Summer 1861, when the call went out for volunteers for the Union Army William, known as Billy, enlisted in the 77th NY, the Saratoga regiment. (He lied about his age.) He served alongside his friends and neighbors who clearly knew he was African Anerican.
Billy’s service was extraordinarily rare. We’ve yet to find another story like his. At that time Black men were prohibited from serving in the Union Army. Yet it appears no one cared that he was African American.
Billy was one of the first men wounded at the Battle of Fort Stevens, in defense of Washington D.C. (President Lincoln and his wife Mary went to observe battle and were told to take cover.) Billy recovered from his severe wound and re-joined his Regiment in late 1864. He mustered out at the end of the War.
(Had he been captured wethink the Confederates would have treated him brutally; they loathed Black Union soldiers.)
After the War Billy went to live in NYC, working as a waiter. But on the death of his father in 1871 returned to take care of the orchard and Mother and sisters.
He joined the GAR (Union Veterans Organization. – Grand Army of the Republic) in Saratoga Springs in the mid 1880s. The entire family moved to that city about 1888. For the rest of his life Billy was a proud member of the GAR, attending all re-unions and serving as an officer on a number of occasions until his death in 1915. He’s indicated in the photo below by the blue arrow.
Billy buried in Greenridge Cemetery in Saratoga Springs with his mother, father and other family members.
If you research Black soldiers from the North in the Civil War you will mostly find references to what were known as the “Colored Troop” (CT) regiments formed in 1864. (Black men weren’t permitted to serve in the Union Army until late 1863. ) The most well-known of these regiments is the 54th Massachusetts memorialized in the movie “Glory”. In New York State 3 CT regiments were raised. About 100 men from Albany served in 54th Massachusetts and the New York colored regiments
If you dig deeper you will find stories of Black men who served in white units, like William Lattimore, born in Albany in 1844, who enlisted with the 78th NY (known as the “Saratoga Regiment”) in late summer 1861. He was severely wounded at the battle of Fort Stevens defending Washington D.C., but served until the War was over. Today the number of men who were allowed into these white regiments (for a variety of reasons) is estimated to be between 5,000 – 6,000, but new stories are found all the time, and it’s quite possible there were many more.
Finally, there are men who served in an extraordinary capacity. One of those was William Henry Johnson. Johnson was born in Alexandria, Va. In 1833, but raised in Philadelphia. In 1850/51 he came to Albany; it appears that he quickly became associated with Stephen Myers, who was by then the supervising agent for Albany’s Underground Railroad (UGRR) helping enslaved Blacks from the south find freedom.
In 1852 he married Sarah Stewart.
Her father, John G. Stewart, had been born a free man in Albany, and became a barber. He was active in the Black community and in anti-slavery activities. In 1831 he started publication of “The African Sentinel”, the second Black newspaper in the U.S. He went on to attend some of the first National Colored Conventions (the only forum for free Black men to discuss political issues of the day- since most of them were denied the right to vote, even in the North). Stewart is linked to Stephen Myers and the UGRR as early as 1831 – it seems quite possible that Stewart’s wife Leah was related to Myers’ wife Harriet.
But in 1855 the couple left Albany and re-located to Philadelphia. There Johnson continued to be active in UGRR activities, and assumed a large and outspoken role in the Black community. He was part of a group of known as “The Leaders” who formed the “Frank Johnson Guard”, a militia organization associated with the Black members of the UGRR. (There were similar militias in Harrisburg, Cincinnati, New York City and Binghamton.) Local white militias would not permit Black men to join, and the Black militias were left mostly not bothered by the white community, because it thought Black men would not fight, couldn’t fight and it was all show.
In August 1859, on the eve of a parade by the Guards, who should appear but John Brown, in the company of Frederick Douglass.
Brown urged the Guard members to tone it down at the parade, to not us use intemperate language, for fear they would rouse suspicions about the Harper’s Ferry Raid, planned for later in the year. Johnson, who had been prepared to deliver a thundering incendiary speech, agreed. In October Brown returned to Philadelphia in an effort to recruit Black men to serve with him. Since Johnson was expecting his first child Brown refused to let him volunteer.
In December 1859 after the failed raid Douglass and some members of the Guard in Philadelphia scrambled. Douglass, who had been discussing plans with Brown and helping him raise money for several years, wired his son in Rochester to destroy documents and fled to New York City. We think the Johnsons returned to Albany.
In April, 1861 shots were fired at Fort Sumter and the War began. Initially Johnson applied to the local Albany militia, but was refused the opportunity to enlist. So, Johnson and other Black men made their way to Connecticut, and associated themselves with the 2nd Connecticut Volunteer Infantry formed in May 1861. Their status is not clear; there are sparse military records for these men during the first years of the War, when Black men were prohibited from fighting. They existed in a sort of limbo, although Johnson does refer to his “enlistment”.
But Johnson sent dispatches from the War front to the Boston newspaper “ The Pine and Palm” (published by James Redpath*, who would become John Brown’s first biographer.)In the dispatches it appears the Johnson and the others MAY have been allowed to participate in all activities of the the Regiment, but he refers to himself as an “independent.” They traveled with the Regiment to bivouac at Camp Mansfield in Washington D.C., and were part of the encampment. Johnson and the other fought in the bloody first Battle of Bull Run in July 1861 (a huge Union loss).
After the 2nd infantry was disbanded ( there was 3 month enlistment duration because the Union was confident it would lick Johnny Reb in no time), Johnson and his group attached themselves to the 8th Connecticut Regiment, calling themselves the “8th Colored Volunteers”. While with this regiment he fought at the Battle of Roanoke Island in North Carolina under General Burnside in February 1862. Johnson became ill and returned to Albany, but military records appear to indicate that some of the other Black men with whom he volunteered remained in military service until the end of the War**
Johnson was in Albany when the prohibition against Black soldiers in the Union Army was lifted. He then became the chief recruiting officer in the Albany area for the 54th Massachusetts Regiment and the NYS Colored Troop Regiments.
After the War Johnson went back to barbering (his shop was on Maiden Lane), and established himself as a major force in Black politics in the Albany and New York State. He’s credited with being a prime mover behind the first New York State equal rights legislation, enacted in 1873 and the successful effort to de-segregate Albany public schools in 1873.
He became so well known that in August 1875 the now famous Black sculptor Edmonia Lewis (from East Greenbush and Albany) presented him with a bust of Charles Sumner at the A.M. E. Church on Hamilton St.
Throughout the late 1800s Johnson continued to work on behalf of equal rights for the African American community, culminating in the Elsberg Bill, signed by Governor Theodore Roosevelt, that officially de-segregated New York State Public Schools.
Sadly, Johnson died almost a pauper at the Little Sisters of the Poor on Central Ave., six months after his beloved Sarah, in October, 1918. They are buried at Albany Rural Cemetery in unmarked graves. (We only know because Paula Lemire, Cemetery historian, has found plot maps.)
*Redpath is credited as being one of the group of Blacks and whites who created the first Memorial Day in Charleston in 1865, by honoring the graves of Union soldiers who died in a Confederate POW camp.
**More research needs to be done on the role Johnson and other Black men played in military combat in the early days of the War. Juanita Patience Moss in Forgotten Black Soldiers Who Served in White Regiments During the Civil War makes a good start. Johnson’s autobiography includes tantalizing references – the Black men may have trained together, rather than with the main regiment, but he also refers to a large number of Black men in the 8th Connecticut camp. About 30 years later a local newspaper makes a point that it’s a shame that Johnson is not eligible to collect a pension.
John G. Stewart is cited in hundreds of books and websites that describe that fight for the eradication of slavery and for equal rights and social justice. We suspect you have never heard of him; frankly neither had we until a couple of years ago. Stewart was the second publisher of a Black newspaper in the U.S.
The first Black newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, published in New York City, closed in 1829 after two years. In 1831 Stewart started The African Sentinel and the Journal of Liberty. Its publication was brief… maybe 8 to 10 months. but it had a critical impact on the fight to end slavery and the battle for equal rights for African Americans.
History books reference the newspaper and then move on; not because writers are ignoring Stewart, but because so little is known about him. So we thought we would try to find out what we could, and how he fits into our history.
Stewart was probably born a free man in Albany about 1800. He first appears in the city directory in 1824 as a barber at 37 North Pearl St. We have no idea where he was educated, probably in the African School in Albany established in 1811 by a handful of free Black men in the city. (Albany was among no more than half a dozen cities with a school for Black children at the time.)
Sometime in the 1820s he married Leah Profitt, daughter of a free woman in the city.
There’s very little evidence of Stewart’s daily life in Albany. We know he was a barber. In the 1831-32 city directory there’s an ad for Stewart’s barber shop on the corner of State and Pearl streets. It’s the first we’ve ever seen by the owner of Black business in a general publication at that early date. It leads us to believe he was fairly well-known and respected in both Black and white Albany (and probably a very good barber).
He was a member of the First African Baptist Church, a gathering place for black activists beginning in 1821. It was in this church in 1827 that the Albany African-American community celebrated the abolition of slavery in New York State on July 5th 1827, and its pastor, the Rev. Nathaniel Paul, gave a sermon on abolition that was re-printed and shared across the country.
It was one of about a dozen black churches in the U.S. where Black liberation theology – not only freedom for those still enslaved, but also the need for equal rights and racial justice for all African Americans in the entire country, took hold.
The Rev. Paul and some of his congregation are mentioned in newspaper reports of the first case in Albany involving an alleged fugitive slave in 1829.
In January 1831 the forthcoming publication of The African Sentinel was announced in The Liberator newspaper, published by William Lloyd Garrison in Boston. The Liberator would become the most widely read anti-slavery newspaper in the U.S. and Garrison would become president of the American Anti-slavery Society. Stewart would serve as its agent in Albany in the early years of its publication. This demonstrates that there were already strong linkages among network of Black and white abolitionists and proponents of equal rights across the Northeast, including Albany. These would strengthen and grow.
In his newspaper proposal Stewart makes it clear that there should be, “.. .at least one public journal conducted by a colored man and devoted to the interests of the colored population throughout this country..”
He then lays down the gauntlet.
“Descendants of Africa! Will you not arise with the dignity of MAN and each proclaim am I not a MAN and a BROTHER?
In Spring 1831 Stewart published the first issue of his paper. Its motto was “I tremble for my country when I think that God is just and that his justice cannot sleep forever (T. Jefferson)”. Clearly it was meant to be a challenge.
Stewart’s newspaper lasted maybe 8 months and there are few extant issues. (Because of its rarity and importance, a single issue sold at auction for $27,000 5 years ago.)
Most of what we do know about The African Sentinel comes from reprints of article in copies of other newspapers that survived. Stewart reported the general news of the day, usually interpreting the impact it would have on the Black community. He also reported news of particular interest, like the progress of the Wilberforce Colony recently established for African-Americans in Canada – both Rev. Nathaniel Paul and his brother Rev. Benjamin Paul were deeply involved.
But he was also fierce. In no uncertain terms he opposed the settlement of Black Americans in Africa, an idea that was quite popular in the time. Stewart made it clear the U.S. was the home and country of Black Americans and they weren’t going anywhere.
The death knell of the newspaper may have been its response to the deadly and violent slave rebellion in Virginia lead by Nat Turner in August 1831. In a letter to the editor of the Albany Argus in October 1831, Stewart gave no quarter. He excoriated Northerners who would support Southern slave-holders, and he only condemned part of the violence. What he published was incendiary. It was the equivalent of throwing a hand grenade.
“The slaves have a perfect right derived from God Almighty to their freedom. They have done vastly wrong in the late insurrection, in the killing of women and children; but still it is not to be wondered at. Their struggle is the same principle as the struggle of our fathers in ’76. I hope they may achieve their liberty eventually by fair and heroic means, in a brave and manly conflict with their masters.”
We suspect that sentiment, supporting armed rebellion by enslaved populations, was a bridge too far for most subscribers. The African Sentinel folded shortly thereafter.
But Stewart did not stop his activism. He remained adamantly opposed to colonization, and was part of a a local Albany group in opposition. In 1833 he first attended the National Convention of Free Men of Color in Philadelphia, and served on several committees. He would attend the 1834 Convention in New York along with another barber and fellow parishioner Charles Morton. Morton would be the agent for The Liberator in Albany for almost a decade.
Older members of the Albany African Baptist Church has attended earlier conventions, and began to create linkages between the men, Black and white, who would form the basis of the anti-slavery movement (and much of the Underground Railroad -UGRR ) in this country for the next three decades. John G. Stewart and Charles S. Morton followed in their footsteps.
Although not identified specifically as a member of the Albany’s UGRR Stewart is associated as early as 1831 with Stephen Myers. Myers would become the manager of Albany’s UGRR. In 1842 Stewart (and we believe Morton as well) teamed up to edit the newspaper Stephen Myers published The Northern Star and Freeman’s Advocate.
Sadly, John G. Stewart disappeared from the city director in 1845 and in 1852 Leah is listed as a widow. Charles Morton passed away at about the same time.
After the deaths of Stewart and Morton the publication of The Northern Star became infrequent and sporadic.
Stewart’s daughter Sarah married William H. Johnson in 1852. Johnson came to Albany around 1850, and worked in the UGRR, served briefly in the Civil War, became the most prominent Black politician and activist in post-War Albany. He’s credited with writing New York State’s first equal rights law in 1873.
By the end of the Civil War roughly 175,000 black men (10% of the Union Army) served as soldiers in the U.S. Army, and another 19,000 served in the Navy. About 4,500 men from New York State served in the War. So far we’ve found the names about 90 men with links to Albany.
Black men were not allowed to serve in the Union Army until 1863 when Massachusetts raised the 54th regiment of “colored troops” in spring 1863. These are the men whose gallantry and courage are portrayed in the movie “Glory”. By early 1864 New York State finally raised 3 regiments of colored troops – the 20th, the 26th and the 31st. About 3,000 men from New York and elsewhere enlisted in this regiments, and in similar regiments mustered in the other Union states. Other Black men served in the Navy before 1863, scattered on various Union ship as cooks and stewards.
The 54th Massachusetts
We’ve identified 10 men from Albany County (mostly from Albany city) who served in the 54th Massachusetts.
Charles Bell – age 20, waiter, private
William Briggs – age 21, waiter, private
William Everson – age 19, laborer, private
William Francis – age 30, waiter, private
Benjamin Helmus – age 21, waiter, private
James Jones – age 33, waiter, mustered out as Sargent
Edgar Morgan – age 20, laborer, private
Alexander Thompson – age 25 laborer, private
John Titus age 21, laborer, private
George Alfred Wilson – 23, laborer, private
Bell, Briggs, Everson, Francis, Helmus, Jones, Morgan, Thompson, and Titus went to Massachusetts, and enlisted as a group on March 29, 1863, and became part of Company E. All but two of the of the men, Bell and Wilson, are identified as being present at the attack of the 54th on Fort Wagner in Charleston, South Carolina. Although the attack was unsuccessful it proved to the nation that Black men could fight with courage, bravery and skill. The Confederate soldiers buried the dead Union soldiers in a mass grave, and in a gesture of utter contempt, threw the body of their white commander Col. Robert Gould Shaw in the same pit. Later Shaw’s father wrote, “We would not have his body removed from where it lies surrounded by his brave and devoted soldiers. … We can imagine no holier place than that in which he lies, among his brave and devoted followers, nor wish for him better company. – what a body-guard he has.”
While some of the men from Albany were wounded, all but one survived – William Briggs died from his wounds a number of days after the battle. Some of the wounds were horrendous, and left many of the men serious disabilities from gunshot and bayonet wounds.
Alexander Hill from Hudson died in Albany in 1876; his death was attributed to the wounds received at Fort Wagner.
NYS Colored Regiments
The 20th, the 26th and the 31st regiments were raised in in New York City in Spring 1864. While many people were not totally on board with NY establishing African American regiments the State was having difficulty meeting its enrollment quotas, and the draft was despised. We’ve identified about 50 men who were born or lived in Albany County who served in these regiments.
Most of the Albany men were members of the 20th and 26th regiments, the first two established. Many of the volunteers were from outside of the city; farmers and laborers from Bethlehem, Coxsackie, Rennselaerville, etc. Most were in their late teens or early 20s. We need to do more research to find out more, but we can tell you some about two of the men.
William Latour was an older man, age 38, and a barber when he enlisted in the 26th NY (CT). His father Henry was born enslaved on the farm owned by the French aristocrat émigré the Marquis de La tour du Pin who fled to this area in the 1790s after escaping the guillotine in the French Revolution. When they purchased their farm in Watervliet Madame La Tour was shocked that General Schuyler and others advised that they would be unable to sustain the farm without slaves. It appears that when the family sold the farm before their return to France in 1798 they freed those they had enslaved. (There is no mention of slaves in the description of the farm used for the sale.) Most of the those previously enslaved made their way to Albany city, and appear as free people in the very early city directories. Henry was one of the Black men who attended the first New York State Colored Convention held in Albany in 1840, and played a pivotal role in aiding the escape of the fugitive Charles Nalle in Troy NY in 1859. (In the nick of time Henry arrived with a wagon and whisked him away, with the help of Harriet Tubman.)
Sylvester Dorsey was born in Ithaca and enlisted in the 26th in 1864. He was also 38. After the War he settled in Albany (we think that there was a family relationship with the family of John Titus who served with the 54th Massachusetts). In Albany he married Frances Johnson, a member of a leading Black Albany family. He was a blacksmith by trade, and in 1879 he was the armorer for the Albany Zouave Cadet Company (which would become part of the 10th NYS National Guard). In 1910 the history of the Company was published and this description of Sylvester Dorsey in 1879 appears:
“Many of the exempts (note: this means members of the Company) will remember the faithful old servitor, and will the dispute the truth of the present day saying about all “coons” looking alike. Dorsey has an individuality all his own, and as the members of the old Guard conjure up his shining ebony face there will come trooping many recollections of happy days gone…”
(By 1879 many members of the Company were young and merely “playing” at being a soldier, yet Sylvester Dorsey had actually served in the War.)
Other Colored Troop Regiments
Based on information from various data bases we found another 40 or so additional African American men born in Albany who served in the other “colored” regiments across the North and in the Union navy who enlisted in places as diverse as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Maine.
Black Men Who Served in White Units
No one really knows how many African American soldiers served with white regiments in the Civil War. A low estimate is about a 1,000, and they are thought to have been mostly “contrabands”, enslaved men who made it to Union positions, and served as cooks and officer valets and stewards in white regiments.
But what we found turns that theory on its head. In late summer 1861, at the very start of the War, William Topp Lattimore , an African American born in Albany enlisted in the 77th NY (the “Saratoga Regiment”). Their grandfather, Benjamin Lattimore, who had been one of the few Black Revolutionary War soldiers, settled in Albany in the late 1790s. He had been instrumental in creating the first African school in the city and had been a major mover and shaker in the Black community. His son, Benjamin Lattimore, Jr., followed in his father’s footsteps. He was an active member of Albany’s African American political and social community, an ardent abolitionist and a member of Albany’s Underground Railroad (UGRR). In 1847 he pulled up stakes and moved his large family to a farm he purchased in Moreau N.Y. in Saratoga County just south of Glens Falls. There he continued his UGRR activities.
he time the War started both William (Billy as he was called) had lived in Moreau for 14 years. He enlisted and fought side by side with the white men with whom he had attended school and church.
Billy re-enlisted (he may have been the only African American soldier, or one of a few who served at Gettysburg), and was seriously wounded at Fort Stevens in 1864. After the War Ben became a rolling stone, traveling across the country, finally ending up as a porter at a San Francisco Hotel for several decades. Billy first went to New York City and then came back to the farm after his father died in 1873. For the rest of his life he would remain proud of his military service and was an active member of the 77th NY GAR (Grand Army of the Republic) Association for Union Army veterans. He attended every encampment and reunion, and often served as an officer of the Association.
We aren’t sure if the enlistment of the William Lattimore is a complete anomaly or similar enlistments happened across the North. We do know, based on picture of Billy in a large GAR re-union he was very light skinned (the family is listed variously as Black or Mulatto in different census data.) There is no indication in any military active service or pension records that either brother was not white. It’s a mystery that’s worth pursuing.
Here is the list we have so far of Albany men who served in colored regiments or the U.S. Navy,
Alexander, John – U.S. Navy
Anthony, Andrew 8th US CT
Anthony, Fleetwood – 29th NY CT
Baker, Charles – 26th NY CT
Becker, John Henry – 20th NY CT
Brent, William – 2nd Cav CT
Brown, Jackson – 20th NY CT
Bulah, Joseph – 11th Heavy Artillery CT
Burns, William – 26th NY CT
Cain, Andrew – 26th NY CT
Cambridge, Samuel – U.S. Navy – “Grand Gulf”
Cane, David – 26th NY CT
Ceasar, John – 31st CT – KIA in Petersburg
Champion, Theodore – 26th NY CT
Cisco, John 20th – NY CT (also listed as 31st CT)
Crummel (Cromwell?), James – 5th Heavy Artillery CT
Curtis, Milo – 20th NY CT
Darby, George = 26th NY CT
Dickson, Albert – 26th NY CT
Dickson, Peter – 20th NY CT
Dickson, Richard – 26th NY CT
Dickson, William – 26th NY CT
Diffenderf, Henry – regiment unknown
Dixon, Robert – 26th NY CT
Dorcey, Abraham – 20th NY CT
Fletcher, Harvey – 26th NY CT
Green, Zebulon – 11th Heavy Artillery CT (also appears to be listed as sailor and 24th CT)
Groomer, Solomon – 26th NY CT
Habbard, Luther – 26th NY CT
Hallenbeck, William – regiment unknown
Harden, Steven – U.S. Navy “Mohongo”
Harding, George – 8th US CT
Holland, George – 20th NY CT
Harding, Morris – 26th NY CT
Holland, George – 20th NY CT
Hollin, Samuel – 26th NY CT
Holmes, Poliver – 26th NY CT
Houzer, Richard – 3rd CT
Ingold, George – 29th NY CT
Jackson, Abram – 26th NY CT
Jackson, Anthony – 36th NY CT
Jackson, Charles – 11th Heavy artillery CT
Jackson, Jacob – 26th NY CT
Jackson, Jerod – 26th NY CT
Jackson, John – 31st CT
Jackson, Joseph – 26th NY CT
Jackson, Prime – 31st CT
Jackson, Robert – 26th NY CT
Jackson, Samuel – 26th NY CT
Jackson, William – 26th NY CT
Jackson, William Henry – 11th heavy artillery CT
Jarris, Henry – 26th NY CT
Johnson, Daniel – 26th NY CT
Johnson, David – 26th NY CT
Johnson, Henry – 20th NY CT
Johnson, Nicholas – U.S. Navy
Johnson, William – 44th NY (may be in accurate)
Johnston, Henry – 24th CT
Jones, Davis – 20th NY CT
Jones, Solomon – 1st CT and 1st CT Cavalry
Keyser, Zacariah – 26th NY CT
Kniskern, Harrison – 61st NY (may be inaccurate)
Lavendar, Benjamin – 11th Heavy Artillery CT
Lawyer, George – 20th NY CT
Lewis, Peter – 26th NY CT
London, George – 26th NY CT
London, Michael Thomas – 26th NY CT
Manuel, Charles – 26th NY CT
Marco – 30th NY – probably inaccurate
Moore, John – 41sr CT (New Hampshire)
Morgan, George – 14th Rhode Island CT
Morgan, Henry – 11th Heavy Artillery CT and 14th Rhode Island CT
Morgan, Luther- 20th NY CT
Murphy, Charles – 20th NY CT
Nash, James -26th NY CT
Nash, Samuel – 26th NY CT
O’Neil, William – 26th NY (also listed with 31st CT)
Panton, Charles – no regiment listed CT
Raymond, J.S – 5th CT Cavalry (Mass) CT
Richard, Hart – 26th NY CT
Richard, Scott – 26th NY CT
Rix, Ambrose – 144th NY (probably inaccurate)
Rondout, John – no regiment listed
Saulter (Salter), Isaac – 26th NY CT
Sawyer, George – 30th CT
Scott, Richard – 30th CT (also listed as 26th NY CT)
Smith, William – 8th CT
Smoke, Josiah – 20th NY CT
Smoke, William – 31st CT
Snyder, Thomas – 18th NY (probably inaccurate)
Spanberg (Speanbergh), Henry – 91st NY (probably inaccurate)