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.
Jonathan was born in Albany to Phoebe Brooks (Broecks) and John Kidney in 1760 into an old Dutch and English settler family.
In July 1777, at age 17 he was drafted as a militia man in Col. Gerrit Lansing’s Regiment, under the command of General Philip Schuyler. Albany was a hot bed of revolutionary spirit and men of all ages were members of the various militias (think of the militia as today’s National Guard vs. a standing army – in the Revolutionary War that was the Continental Army). The members of the Albany Committee of Correspondence, Safety and Protection, the group that took charge of Albany County during the Revolution were imbued with an especially zealous revolutionary spirit and were especially harsh when dealing with suspected Loyalists and shirkers.
The information we have about Jonathan’s War service comes from his pension application. His regiment was first ordered to Fort Edward, but then fell back to fight in the Battle of Bennington. They were then ordered to Saratoga, but missed the Battle. In the aftermath of the Battle his company was assigned the duty of escorting the “Convention Army” (the British and Hessian prisoners of war who fought under Burgoyne) across Massachusetts to Boston.
In 1778 he served a brief militia tour of duty in the vicinity of Cobleskill and Schoharie. In 1779 he again served with another local militia group, this time in the Mohawk Valley.
In fall 1782, when he was about 23, he was among a group of men who sailed on the privateer “Scammel” from the New England coast. (In addition to Jonathan’s apparent adventuresome spirit, there was a lot of money to made as a member of a privateer crew.) In 1782, while most of the Revolutionary War hostilities had ceased, the Treaty of Paris between the United States and Great Britain had not yet been signed – technically America and Great Britain were still at war.
Prisoner of War
In his 1833 pension application Jonathan deposed:
“We sailed out on the cruise about a fortnight and were then taken in about a days sail off Sandy Hook, by the British Frigate Jason – the 50 gun ship” being in Company with her. Part of the Crew of the Privateer was put on board the“Jason and a part of them on board the Renown I was put on board the Renown and taken into New York. I was then transferred to the old Jersey Prison Ship – I remained a prisoner until May following when Peace was proclaimed. Parts of the time I was confined onboard the Jersey Prison ship and part of the time onboard the Hospital ships.”
The Jersey was a the most notorious of the British prison ships. It lay at anchor off in Wallabout Bay, near what is today the Brooklyn Navy Yard. It was a hell hole of disease, starvation, abuse and death. Men were crammed below decks where there was no natural light or fresh air and few provisions for the sick and hungry. Thousands of men were kept confined in quarters designed for 400 sailors. Diseases of all kinds were rampant. There are estimates that as many as a dozen prisoners died each day. More American men died aboard the British prison ships than in the total of all Revolutionary War battles.
The pension application says,
“I recollect that the news of Peace was publicly read onboard the Jersey Prison ship to the prisoners and we were immediately discharged. We went out up with a flag to Dobb’s Ferry. I stopped at _ Point, where I received two days provisions by the direction of the Commanding officer. Then I went to Newburg where the army there lay. I there got six days of provisions and a half pint of rum and then came home to Albany in a sloupe.” (Note: the Treaty of Paris that ended the War was not signed until September, 1783, but there were exchanges of prisoners starting late winter of that year.)
Men who were released from the “Jersey” were said to have been “walking skeletons”. Jonathan indicated that he and his fellow prisoners were unable to travel on foot more than 5 miles a day as a result of their weakened condition.
After The War
Like most young men Johnathan returned to his home in Albany and became a blacksmith living most of his life near or on Hudson Ave. just east of South Pearl St, with his smithy on South Pearl near State St. In the early 1790s he married Hannah Van Zandt from another old Dutch Albany family and they started their own family. He lived a most ordinary life, like most of the men who fought, with one notable exception.
After the War Jonathan became an artillery devotee. We have this from Munsell’s Annals of Albany (Vol. 10):
“It was said that when the Old Artillery Company was formed, soon after peace was restored (note after the War ended), the state having no field pieces to supply them with, a suggestion was made by someone who had been in Mr. Van Rensselaer’s (Note: Van Rensselaer was the Patroon) service that there was probably one or more iron cannon among the rubbish in his old storehouse, and search having been made, two iron four pounders were found in the cellar and taken out. They were fetted up and used until the state replaced them with brass field pieces. It was one of those guns which became famous in the hands of Jonathan Kidney and was long used for firing salutes from Robinson’s Hill on all suitable occasions. He called it the “Clinton” in honor of George Clinton.”
Jonathan’s love of the booming cannon continued for decades. Munsell also reports that in 1829, upon the swearing-in of Martin Van Buren (who lived on State St.) as Governor of the State, a salute of 33 guns one for each thousand majority vote,’was fired by Jonathan Kidney’s old field piece on Robinson’s Hill. (Robinson’s Hill was the area west of Grand St. and north of Madison Ave., up to about Eagle St.) That salute made news across the country.PoliticsLike many who fought in the War for Independence Jonathan became politically active. He had fought for the new nation and wanted a say in what it would become.
He would, over time, become what we think of today as a Jacksonian Democrat. Many of them started out in the 1780s as followers of Thomas Jefferson – anti-federalists who were opponents of the ratification of the U.S. Constitution because it gave too much power to the Federal government.
The Green Street Incident
The story of what happened with Jonathan, the Constitution and his cannon in 1788 is told several ways. All stories begin in the same way. There was a parade on August 8th and Jonathan and his cannon were positioned on Green St. near State St., just up from Broadway.
In one story, the parade is made up of anti-federalists were marching against ratification, and prepared to burn a copy of the Constitution. Jonathan was at the ready to lend appropriate sound effects. In another version the parade consisted of people in support of the Constitution, and Jonathan had hauled his cannon to disrupt the procession, but he never got his chance because the parade route was changed at the last minute.
In yet another version the parade is made up of Federalists marching in favor of the Constitution. When they reached Green St., as planned, a skirmish ensued. And so the story goes, “A cannon had been procured, and heavily charged; and the excitement was so great, that it would undoubtedly have been discharged upon the line of procession, had not Mr. Kidney prevented it by driving the end of a file into the fuse, and breaking it off.”
Hannah died in 1833 and Jonathan in 1849, having lived to the venerable age of 88. Upon his death the Albany Journal noted, “Jonathan kidney was born in this city, where he has resided for eighty-eight years. He was consequently one of the oldest connecting links between the past and the present. He has sustained through life a blameless reputation, and died, as he lived, greatly beloved by his descendants and universally respected by all who knew him.
”One obituary claimed Jonathan still owned that cannon until the day of his death.
Jonathan is buried in Albany Rural Cemetery in Section 75, lot 23.
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.
The Old State House (now the Court of Appeals Building) located on Eagle street between Pine and Columbia streets was erected in 1843.
The offices of the Comptroller and other state officials were situated in this building. The soft marble for the structure came from the Mt. Pleasant prison quarries, later renamed Sing Sing. A competent engineer, Andrea Dubre – serving a life sentence for murder, was found among the prison population, and assigned to supervise the task. He would mark each piece of marble prior to its shipment to Albany to indicate exactly in what position the stones belonged in cementing together the building.
When an attempt was made to cement the marble together, neither architect Henry Rector, superintendent Jonathan Lyman, nor master mason David Orr could determine from the marked hieroglyphics the proper order of the stones. The engineer-prisoner was confronted and the key demanded. He balked, telling them “you can probably get out new stone a good deal quicker than you can work out my system.
”In order to arrange the correct matching of the marble, State officials decided it was necessary to bring the prisoner who marked the quarries to Albany to solve the masonry jigsaw puzzle. The officials said they’d take him to Albany and force him to put up the building. He refused. They offered to move him to an Albany prison rather than Sing Sing. He refused that as well. The inmate said he would not migrate and decipher his inscriptions unless he was promised a full and unconditional pardon.
Dubre was brought to Albany and put up at the Old Eagle Tavern. He was taken under guard each day to the construction site, and watched closely as he untangled the puzzle he had created.
Once the work was completed, Dubre stood in the portico of the finished building. Governor Marcy arrived bearing a roll of paper; he handed it to Dubre. It was his pardon. Dubre left the columned portico a free man.
The ex-convict left history with an architectural mystery never solved. Within the entrance was a flight of marble stairs leading to the second floor. It curved upward without visible support except from the wall on one side and an iron railing on the other. Architects eventually came from far and wide to study the stairs, yet it was never determined exactly what held them up.
Cities change; sometimes the change is slow and sometimes rapid.. but they change. They reflect the people who live in them and their changing needs. We think that no other place in Albany demonstrates this type of change as well as one block on Washington Ave. between Partridge St. and North Main Ave.
In the early 1800s this area was probably farmland, several miles away from the populated area of the city. But in the late mid-1840s it became a Roman Catholic Cemetery. At that time it was bounded by Washington Ave., Erie St., Lancaster St., and North Main Ave.
The original purchaser was probably St. Mary’s Parish because it’s usually known as Sr. Mary’s Cemetery today, but by the late 1860s and 1870s it was known also known as Cathedral Cemetery and St. Joseph’s Cemetery as well. Although there was a small Roman Catholic lot in the State Street Burial Ground (it would later become Washington Park) dating back to about 1800, as a huge influx of mostly Irish Catholic immigrants poured into Albany it became inadequate. St. Mary’s become the primary Catholic cemetery in the city. In the 1860s, about 20 years after Albany Rural Cemetery (ARC) was founded, the Catholic Diocese created St. Agnes Cemetery in Menands, but burials in St. Mary’s Cemetery continued. But the city was expanding at an explosive pace. The population grew rapidly after the Civil War, and the invention of first the electric trolley, and then the automobile made it possible for residential development to expand west from downtown.
By 1910 or so land was at a premium and city officials were working to remove the few private cemeteries in city. A newspaper notice from 1914 says the disinterment of at least 8,000 bodies will be begin in the next week; but that appears to have been delayed. A 1916 article says disinterment is imminent and refers to 2,000 bodies. We may never know number of removals.
The City of Albany purchased the cemetery land (about 8 acres) around 1920 , and then subsequently property on Lancaster St. (that at the time ran between Partridge St. and North Main Ave, parallel to Washington Ave).
There were lots of idea about what it should be, including a miniature golf course (all the rage at the time). But it was decided it should be a park – St. Mary’s Park and playground; it opened around 1925. In the mid-1930s the park was expanded, and the Erie St. boundary disappeared – extending area to Partridge St. And it so remained a park for about 2 decades.
In 1945 part of the property was transferred to New York State. Prior to World War II the State Teacher’s College had plans to expand its facilities, and construct a gymnasium and other buildings. But those plans were de-railed by the War, and would be de-railed again after the War.
The Barracks Village
Before World War II there was a severe housing shortage in Albany. Post-War the shortage became a full-fledged crisis. Men came back from the War had shared bedrooms as boys; they now had wives and children and nowhere to go. Several generations of families were crammed into small houses and apartments. It was that way across the country. Yet building takes time, so New York State decided it needed to construct temporary housing for veterans across the state.
In Albany it selected the St. Mary’s Park land owned by both the State and city. Old military barracks were trucked in from the western part of the state and converted to housing. A street grid was laid out:, water, sewer, gas and electric lines were run, and concrete sidewalks poured. There was even a village post office and a small playground The village was designed to accommodate 250 families in apartments and 150 single men who would be living in dormitories -attending school on the GI Bill. Newspaper articles of the time report there were 700 applicants.
The first 22 families moved into their new homes in October, 1946.And everything was wonderful until it wasn’t.
The little veteran’s village was meant to be temporary, but NYS authorizing legislation was extended twice. By 1952 it was still occupied, although the buildings were deteriorating and several had to be evacuated. NYS offered it to the City – the city declined because it was building Albany’s first housing project in North Albany. Things got messy; the remaining families were evicted, and in 1954 all traces of the village was razed.
St. Mary’s Park and Playground Again
By 1956 St. Mary’s Park was turned into a playground again. This time it was much expanded, with a large wading pool (it was concrete and knee scrapes were legendary), the addition of tennis courts and a baseball diamond. Off to one corner on North Main Ave. the Naval Reserve Center was built about the same year.
The High School
In 1966 Albany decided to build a new high school in St. Mary’s Park. The area to be used was identified as 27 acres. The existing high schools, Albany High on Western Ave. and Philip Schuyler in the South End, were old, deteriorating, out-of-date and over-crowded. Additionally, they were concerns raised by the NAACP about the lack of facilities and programs (compared to Albany High) in Schuyler High School which had a majority Black student body.
But this is Albany and things sometimes move like molasses in January. Finally the first pilings for the new high school for sunk, but they had rusted out by 1970 (O Albany).
After a new start, a multi-million dollar cost over-run, and charges of corruption and graft among contractors and politicians the new Albany High School opened in January, 1974, amid rumors it was haunted.
The Haunted High School ?
Well, Albany High IS built on an old cemetery. And almost every time something new was built on the site remains from the old cemetery were found. During the first transformation to a playground newspapers reported that remains of 2 individuals were found; at least one body was found when the Barracks Village was built; another when the site returned to a playground in the 1950s, and in 1972 during high school construction workers found the remains of two individuals from the cemetery. Who knows what lies beneath?
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”.
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.
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.
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  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.
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.
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.