Frederick Douglass on the Albany of 1847

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The remarkable and legendary Abolitionist was a frequent visitor to Albany. In 1845 he placed his oldest daughter, Rosetta, with 2 Quaker sisters, Abigail and Lydia Mott, who lived on Maiden Lane near Broadway; she lived quite comfortably for about 5 years under their care and tutelage. (They were cousins of Lucretia Mott, the women’s rights activist and abolitionist; they too were politically active and were conductors in Albany’s Underground Railroad.)

In 1847 Douglass wrote a description of Albany to a friend. (In 1845 he had become world famous after publication of his memoir about his life as a slave and flight to freedom in 1838.)

By way of background: at the time he wrote the letter Albany was the 10th largest city in the U.S., with a population of about 50,000. In the period between 1820 and 1850 the population of Albany exploded. Between 1820 and 1830, it doubled, due to the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825. Between 1830 and 1850 the population doubled again.

There were signs of growing pains all over the City that was bursting at the seams in 1847.

The staid Old Dutch village has been overrun by businessman and politicians. Its geography worked for and against it. The Canal had been the catalyst for a manufacturing hub in the midst of the Industrial Revolution. The last slaves in New York State had been freed 20 years before; Albany has been the largest slave holding county in the State for at least 100 years previous. There were many free persons of color struggling to get a foothold in the middle class, while simultaneously advancing the cause of Abolition elsewhere in the country and providing a path to freedom in Canada for those poor souls in slave states. Immigrant populations (mostly German and Jewish) had begun pouring into country through the harbors of New York and Boston. Many made their way to Albany, as a gateway to the vast lands of the west; some stayed here. Like any Boomtown, It became a mecca for hucksters, grifters and speculators.

In the fall of 1847 Douglass had traveled to Albany (and Troy) for a series of meetings and speeches. And while Douglass found a few things here to praise — it’s fair to say he came away rather unimpressed by the city of Albany, which at the time was a key center for politics and transportation.

From a letter Douglass wrote to the abolitionist Sydney Gay in October of that year after leaving the city:

“Situated on the banks of the noble Hudson, near the head of navigation, Albany is the grand junction of eastern and western travel. Its people have a restless, unstable, and irresponsible appearance, altogether unfavourable to reform. A flood of immorality and disgusting brutality is poured into the city through the great Erie Canal, and the very cheap travel on the Hudson facilitates the egress of a swarm of loafers and rum-suckers from New York. I have received more of insult, and encountered more of low black-guardism in the streets of this city in one day than I should meet with in Boston during a whole month.”

Douglass touches on the history of slavery in Albany and the city’s apparent inertia in the face of reform.

“Like most other metropolitan towns and cities, Albany is by no means remarkable for either the depth or intensity of its interest in reform. No great cause was ever much indebted to Albany for assistance. Many reasons might be given, accounting for the tardiness of its people in matters of reform in general, and Anti-Slavery reform in particular. I believe that many of its wealthiest and most influential families have either been slaveholders, or are connected with slaveholders by family ties, and it is not too much to presume that they have not been entirely purified and cleansed of the old leaven. Their influence is yet visible on the face of this community.”

“The evil that men do lives after them.” Thirty years ago, and slaves were held, bought and sold, in this same goodly city; and in the darkness of midnight, the panting fugitive, running from steeples and [d]omes, swam the cold waters of the Hudson, and sought a refuge from Albany man-hunters, in the old Bay State. The beautiful Hudson as then to the slaves of this State, what the Ohio is to slaves in Virginia and Kentucky. The foul upas has been cut down for nearly thirty years, and yet its roots of poison and bitterness may be felt in the moral soil of this community, obstructing the plough of reform, and disheartening the humble labourer. Many efforts have been made to awaken the sympathies, quicken the moral sense, and rouse the energies of this community in the Anti-Slavery cause — but to very little purpose. many of the best and ablest advocates of the slave, including George Thompson, of London, have wrought here, but apparently in vain. So hard and so dead are its community considered to be, our lecturers pass through it from year to year without dreaming of the utility of holding a meeting in it; all are disposed to think Slavery may be abolished in the United States without aid of Albany. Like Webster, of New Hampshire, they think this a good place to emigrate from.

Situated on the banks of the noble Hudson, near the head of navigation, Albany is the grand junction of eastern and western travel. Its people have a restless, unstable, and irresponsible appearance, altogether unfavourable to reform. A flood of immorality and disgusting brutality is poured into the city through the great Erie Canal, and the very cheap travel on the Hudson facilitates the egress of a swarm of loafers and rum-suckers from New York. I have received more of insult, and encountered more of low black-guardism in the streets of this city in one day than I should meet with in Boston during a whole month.

Excerpted in part from a February 2, 2016 post in All Over Albany.com

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