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

An Albany African American in a “White” Regiment

William Topp Lattimore was an African American, born in Albany in 1844.

His grandfather Ben Lattimore Sr. had been one of the few Black men who served in the Revolutionary War.

His father Ben Jr. was a key player in the Underground Railroad (UGRR) in Albany, working as early as 1828 to keep 2 Black children in the city from being sold into slavery in the South. William was named after his father’s good friend, William Topp, another Black man in Albany who was part of the UGRR.

By 1847 he moved the family from Albany to Moreau NY, just south of Glens Falls, where he bought an orchard and established an UGRR station. It was a family affair – and included the oldest of the 11 Lattimore children.

In late Summer 1861, when the call went out for volunteers for the Union Army William, known as Billy, enlisted in the 77th NY, the Saratoga regiment. (He lied about his age.) He served alongside his friends and neighbors who clearly knew he was African Anerican.

Billy’s service was extraordinarily rare. We’ve yet to find another story like his. At that time Black men were prohibited from serving in the Union Army. Yet it appears no one cared that he was African American.

Billy was one of the first men wounded at the Battle of Fort Stevens, in defense of Washington D.C. (President Lincoln and his wife Mary went to observe battle and were told to take cover.) Billy recovered from his severe wound and re-joined his Regiment in late 1864. He mustered out at the end of the War.

(Had he been captured wethink the Confederates would have treated him brutally; they loathed Black Union soldiers.)

After the War Billy went to live in NYC, working as a waiter. But on the death of his father in 1871 returned to take care of the orchard and Mother and sisters.

He joined the GAR (Union Veterans Organization. – Grand Army of the Republic) in Saratoga Springs in the mid 1880s. The entire family moved to that city about 1888. For the rest of his life Billy was a proud member of the GAR, attending all re-unions and serving as an officer on a number of occasions until his death in 1915. He’s indicated in the photo below by the blue arrow.

Billy buried in Greenridge Cemetery in Saratoga Springs with his mother, father and other family members.

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.

Julie O’Connor

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.

Julie O’Connor

Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor

John G. Stewart – Albany’s First Black Newspaper Publisher

John G. Stewart is cited in hundreds of books and websites that describe that fight for the eradication of slavery and for equal rights and social justice. We suspect you have never heard of him; frankly neither had we until a couple of years ago. Stewart was the second publisher of a Black newspaper in the U.S.

The first Black newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, published in New York City, closed in 1829 after two years. In 1831 Stewart started The African Sentinel and the Journal of Liberty. Its publication was brief… maybe 8 to 10 months. but it had a critical impact on the fight to end slavery and the battle for equal rights for African Americans.

History books reference the newspaper and then move on; not because writers are ignoring Stewart, but because so little is known about him. So we thought we would try to find out what we could, and how he fits into our history.

Stewart was probably born a free man in Albany about 1800. He first appears in the city directory in 1824 as a barber at 37 North Pearl St. We have no idea where he was educated, probably in the African School in Albany established in 1811 by a handful of free Black men in the city. (Albany was among no more than half a dozen cities with a school for Black children at the time.)

Sometime in the 1820s he married Leah Profitt, daughter of a free woman in the city.

There’s very little evidence of Stewart’s daily life in Albany. We know he was a barber. In the 1831-32 city directory there’s an ad for Stewart’s barber shop on the corner of State and Pearl streets. It’s the first we’ve ever seen by the owner of Black business in a general publication at that early date. It leads us to believe he was fairly well-known and respected in both Black and white Albany (and probably a very good barber).

He was a member of the First African Baptist Church, a gathering place for black activists beginning in 1821. It was in this church in 1827 that the Albany African-American community celebrated the abolition of slavery in New York State on July 5th 1827, and its pastor, the Rev. Nathaniel Paul, gave a sermon on abolition that was re-printed and shared across the country.

It was one of about a dozen black churches in the U.S. where Black liberation theology – not only freedom for those still enslaved, but also the need for equal rights and racial justice for all African Americans in the entire country, took hold.

The Rev. Paul and some of his congregation are mentioned in newspaper reports of the first case in Albany involving an alleged fugitive slave in 1829.

In January 1831 the forthcoming publication of The African Sentinel was announced in The Liberator newspaper, published by William Lloyd Garrison in Boston. The Liberator would become the most widely read anti-slavery newspaper in the U.S. and Garrison would become president of the American Anti-slavery Society. Stewart would serve as its agent in  Albany in the early years of its publication. This demonstrates that there were already strong linkages among network of Black and white abolitionists and proponents of equal rights across the Northeast, including Albany. These would strengthen and grow.

In his newspaper proposal Stewart makes it clear that there should be, “.. .at least one public journal conducted by a colored man and devoted to the interests of the colored population throughout this country..”

He then lays down the gauntlet.

 “Descendants of Africa! Will you not arise with the dignity of MAN and each proclaim am I not a MAN and a BROTHER?

In Spring 1831 Stewart published the first issue of his paper. Its motto was “I tremble for my country when I think that God is just and that his justice cannot sleep forever (T. Jefferson)”. Clearly it was meant to be a challenge.

Stewart’s newspaper lasted maybe 8 months and there are few extant issues. (Because of its rarity and importance, a single issue sold at auction for $27,000 5 years ago.)

Most of what we do know about The African Sentinel comes from reprints of article in copies of other newspapers that survived. Stewart reported the general news of the day, usually interpreting the impact it would have on the Black community. He also reported news of particular interest, like the progress of the Wilberforce Colony recently established for African-Americans in Canada – both Rev. Nathaniel Paul and his brother Rev. Benjamin Paul were deeply involved.

But he was also fierce. In no uncertain terms he opposed the settlement of Black Americans in Africa, an idea that was quite popular in the time. Stewart made it clear the U.S. was the home and country of Black Americans and they weren’t going anywhere.

The death knell of the newspaper may have been its response to the deadly and violent slave rebellion in Virginia lead by Nat Turner in August 1831. In a letter to the editor of the Albany Argus in October 1831, Stewart gave no quarter. He excoriated Northerners who would support Southern slave-holders, and he only condemned part of the violence. What he published was incendiary. It was the equivalent of throwing a hand grenade.

The slaves have a perfect right derived from God Almighty to their freedom. They have done vastly wrong in the late insurrection, in the killing of women and children; but still it is not to be wondered at. Their struggle is the same principle as the struggle of our fathers in ’76. I hope they may achieve their liberty eventually by fair and heroic means, in a brave and manly conflict with their masters.”

We suspect that sentiment, supporting armed rebellion by enslaved populations, was a bridge too far for most subscribers. The African Sentinel folded shortly thereafter.

But Stewart did not stop his activism. He remained adamantly opposed to colonization, and was part of a a local Albany group in opposition. In 1833 he first attended the National Convention of Free Men of Color in Philadelphia, and served on several committees.  He would attend the 1834 Convention in New York along with another barber and fellow parishioner Charles Morton. Morton would be the agent for The Liberator in Albany for almost a decade.

Older members of the Albany African Baptist Church has attended earlier conventions, and began to create linkages between the men, Black and white, who would form the basis of the anti-slavery movement (and much of the Underground Railroad -UGRR ) in this country for the next three decades. John G. Stewart and Charles S. Morton followed in their footsteps.

Although not identified specifically as a member of the Albany’s UGRR Stewart is associated as early as 1831 with Stephen Myers. Myers would become the manager of Albany’s UGRR. In 1842 Stewart (and we believe Morton as well) teamed up to edit the newspaper Stephen Myers published The Northern Star and Freeman’s Advocate.

Sadly, John G. Stewart disappeared from the city director in 1845 and in 1852 Leah is listed as a widow. Charles Morton passed away at about the same time.

After the deaths of Stewart and Morton the publication of The Northern Star became infrequent and sporadic.

Stewart’s daughter Sarah married William H. Johnson in 1852. Johnson came to Albany around 1850, and worked in the UGRR, served briefly in the Civil War, became the most prominent Black politician and activist in post-War Albany. He’s credited with writing New York State’s first equal rights law in 1873.

Julie O’Connor

Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor

Albany’s City Halls

Hard to imagine that in its long almost 400 year history Albany has had only 4 city hall buildings.

First Stadt Huys

We don’t know the exact date the first city hall was erected, but it was probably during the time when the city was still Beverwyck and part of the Dutch colony before 1664. It was at the corner of Court St. (Broadway and Hudson). It was known as the Stadt Huys (or Haus). It was a substantial, but small building with several large rooms on a first floor and a jail in the basement. (Sadly there are no images.) Technically it wasn’t a city hall until the Royal Governor made Albany the first chartered city in the U.S. in that very building in 1686.

Second Stadt Huys

In 1741 the city fathers thought it was time for new digs and a new building was constructed on the same location, surrounded by greenery and trees. It was much larger 3 story building of brick, but simple and plain. It had a steep roof and a belfrey. It too had a jail. It was on the steps of this building that the Declaration of Independence was first read to the city in July, 1776 and where Ben Franklin first proposed the Albany Plan of Union – a confederation of the British colonies in 1754, 20 years before the Continental Congress was formed.

Eagle St. City Hall

By the early 1800s, after the Revolutionary War, the city was expanding. The old Stadt House had seen better days. It was the home of the Albany Common Council, the local and NYS courts, AND the NYS Legislature after Albany became the capital. It was time for a new city hall (and a state capitol building). These were both constructed around the new public square at State and Eagle Streets. The new city hall was erected in 1829,

Enter renowned architect and Albany government official Philip Hooker. He designed both the new Capitol in the back of the public square and Albany’s City Hall on Eagle St. and Maiden Lane, across the street from the Capitol and the square. It was a large neo-classical building with pillars and a dome. There are no interior photos, but it was probably a simple yet dramatic style, with federal decoration and large elegant rooms (based on those few Hooker buildings that survive today).

The building also doubled as the Federal Courthouse. It was in this building in 1873 that Susan B. Anthony was indicted by a Grand Jury composed solely of men for voting in a federal Congressional election in Rochester in 1872. Alas, the Hooker City Hall was destroyed by fire in 1880.

Current City Hall

The current City Hall open in 1883. It was designed by Henry Hobson Richardson, one the most well-known architects of the day. His style is known as “Richardson Romanesque”. His building exteriors are solid and large, and make a statement, although the interiors are surprising open and light. (He also collaborated on the design of the existing NYS Capitol Building). Attached to City Hall by a bridge was the jail on Maiden Lane. (By 1883 the city jail on the corner of Howard and Eagle Streets had become Albany Hospital.) It appears the jail was demolished in the early 1900s.

The carillon was added in 1927 through subscriptions of the citizens of the city. It’s housed in a tiny room, up a set of rickety winding steps.

City Hall and jail from Maiden Lane

Julie O’Connor

Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor

Albany’s Postal Service

Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power to establish post offices and postal roads. Ben Franklin was one of the geniuses behind creation of the U.S. Post Office (USPO), and served as the Post Master General during the Revolutionary War. The Post Office was seen as a critical element to bind the separate colonies together, facilitate interstate commerce and form as “more perfect Union”.

By the time Washington became president there were 75 post offices in America. Many of the major highways we know today were maintained as “Post Roads”. U.S. Route 9 from Albany to NYC was known as the “Albany Post Road”. Mail from major cities was usually delivered to Albany twice a week by contracted Post Riders by the late 1700s. In more remote areas mail was sent with whomever was making the next trip to the city. A farmer could leave a letter at the local tavern in the hope that someone would be going to Albany in the near future. In cities like Albany the PO might be located in a city hall, at that time on Broadway near State St. in the heart of the small city. Or the city’s Postmaster might have been a prominent grocer or inn keeper. We simply don’t know. That’s where the mail was left when it came from Boston, NYC, Hartford, Saratoga, Bennington, etc. And that’s where recipients had to go to retrieve their mail.

William Winne – the Penny Postman

Enter the “Penny Postman”. In Albany it was William Winne. Mr. Winne was the city’s penny postman, and a well known figure on Albany streets for about 4 decades. You could enter into an agreement with Mr. Winne, and he would pick up and deliver your mail for for a couple of cents a letter. Someone m gu, created a silhouette of Mr. Winne that became synonymous with the Penny Postman for centuries.

William Winne

As the city grew more contract postal carriers went into business.

The Exchange Building

And then came Albany’s population explosion following the opening of the Erie Canal. A more “official” PO located in the newly built Exchange Building on the corner of State St. and Broadway was opened. By now there were PO boxes. And if you didn’t use the services of a paid postman you could find your name on a list published in a newspaper that told you there was mail to be picked up. (The newspaper listings were divided between male and female names.. which I never understood.) And so the PO remained with some improvements.

Exchange Building on right

Postage stamps were first issued in 1847, but until 1856 other methods of payment were legal. And mail from other cities arrived by train and boat to downtown. By the 1840s the use of the telegraph expanded people’s ability to communicate, but as the country grew government funded mail delivery was still critical.

Civil War

The Civil War was the catalyst for major changes. Millions of men went to war, and boys sent letters home to Mom and Mom sent letters and cookies and hams to their sons. Mail volume grew exponentially. So there were major improvements. In Albany the most important was the creation of a paid postal carrier service. Initially there were 5 Albany “post men”. All Civil War vets. This was before the age of the civil service merit system, so these jobs were patronage positions. (My grandmother’s Uncle Charlie had served bravely at Gettysburg – so he got one of the jobs.)

Federal Building

By 1880 the Albany PO moved into the new Federal Building which took the place of the old Exchange Building. (Today it houses admin offices of SUNY Central.)

Federal Building on corner of State St. and Broadway

As the country expanded west settlers in far flung settlements sometimes had to travel for days to collect mail at the “County Seat”. For a brief time the legendary Pony Express filled the gap, traveling where there were no railroads. And private companies like Wells Fargo and American Express used railroads and stage coaches to ship the mail and packages, began in the 1840s and 1850s. It’s worth noting that men from Albany, including one former postmaster were involved in the founding of these companies. In Albany County small spur railroads delivered the mail into villages like Slingerlands and Voorheeseville that had their own tiny post offices.

Rural Free Delivery

In 1896 a new service of the USPO changed America. Rural free delivery was enacted by Congress. It ensured those who lived in rural areas would get their mail delivered to their homes without schlepping into the closest village. (Over half of the US population still lived outside cities at the time.)

Rural Free delivery in West Albany

And so when it came to selection of a site for the new Union Station by the New York Central Railroad it had to be next to Post Office. If you look carefully at old photos and postcards you can see the mail wagons on RR mail platforms and chutes from the PO from above with large bags of mail.

Mail bags on platform at Union Station

Parcel Post

The next innovation in 1913 changed America again- Parcel Post. For years private carriers had charged exorbitant fees to deliver packages. With the advent of the new service new markets opened to city merchants. Whitney’s and Myer’s Department stores on North Pearl could reach homemakers in Preston Hollow and Coeymans. Even women in the city could see an ad in the newspaper, and write a letter or make a phone call to order a new blouse or a table cloth. And it could be delivered within a day or so. Business boomed. (Mr. Sears, who by now had bought out Mr. Roebuck, made a fortune with his catalog – Amazon 1.0.)

Governor Sulzer’s wife accepts Parcel Post package
Mail order dept. Albany Hardware and Iron, State St.

Airmail

Regular airmail in Albany began in the mid 1920s, and flying of mail at night in 1930 after the new airport was built in Colonie. And so we had the framework of the USPO we know today.

Albany’s Art Deco Post Office

The last major change in Albany was the building of a new federal building on Broadway in the early 1930s. (Today it houses the Foley Courthouse.) The Post Office was on the first floor. It was an Art Deco marvel. It was housed in a huge space -all marble, glass and brass with beautiful ceiling murals. It almost felt like you were in a church or a great museum.

Interior of old Post Office, now the Foley Court House

Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor

Albany and the Hudson River Daylines

Albany was removed from the regular Dayline route in 1947.

The last jewel in the crown was the “Alexander Hamilton” which became part of the New York Circle Line fleet, touring NYC harbor and traveling north part way up the Hudson, until a fire in the 1970s.

Robert Fulton successfully sailed his first steamboat “The North River Steamboat” (A/K/A “The Clermont”) in 1807.

By 1812 his North River Company (a/k/a the Hudson River) was operating 3 ships with regular schedules between New York and Albany. Competition developed and by 1822 the Hudson River Line was created.

We estimate that by 1850 there were at least 8 lines or individual ships you could use to book a trip to New York City.

After the Civil War came the golden age of Hudson River steamships. Two dominate lines emerged – the Hudson River and the People’s Line. Ships turned into floating palaces, with multiple restaurants, entertainment, promenade decks, attentive service.

The legendary ships in the period between 1870 and early 1900 were the “Daniel Drew”, “Dean Richmond”, “Hendrick Hudson”, “The Adirondack”, “The Berkshire”, “The Peter Stuyvesant”, “The DeWitt Clinton” and “The New York”. The People’s Night Line grew in popularity into the early 1930s.

The iconic ticket office of the Day Line was built in the early 1900s on Broadway. Mr. Elmendorf, the ticket master, was a legendary figure in downtown for decades.

The Hudson Navigation Co. invested in major docking and sheds in Steamboat Square (an area for passenger boat landings from the early 1800s) in 1918.

But ultimately the proliferation of the automobile, better roads, and improvements in railroads and better amenities killed the Hudson River steamship lines.

Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor