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

The Very Clever Catherine Blake and the Kenmore Hotel

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.

Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor

So Much for The Victorian Age in Albany: Adah Isaacs Menken

Actress/poet/bohemian Adah Isaacs Menken created a sensation in Albany when she first rode a horse across the stage on June 7, 1861. The attraction was twofold: first, she was performing a traditionally male role in the play, “Mazeppa,” a local favorite since 1833; and second, her character was supposed to be strapped to a horse, naked, and left to die. Adah wasn’t naked, she was covered in diaphanous white cloth – but that was close enough for 19th century thrill seekers.

Her story from a 1964 Knickerbocker News article, by Miriam Biskin:

“At a period when anti-southern feeling ran high, the darling of Albany’s theatre-goers was a New Orleans belle, who wore pink tights from head to foot and who rode to fame strapped to the back of a big black horse. Half of the audience came to marvel at her horsemanship while the other half came to view her daring garb, and neither half left disappointed.

The theatre in which she appeared was located on the west side of Green Street, south of Hamilton. It had been opened to the public on January 18, 1813 in an effort to make a contribution which would “correct the language, refine the taste, ameliorate the heart and enlighten the understanding.”

Such dramas as “The West Indian” and “Fortune’s Frolic” were often shown at box office prices of 50 cents, 75 cents, and $1.00 – whether Miss Menken’s • appearance cause any advance in prices is unrecorded.The theatre was jammed to capacity, however, because by the time Miss Menken appeared in Albany she was already a star in the theatrical world, and her name was synonymous with everything which was daring and exposed.

Extremely buxom, she posed in all sorts of be tasseled portraits in as much undress as the Victorian world would tolerate. Her career had been a series of ups and downs and now that she was on top, she was determined to maintain that position at any price. Born in Milneberg near New Orleans on June 15, 1832, she was named Adah Bertha Theodore. Her father died in a yellow fever epidemic while she was still very young, and her mother remarried a man of some wealth who saw to it that Adah received an excellent education. She learned Latin, Hebrew, Greek and French, and took pleasure in attending the theatre and the opera in New Orleans.

By the time she was 18, she was completely stage-struck, and by the time she was 21, she was appearing with an amateur theatrical group:. She had taken some time off to elope with Isaacs Menken, the scion of a wealthy Cincinnati family. From then on, Menken took over the position of her manager, and Adah was soon appearing in theatres in Shreveport, Vicksburg and Nashville. Wherever she went, she was received with tremendous enthusiasm by a growing host of male admirers. In Dayton, she was feted by the Dayton Home Guard, much to the distress of her jealous husband. He demanded that she leave the stage. She refused and he left. After the divorce, Adah married John Heenan, heavyweight champion (living in WestTroy, NY), who brought her little comfort. Nothing like the docile Menken, he released all sorts of statements vilifying his wife to the papers. Menken added to the furor by issuing her own incendiary statements declaring the initial divorce null and void. A second divorce was soon granted and a new Adah [SENTENCE AND A HALF MISSING, SORRY!]

Adah was a stage-struck girl who wrote excellent poetry in the style of Wait Whitman – religious verse dedicated to Charles Dickens who thanked her profusely for the compliment. The new Adah was a hardheaded publicity seeker who smoked cigars and cropped her hair short in the style of an unkempt urchin. She sought out the bohemians of the day and lived in their free and easy style.

It was at this point that she was offered the role of Prince Mazeppa in Mazeppa or The Wild Horse of Tartary. Cast in the role of the young prince who was strapped naked to a horse and turned loose in the wilderness to die, she was taking a part usually played by a man. And most men were willing to use a dummy substitute for the gallop upstage. But not Menken – she wanted no substitute – and it was her daring which brought crowds into the theatres.

Her tour of New York State was a triumph, and her trip south marred only by an arrest caused by her determination to decorate her dressing room with Confederate flags. In the west, she was welcomed by the miners’ wild adulation and the milder compliments of two young writers, Joaquin Miller and Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain). Clemens, then a reporter for the Virginia City Enterprise, was particularly intrigued by her garb. He described her performance in these terms: “She appeared to have but one garment on – a thin, tight white linen one, of unimportant dimensions; I forget the name of the article, but it is indispensable to infants of tender age.”

He was definitely unimpressed by her acting and horsemanship: “She bends herself back like a bow; she pitches headforemost at the atmosphere like a battering ram; she works her arms and legs and her whole body like a dancing-jack…in a word, without any apparent reason for it, she carries on like a lunatic…if this be grace, then the Menken is eminently graceful.”

Returning from the western tour, Menken embarked for the European capitals and fresh triumphs. The critics deplored the entire production of Mazeppa but this did not deter the ticket-buyers, In Europe, too, she made friends with the great and near-great – Algernon Swinburne., Charles Dickens, Dante Rossetti, Alexander Dumas, pere and others. Between the time of her Albany debut in 1861 and tier Paris appearance in 1864, she had married twice more and borne a son who died in infancy.

Despite personal turmoil, her professional fortunes soared. Paris was at her feet and Menken coats, Menken scarves, Menken collars, and even Menken pantaloons were the rage. Few realized that the glamorous star was ill until she collapsed during rehearsal and died a few weeks later. How long she had been a consumptive no one knew but she was dead at 33 – the flamelike quality that Dickens had called the “world’s delight” extinguished forever. They buried her in a corner of the little Jewish cemetery in Montparnasse, and on her grave stone are the words, “Thou Knowest,” an epitaph she had chosen from Swinburne, the poet who had said of her, “A woman who has such beautiful legs need not discuss poetry.”

Note: Miss Mazeppa is the name of is one of the strippers in “Gypsy”. Homage to Miss Menken’s fame that lingered into the 20th century. “You gotta have a gimmick”.

By Al Quaglieri

The Great Railroad Labor Strike of 1877 in Albany

I0n July 14, 1877 a strike among Baltimore and Ohio railroad workers in West Virginia and Baltimore lit a spark that spread to the Mid- West and Northeast, including Albany. It was the first labor strike to spread across the nation.

It started in the aftermath of the Great Depression of 1873 – the worst Depression to grip the nation since the Great Depression of the 1930s. At the worst of the economic downturn unemployment reached 14%. It was the age of railroad and other robber barons and their huge fortunes – capitalism run amok with no safeguards for workers. And so the railroads started cutting wages and then cut them again. Wages in some sectors decreased to about 45% of what that had previously been.

The strike reached Albany in late July 1877. Albany was a railroad hub for the New York Central, Delaware and Hudson and other railroads. Thousands of Albany men, especially Irish immigrants were employed by the railroads. And things became violent. Tracks were ripped up in an effort to halt the trains. There were efforts to impede arrivals and departures at the two train depots in the city – one near the corner of Broadway and Clinton, and the other on Broadway, near the famous Delevan House Hotel.

Strikers tried to damage the West Albany railroad yards, owned by the New York Central Railroad – near Watervliet Ave. and Everett Rd., and clashed with the Guard.

Other workers joined the strike in solidarity with the railroad workers. The economic oppression of the ruling class was felt throughout the working class.

The Governor called in the State National Guard. And the Guard and federal troops were sent to other states. After 45 days the strike was quelled, with over 100 people dead and millions in property damage in across the country. In the short term the strike had little effect on labor conditions and wages. But it did get the attention of the nation, and it was the catalyst for an explosion in the growth of trade unions across the country. Especially in Albany, which became a hub for the growth of the labor movement. The unions pushed for better wages and better working conditions.

In 1894, President Grover Cleveland, who had once been Governor of New York State and seen it all, signed into law the federal act making Labor Day a federal holiday.

Thank the unions.

Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor

More in our Recurring Series: The Bicentennial Tablets; Where Are They Now? First Presbyterian Church

Tablet No. 9 – First Presbyterian Church

As we’re tracking the histories associated with the tablets that were installed in 1886 to commemorate the bicentennial of Albany’s charter as a city, we’ve been lucky so far in that nearly all of the tablets we’ve written about have survived. The first lost tablet marked the site of the first Lutheran Church. Now the second one that has been lost is the one marking the site of the first Presbyterian church. And given the tremendous changes in topography in this particular part of Albany, it’s a little difficult to show exactly where it was. But we’ll try.

Inscription on Tablet

Bronze tablet, 16×22 inches, inserted in the wall of building north-east corner of Grand and Hudson streets. Inscribed thereon :
“Site of the First Presbyterian Church — Built 1763 — Removed 1796.”

Of course the north-east corner of Grand and Hudson Ave. doesn’t exist anymore, it’s buried somewhere under what is now the Times-Union Center. And to the best of my knowledge this tablet doesn’t exist anymore either. “The Argus” in 1914 noted that this was one of three tablets that had “been refastened with slot-headed screws, instead of having the heads filed flat as originally, and in one case at least the screws are becoming loosened.” The paper also noted that “there is a possibility of the city taking the block bounded by Hudson Avenue, Grand, Beaver and William streets for an addition to the public market, in which case something would have to be done with tablet No. 9, marking the site of the First Presbyterian church.” In the end, that building was unaffected by the market, which was built across the street.

The Neighborhood

It is really hard to relate where things used to be when they have changed so very, very substantially. All of the  tablets so far have been on buildings that continue to exist, or at least in places we could point to with some ease. But here we’re talking about entire city blocks that are gone, on streets that we barely recognize in the modern landscape. So, we’ve done the best we can to relate where the first three buildings of the First Presbyterian Church of Albany were located. The first location is squarely underneath the Times-Union Center (not to worry: the Presbyterians came late enough there were no burials around their church that we are aware of). The second is under the plaza corner of the Omni Tower. The third is buried directly below the exit roads from the Empire State Plaza and the East Parking Garage.

The First Presbyterian Church

A history of the First Presbyterian Church of Albany, written by Rev. J. McClusky Blayney in 1877 unhelpfully says, “The exact date and circumstances of the organization of the Presbyterian Church in this city, I have not been able to ascertain.” We aren’t a professional historian, but to Mr. Blayney, author of the history of the First Presbyterian Church, we must say: you had one job.

Blayney said that he had seen notices of the date of organization of the church as 1763, and that he thought it a mistake related to the deed of October 1763, when the City provided a deed for a lot on which to build a church. Blayney believed the congregation dated to at least a year earlier, in 1762, and he noted that in 1760 there was at least Presbyterian preaching being done here. The Albany church was associated with the Dutchess County Presbytery in late 1762 or 1763. In 1775 it was transferred to the Presbytery of New York; a Presbytery of Albany was established in 1790. The first pastor of this church was Rev. William Hanna. But the Bicentennial Committee, anyway, was satisfied with a date of 1763 for the church building, and that appears to be the best we’re going to do.

The First Church Building: Hudson and Grand

The first building stood with Hudson street to its south, Grand to its west, Beaver to the north, and William to the east. Blayney writes that “This ground was then known as ‘the gallows hill,’ and is described as being ‘very steep.’” (Several Albany locations have been called gallows hill at various times.)

“The first church building was erected on this lot during the year 1764. A stairway winding around the hill, and very difficult of ascent during the winter season, was the only means of approach to the church. The house was built of wood, and is described as being ‘of a respectable size, though not of a very elegant appearance.’ It was covered with a flat roof and surmounted with a tower and spire, the tower containing a bell. it was painted red, and stood fronting the east.” Unfortunately, we have found no image of this first church. This description is as much as we know of it.

That description would place the very first Presbyterian church building just about at the southeast box office entrance of the Times-Union Center. The driveway into the parking lot from the current Market Street is essentially William Street. The marker was placed on a building at the northeast corner of Grand and Hudson, so just a little bit west along the Times-Union Center’s current structure from that entrance. The building that stood there (97 Hudson, or 16 Grand, depending on which way one was facing) was used for many years by Chuckrow’s Poultry – possibly as early as 1900, and at least until 1972. So it appears the building even survived the Empire State Plaza and expressway construction.

A look at photographs of Chuckrow’s doesn’t reveal the location of the tablet – given how many windows were in the facade at street level, it’s likely that renovations to the building could have displaced the tablet at any time. The building likely survived into the ’70s; a 1980s photograph shows the corner building gone, but the remaining strip on Grand still intact, so the block likely survived until the construction of the Times-Union Center.

The Second Church Building: South Pearl and Beaver

Owing to the growth in the congregation, the trustees of the church appointed a committee in 1792 to purchase “a lot on the plains” for a new church – presumably they had had enough of the stairs. The lot was on the northeast corner of South Pearl and Beaver streets, and a construction contract was let in March 1795. They struggled to raise the needed money, and borrowed against the future sale of pews. The church was completed and first occupied Nov. 2, 1796; “the steeple was not finished for nearly twelve years afterwards.”

Given the timing, we suspected that this second church could have been the work of Albany’s preeminent architect of the day, Philip Hooker, but according to “A Neat Modern Stile: Philip Hooker and His Contemporaries,” this design was by Elisha Putnam. The steeple that wasn’t finished for nearly twelve years, however, was credited to Philip Hooker, in 1808.

That building was enlarged and remodeled in 1831. It remained the Presbyterian Church until 1850, when the congregation moved to another new church, this time at Philip and Hudson, just a block away from the church’s first location. The old (second) building became home to the Congregational Society for at least a few years.

The site of the second First Presbyterian church then became known as the Beaver Block (at least as early as 1869), and was used for businesses but also still hosted services, of the First Universalist Society. It seems likely the brick church was either torn down (“A Neat Modern Stile” reports it was razed circa 1890) or somehow incorporated into a much larger structure, because the Beaver Block, which housed many businesses and seems to have served as a union hall, was eventually a large structure spanning from Howard to Beaver.

Blayney sheds little light on the conversion, writing: “It then [1850] passed into the possession of the Congregational Society of this city, and was improved by them, till within a few years; when they removed to their new church on Eagle street. It was then sold, and has since been used for business purposes, and is now known as Beaver Block, on South Pearl street.” But try as we may, we do not find when the Beaver Block was finally demolished.

The Third Church Building: Philip and Hudson

The third structure to house the First Presbyterian Church was a substantial structure located at Philip and Hudson, opening in March 1850, although it wasn’t considered completed (with the construction of a lecture room) until 1857.

First Methodist Church

It was at this building that Susan B. Anthony found her woman’s suffragist groove in 1852.   In that year she came to Albany as an elected delegate, along with several other women, to a state temperance convention.  She rose to speak and was told that women were there merely to observe, not to speak.  Sje and other women walked out.  She went found her BFF Lydia Mott who lived in Albany; Mott suggested she hold her own temperance meeting, just for women, and arranged for that meeting to be held at the First Presbyterian Church.  As they say, “the rest is history”.

The front tower of the church was found to be dangerously settling in 1870, resulting in it being reconstructed and significant interior repairs made. In 1884, the Presbyterians moved again, to the much tonier neighborhood Washington Park and the church that still stands at the corner of State and Willett, and this church became the First Methodist Church; it was finally demolished around 1963-64 to make way for the South Mall, or the Empire State Plaza.

By Carl Johnson from his blog Hoxsie.org

The Beginning of Albany’s Underground Railroad (UGRR)

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. )

1834
Before it was the city hospital the jail was in this building at the corner of Eagle and Howard Streets.

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.

1854

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.

From Abel Brown’s Biography
From Abel Brown’s Biography

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.

Julie O’Connor

Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor

The Bicentennial Tablets – Where are they now? Tablet No. 7—First English Church

 

In 1886 the 200th anniversary of Albany becoming a chartered city was celebrated with great fanfare. Memorial plaques (tablets) were placed around the city at historic sites.

Tablet No. 7—First English Church

The “tablet committee” proposed that 7 be located in the walk, near the curb, north-west corner of Chapel and State Streets. It was a bronze tablet, 11×23 inches, set in the top of a granite block 21×33 inches square and 16 inches high above the sidewalk, and would have a slanting top to shed water. It would read:

“Opposite in middle of State street stood the First English Church Erected A. D. 1715—Removed and Rebuilt as St. Peter’s church 1803 on next corner west. Rebuilt 1859.”

There is no longer a northwest corner of Chapel and State, although we suspect Chapel still exists on paper. It is a driveway between the Hilton Hotel and the bank building that holds down the Elm Tree corner. There are notable markers nearby in the center islands, thoughtfully placed so that pedestrians waiting forever for drivers to acknowledge the walk signals have something to read while they wait.

A 1914 report in the Albany Argus notes that while the Bicentennial Report said this tablet was to be set in the northwest corner of Chapel and State streets, it was never placed there, “but a tablet with a more elaborate inscription was placed on the front wall of St. Peter’s church.” This would explain why the tablet at St. Peter’s doesn’t say what the committee said it would. The tablet that was actually cast looks entirely different from the other bicentennial tablets, and includes much more church history.

“In the middle of State, formerly Yonkers Street, one block below, stood the First English Church, built A.D. 1715, upon ground granted by letters patent from King George the First. It bore the name of St. Peter’s Church. The Parish was incorporated A.D. 1769. The Second St. Peter’s Church was built on this Site A.D. 1802, and bore this inscription: Glory be to the Lord, for He is good; for His mercy endureth forever. The present edifice was built A.D. 1859. Upon this spot stood the north east bastion of Fort Frederick.”

The First English Church

Recall that despite the colony having been taken under English rule in 1664, Albany was Dutch, Dutch to the core, and a few English soldiers and government officials didn’t change that. In 1704, Albany was described to Church of England clergy in New York as:

“A large frontier town where most of the people are Dutch, who have from Amsterdam a Dutch minister, one Mr. Lydius, but there are some English families, besides a garrison of Soldiers, who are a considerable congregation. A Church of England minister here will, in all probability do signal service, not only by setting up public worship to the joy and comfort of the English, who impatiently desire a minister, and persuading the Dutch and others to conform, but also instructing the Indians which come in greater numbers thither.” Hooper’s “A History of St. Peter’s Church in the City of Albany,” p. 85, referring to “Doc. Hist. N.Y. Vol. III, p. 117”

It would be 1708 before an English church clergyman, Rev. Thomas Barclay, would be commissioned at the fort, which then contained a garrison of 200 soldiers. Barclay was also named missionary to Native Americans who came to Albany, as well as the enslaved persons (which made up about 450 of Albany’s 4000 people in 1712). Barclay wrote in 1710 that he was catechising “a great many Dutch children, who at my first arrival were altogether ignorant of the English tongue,” as well as preaching at Schenectady’s garrison of 40 soldiers as well as 16 English families and 100 Dutch; there had been no Dutch minister there for five years. In Albany, Lydius, the Dutch minister, died in March 1710, with no replacement for more than a year. The English church services were taking place in a “much decayed” small chapel belonging to the Dutch church.

In 1714, Governor Robert Hunter granted license to Rev. Barclay to collect money for the building of a church “in the centre of the broad street called Yonkers Street, leading from the fort to the waterside, between the end of Pearl Street and the small street that leads to the Lutheran Church.”

It was later decided that a location on the hill nearer the fort would allow more room for church and cemetery. But still, being Albany, the center of the street seemed a perfectly reasonable place to put a church.

Hooper writes that “soon after the patent was received, workmen began to lay out the plot granted in the middle of the street.” This site would lead to a dispute between the province of New York, which granted the patent, and the City of Albany, which determined that “the right of the Crown to convey land without any title from the City ought to be tested.” Work on the foundation had begun in November 1714, and legal battles ensued, with Albany taking legal action against workmen at the site. The issue was ultimately resolved in the church’s favor, and the church opened Nov. 25, 1716.

The Second Church: St. Peter’s

By 1796, according to Hooper, it was recognized that the congregation had outgrown the original church. Now known as St. Peter’s, they already had rights to purchase a lot at Barrack (Chapel), Steuben, Lodge and Pine Streets. The sale/exchange was complicated – church properties were assessed in those days, and there was the matter of wanting the old church’s steeple left standing, for it was from there that the fire bell rang. There were other matters under consideration, such as the potential joining of the Lutherans, who used the same church building, with the English Episcopalians, such that the matter was put off for some years. It would be January 1802 before there was a contract made with Philip Hooker, Elisha Putnam, Garrett W. Van Schaick and Samuel Hill to “erect, build and complete a stone Church on the lot of ground in the first ward of the City of Albany at the intersection of State and Lodge streets.” The church was to be completed by June 15, 1803. A new cornerstone was laid May 7, 1802.

“When the first St. Peter’s was torn down, the bodies of all those buried within the church were carefully removed and re-interred under the tower of the second building. Among them were the remains of the gallant Lord Howe, who fell at Trout Brook, July 6, 1758, in the campaign against the French. A payment of seventeen dollars and a half ($17.50), was made to Adam Todd, the sexton, ‘for raising, removing, and interring, the remains of 35 persons from the interior of the old Church in State Street when demolished to the new Church now building.”

Thanks to contributor Adrian Brisee we have additional evidence that the bodies were, in fact moved, in the form of a record made in a Stevenson/Douw family bible. John Stevenson (1735-1810), a warden of the church who laid the cornerstone, wrote:

“In the beginning of July 1802, the workmen began to take down St. Peter’s Church in this City, and on the 19th instant, I had the bones of my Father and five of my Children, taken up, and put into a new coffin, and interred in the new St. Peter’s Church near the centre of the North Hall, back of the pulpit, and had a silver plate put on it, with this incription, to wit:

‘In this coffin are the bones of my father James Stevenson Esq., who died 2d February 1769, and was buried in the Episcopal St. Peter’s Church, and when it was taken down they were removed to the new Episcopal Church, called St. Peter’s. In this coffin are also the bones of five of my children. Albany 19 July 1802.’

[signed] John Stevenson

A marble slab was to be placed above the pediment of the main entrance.

The Third Church

Construction on the third church, designed by Richard Upjohn of New York City, began in 1859, with demolition completed and the first foundation stone for the new church laid by April 8. In the course of that demolition, they discovered a somewhat mysterious stone, four feet long and one foot thick. “Upon its face cut in are the following letters of an ancient form, A.M.S. and A.N.O. joined together as one letter, bearing date, 1715.” Hooper says there is no record of laying any cornerstone for the first church, and that the stone work of that building was taken by Hooker and Putnam in partial payment. “It seems strange that a relic like that should have been allowed to be built into the foundation, if the authorities of St. Peter’s were aware of its value. It may not have been connected with the church, but a stone from the old fort, as the north-east bastion and other parts of the fort enclosure occupied the site of the present church. The stone does not appear to have been preserved.” In other words, we found a mysterious but potentially important stone, we didn’t know what it was about, and we lost it again.

On June 29th, 1859, with the foundation walls nearly completed, there was a large ceremonial placement of the new cornerstone, along with “a proper lead box to be placed under the stone, and a silver plate with a proper inscription to be deposited in that box, with such documents and other articles as the Committee may deem proper.”

What they deemed proper included “the Bible and Prayer Book, the New York Convention Journal for 1858, photographs of the old church, a list of pew holders, a diagram of the old church, and a silver plate upon which was inscribed a brief record of the laying of the corner stone, the names of those connected with the building of the new church, and a concise history of the parish.” The first service in the new church was held September 16, 1860. While there have been some significant renovations, including the erection of the tower in honor of John Tweddle and interior renovations, the church still stands and functions some 160 years later.

By Carl Johnson, from his blog Hoxsie.org

More in the series – The Bicentennial Tablets from 1886 – where are they now?Bicentennial Tablet No. 8 – St. Mary’s Church

Continuing with the eighth in our series covering the tablets that were placed around the city of Albany (and a little beyond) in honor of the bicentennial of the city’s charter, in 1886. This one commemorated the first Catholic church in the city, which came pretty late in the city’s development.

Tablet No. 8—Old St. Mary’s Bronze tablet, 16×22 inches, inserted in wall of present edifice of that name on Pine Street.

Inscription: “Site of Old St. Mary’s Built A. D. 1797. The First Catholic Parish Church in Albany and second in the State. The entrance directly under this Tablet. A Second Building on this Same Spot, Facing on Chapel Street, was the Original Cathedral of this Diocese.”

Martin Joseph Becker’s A History of Catholic Life in the Diocese of Albany, 1609-1864 notes that the first Catholic Mass in New York was Nov. 14, 1655, at Indian Hill, two miles south of what is now Manlius, at what became a mission to the Iroquois. But in the Hudson Valley, Catholics were few — with the notable exception of Thomas Dongan, Catholic governor of New York from 1683-1688, in the time when James II, who had converted to Catholicism, ruled England.

Then, under William and Mary, tolerance of Catholics was no longer official policy, and “Jesuits, priests and popish missionaries” were outlawed in 1700. That situation continued in the colonies until the Revolution, so the only noted Catholics were random immigrants in the Mohawk Valley, and the Iroquois at Akwesasne. After the revolution, New York’s constitution of 1777 allowed all religions, and the ban on priests was eventually lifted in 1784.

In 1796, the Albany Gazette noted the success of a subscription for “erecting a Roman Catholic chapel in this city. It bespeaks the tolerant and liberal disposition of the country, to find out citizens of every persuasion emulous in assisting their Roman Catholic brethren with the means of building here a temple to the God of heaven, in which they can worship according to the dictates of their own consciences. The corporation [city] unanimously resolved to present them with a piece of ground for the site of their church.”

The cornerstone was laid by merchant Thomas Berry Sept. 13, 1797 at a site on what was then called Barrack St, now Chapel St.

Munsell, in his Annals of Albany Vol. 4, includes an article from the Albany Gazette of Sept. 10, 1798, proclaiming, “It is with the most heartfelt satisfaction that we can inform our brethren of the Roman Catholic faith, that their church in this city is so near completed as to be under roof, glazed and floored (fire proof). That it is a neat building, and will be an ornament to the city, and a lasting blessing to all who are members in communion of that church.” ”There were a number of indications that the building, which was built of brick and “fifty feet square,” was completed without being finished, precisely. In Feb. 1807″.

“Notice was given that a sermon would be preached in the Roman Catholic church, on Sunday morning, Feb. 22, by the Rev. Mr. Hurley, for the purpose of raising a collection to assist in finishing the inside of said church.”

It was this first church that was visited by the Marquis De Lafayette on his visits to Albany during his later tour of the United States; it has been repeatedly asserted that he heard mass in the church (from Rev. John Lewis Savage) in June 1825.

It wasn’t terribly long before that church was insufficient for its purpose, and it was replaced with a new church on the same site. The cornerstone for the second St. Mary’s, designed by Philip Hooker, was laid Oct. 13, 1829, and the church opened for services on August 29, 1830. Also constructed of brick, it reportedly cost $31,000. (During construction, the congregation held services in the Lancaster School, the Philip Hooker-designed building on Eagle Street, which would later be the first home of the Albany Medical College.)

In 1847, St. Mary’s became the Cathedral parish for the new Albany Diocese, but only for a short time, as the cornerstone of the Cathedral on Eagle Street was laid July 2, 1848, and the building dedicated Nov. 21, 1852.

The current St. Mary’s Church

Despite that and the development of other Catholic churches, it was decided that a new St. Mary’s was needed, and a cornerstone for a new church was laid August 11, 1867, and the new church dedicated March 14, 1869. (This one faced Lodge Street, instead of Chapel.)

A major, four-year renovation was completed in 1894, overhauling the interior and adding the tower with its iconic “Angel of Judgment” statue. At this time St. Mary’s became the first church building in Albany to have electric lights; they were very proud of having eight different circuits that allowed them to light any section of the church individually.

The third St. Mary’s still stands today. Since then, we presume additional lighting has been installed. Coming late as they did, the Catholics did not have a chance to fill downtown Albany with burials (unlike some other churches). They did have a section at the State Street Burying Grounds (now Washington Park), and in 1867 established their own cemetery, St. Agnes in Menands.

By Carl Johnson, from his blog,  Hoxsie.org

William Henry Johnson; Albany’s Forgotten Black Civil War Soldier

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.

1864

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.

Circa 1900

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.

Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor

The Mystery of the Remarkable and Audacious Dr. Mrs. Rachel C. Martin: A Women’s Suffrage Juggernaut

In 1876 the “Albany Evening Journal” newspaper ran an ad for Dr. Rachel C. Martin advertising the availability of garments for “Under Dress Reform” and electro – thermo treatments. At that time there were only three female physicians in Albany, and they all treated only women and children in the most traditional ways. Dr. Martin’s path (and her advertisement of services) seemed more than just a bit unconventional, We needed to know more about her. She was clearly a woman ahead of her time.

Rachel was born in 1819, daughter of John Cutler, a watchmaker and son of a Revolutionary War soldier, and Magadelena Goewey from an old Albany area Dutch family. She was one of four children who survived to adulthood. It seems to have been the most ordinary of families. In 1848, when Rachel was about 28, she married Joseph Martin and moved to Philadelphia. At this point her father had passed away, her sister Ann was married and her mother was living with Ann. There’s scant information about her life in Philadelphia. Her husband was listed as a sewing machine maker in that City’s 1860 directory.

In 1861 we found Rachel had left Philadelphia and about age 41ish, enrolled in the Albany State Normal School to become a teacher, one of the few jobs available to women. At that time only single or widowed women were permitted to teach. Rachel was neither.

Her husband died a year later in Philadelphia in 1862. His death notice mentions he was the son-in-law of John Cutler; Rachel isn’t mentioned. This was the same year Rachel’s mother Magdalena is died; there is no mention of Rachel in that death notice either. Something had caused a schism between Rachel and her family.

Next, we found Rachel listed as a teacher in Albany directories. In the middle 1860s she had a “select school” at 696 Broadway. Starting in 1866 we found newspaper ads for Rachel Martin’s dance classes, conducted by a variety of dancing “professors” at both the 696 Broadway (a/k/a Kinter Garden Hall) and a State St. location. In 1869 she was operating both a school in that location AND a Turkish Bath!

Rachel Martin was clearly determined to make her own way in a world where women were expected to depend on men – fathers, husbands or brothers.

In 1869 and 1870 Rachel was lecturing in Albany on “Social and Domestic Reform” and “What Woman has done and can do to establish herself” (in the Assembly Chamber of the NYS Capitol) and in surrounding counties on the issue of women’s suffrage. She was a one woman juggernaut for equal rights. In July 1870 she took the stage with Susan B. Anthony in Saratoga Springs at a woman’s suffrage convention in Congress Hall. The issue at hand was the enactment of federal legislation providing voting rights for Black men while excluding all women. In May 1870 she was again standing with Susan B, Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton at the Apollo Hall in New York City at the Union Suffrage Convention. (Unlike Anthony and Stanton Rachel had no family supports or husband – Rachel was an anomaly.)

(In the 1870 census Rachel is identified living in Albany with an Albert Cutler, age 21, born in New York State. Another mystery. Is Albert her son? A nephew? Why the Cutler surname? In any event Albert disappears from the records never to be seen again.)

And now another plot twist. In 1871 when Rachel was in her early 50s she enrolled in the newly established New York Free Medical College for Women. (It’s clear from NYS records and newspaper reports that she played a key role in securing State legislative approval for the College.)

Who saw this coming? We did a little digging and found a possible answer. In the late 1860s and 1870 Rachel’s establishment at 696 Broadway was next door to that of Dr. Emma Burleigh* who at the time appears to have been the only female physician in Albany. It’s quite likely that Dr. Burleigh influenced Rachel’s decision to attend medical college.

In 1873 Rachel graduated from Medical College and became Dr. Martin (or “Mrs. Dr. Martin” or “Dr. Mrs. Martin” – it’s clear the world was grappling with what to call married female physicians). But rather than practice medicine she appears to have spent the next year living in Brooklyn and lecturing throughout that borough and Manhattan on behalf of the temperance and women’s suffragist movements.

By 1876 she returned to Albany and opened her own practice, specializing in women’s health issues, including undergarment reform. Dress reform was a hot topic of the time. Many physicians and feminists were trying to persuade women to abandon tightly-laced whale bone or steel-ribbed constricting corsets. (It would take another 40 years and a shortage of steel in World War I to get women to stop wearing corsets.)

An example of 1870s under garment dress reform alternatives

In that year she lectured in Saratoga Springs on the general topic “Reform”. A Saratogian newspaper article notifying the public of the forthcoming lecture said, “The Doctor is highly spoken of by the press as a clear thinker and a good speaker”. And yet in April 1880, when Rachel became a founding member of the Albany Women’s Suffrage Society, the press singled her out and savaged her. The Argus didn’t bother referring to her as “Dr.” or even “Mrs. – massive shade for the time. At the first meeting of the Society the Argus reporter didn’t share the sentiments of the Saratogian. He refers to her “wanting in propriety” and “lack of perception”. Oh boy! She seems to have ruffled some feathers.

In the 1880s Rachel divided her time between Saratoga Springs (probably in the “Season”) and Albany, Although in 1880 she’s the second physician to register with the town of Saratoga Springs, in 1885 the town board of Saratoga Springs appointed Dr. Martin as the town nurse, rather than as a physician. (Sigh.)

Finally, about 1891 she returned to Albany and entered the Home for the Friendless (a/k/a The Guardian Society) on Clinton Ave. It was large well-appointed retirement building for older, single Protestant ladies with some funds, but without family. (In the terminology of our day, it was a continuing care community – residents turned the bulk of their assets over to the Home in exchange for a promise to be well-cared for to the end of their days.)

But there’s life left in Rachel. In her last public act in 1894 she wrote a letter to the editor of “Argus” in which she called out prominent Albany attorney Matthew Hale who had just given a major address railing against votes for women to a large anti-suffrage group. In the letter she said “.. if he (Mathew Hale) would track up the bad men as sharp as the bad women politics would not need the women as they do now.” (Smackdown.)Dr. Martin died in 1901. She’s buried in Albany Rural Cemetery Section 89 Lot 32.

But Rachel left one last mystery. Her gravestone also carries the name of James Whelply, who died in 1875. It’s a joint headstone. It took a while to sort this out, with the help of Paula Lemire, Historian at the Cemetery and Lorie Wies, Local History Librarian, Saratoga Springs Public Library.

Rachel was named in Whelply’s will and inherited money. The cemetery plot was provided for Whelply and Rachel in 1875 by the daughter of Whelply’s best friend. James Whelply was a number of years older than Rachel, an attorney who grew up in Albany who never married. You can draw your own conclusions about their relationship, but we think that at some point they were devoted lovers, which is why they share a plot and headstone.

This is the last surprise in a surprising life of a woman who marched to the beat of her own drum.

*Dr. Emma Burleigh would become a woman of great notoriety. She was born outside Utica, married young, was abandoned by her husband in England who kidnapped her children, who she never saw again. In the 1850s she graduated from a female medical college in Philadelphia. She acted as an agent for a NYC publisher who sent her to Albany to lobby the Legislature to adopt his textbooks and charts for statewide use. It appears she was quite a favorite with NYS legislators. She had a torrid affair with Benjamin Sickles, who would become well-known Civil War general and who was also notorious for killing his wife’s lover, the son of Francis Scott Key. He was not convicted, having invoked what would become known as the “insanity defense”. Emma had several children by a former classmate from her home town while living in Albany. By 1871 Dr. Burleigh was lived on Howard St. between Lodge and Eagle. In 1872 she was accused of being an abortionist (no criminal charges were brought.) In the same year her lover turned she and her children out of the Howard St. house he owned. She traveled to Utica, followed him onto a horse car, pulled a gun and attempted to shoot him. Sadly, she killed his companion. She was tried and found not guilty. She returned briefly to Albany. She lived the last years of her life, surrounded by her children, on the Jersey Shore.

Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor