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

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

The Rev. Nathaniel Paul and the Pauls of Albany

Recently there was an amazing find at Albany Rural Cemetery by Paula Lemire, Cemetery Historian – the discovery of the gravestone of the Rev. Nathaniel Paul. It’s been restored by Christopher White.

So we thought we would take the opportunity to tell you why the discovery and restoration are so important.

The Rev. Nathaniel Paul was part of an African American family that had a major impact on the Black community not only in Albany, but in this country, in the early 1800s. Their work was foundational- it echoes into the present day. The Paul brothers were among a small number of Black men who, very early in the 19th century, saw their role as helping African Americans transition into a society of empowered and independent men and women, no longer bound by slavery.

These men and women deserved equal rights, but in this temporal world they would have to advocate for themselves. It was also the mission of the Paul brothers to those who had been freed understand that it was their responsibility to ensure that others gain their freedom. The ministers in the newly created safe spaces of the Black churches were preaching what we would call today “Liberation Theology”. Theirs was a potentially dangerous game – the ideas that slavery should be abolished in the U.S. , and African Americans were worthy of equal rights were incendiary and terrifying to many – to powerful whites and especially those whites without power.

Rev. Paul was born about 1795 in New Hampshire. We know his father had been enslaved, but appears to have gained his freedom through service in the Revolutionary War. Four sons became Baptist ministers: Thomas (the eldest), Nathaniel, Benjamin and Shadrach. Shadrach remained in New Hampshire while Thomas, Nathaniel and Benjamin found their way to congregations in Boston, Albany and New York City.

The three brothers would create a network that spanned the population centers of the Northeast, align themselves with other Black men, and find white men and women as allies. Thomas became the pastor of the Boston’s African Meeting House (later known as the Joy Street Baptist church) in 1805. In 1808 he also would be one of the founders of the historic Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City.

Historians think Nathaniel may have joined Thomas as some point in Boston, where he married, but then moved on to Northampton Mass. Nathaniel came to Albany with his wife about 1820 at the invitation of the minister of the local Baptist Church. By 1821 many of the Black congregants left that church and established the Albany African Baptist Society, which would become the African Baptist Church (a/k/a the Hamilton Street Church). Soon his brother Benjamin joined him in the city., and he helped to establish a school for African children attached to the church.

Over the next decade Nathaniel Paul became well known not only in Albany (he was appointed one of the chaplains of the NYS Legislature), but in the entire Northeast. He, along with his brother Thomas in Boston, preached about the evils of slavery and the need for abolition. Keep in mind at that this time there were still people enslaved in New York (including Albany) waiting for the general statewide abolition scheduled for 1827.

And when Abolition arrived there was a major celebration in Albany among the Black population. Hundreds of African Americans thronged the streets in a dignified and stately procession. The culmination of the event was an oration by Nathaniel on the Abolition of Slavery in the Hamilton St. Church. It was re-printed in a number of newspapers, and copies sold in bookstores in Albany and other cities. Meanwhile Nathaniel Paul was a busy man. He was an agent for Freedom’s Journal, the first newspaper in U.S. published by an African American (so was his brother Thomas in Boston). He was also a key player in an early court case in Albany, along with several of his congregants, that resulted in the freedom of Elizabeth Cummings, an African American woman who had been snatched off the Baltimore streets, and was in the process of being sold into slavery.

His brother Benjamin left Albany in 1824 to become the pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City, and there was a synergy between the Black communities in the three cities (Albany, Boston and New York) with the three Paul brothers in the pulpits of the major churches. Freedom’s Journal said of Nathaniel Paul that he had been successful in “…improving the moral and class of the community which has been too long neglected”. “To prepare men for liberty their minds must be enlightened to their own rights and duties which they owe to the community.”

The next act of Nathaniel’s life would come about as a result of his brother Benjamin. Benjamin became one of the Board of Managers of the Wilberforce Colony in Ontario Canada. The colony was established as a refuge for African Americans in Ohio who were increasingly subjected to harsh and discriminatory laws. It was named after William Wilberforce, a British MP who succeeded in abolishing the slave trade (and whom Nathaniel’s brother Thomas had met on a trip to England in 1815). Benjamin settled in the e Colony and Nathaniel followed; it was time for him to move on. He had done good work in Albany, but his wife had died about a year before, and the Colony was a place where he could continue that work. He settled there and quickly established an African Baptist Church.

The colony wasn’t self-sustaining and financial support was necessary. The managers decided to send Nathaniel Paul to Great Britain to fund raise. He would spend the years from about 1832 to 1835 traveling through England and Scotland. It was a revelation; he didn’t experience the racism and discrimination he’d encountered America, and was treated with dignity and respect. He re-married a white woman, Ann Adey from Gloucestershire. Soon he was joined by William Lloyd Garrison on much of his lecture tour. Garrison had been a friend of his brother Thomas in Boston, was the publisher of the anti-slavery newspaper “The Liberator”, and was emerging as the leading white abolitionist in the United States.

But the trip to Great Britain was a financial failure and Paul returned to America. His brother Benjamin died in Canada in in 1836, and Nathaniel’s relationship with the Colony was over. Nathaniel came back to Albany in 1837 to the African Baptist Church. Sadly, Nathaniel died in 1839. The members of the Church provided a simple yet moving headstone, with the following epitaph:

SACRED To the memory of REV. NATH.L PAUL.

First Pastor of the Hamilton StreetBaptist CHURCH in this City

Born in Exeter N.H. Jan. 7th 1795

Died in the Faith & triumph of the Gospel July 16th 1839

Having experienced Religion in the morning of life.

He was early employed in the Vineyard of his Divine Master & continued until his decease a Laborious, Faithful, & Efficient Minister of the CROSS.

Emulating the spirit & example of the Saviour like him.

He also partook in degree a similar recompense!

For The Servant is not greater than his LORD.A Distinguished Minister & Philanthropist: A Martyr to his indefatigable exertions in the Cause of Truth & suffering Humanity.

Removed in the midst of his days & usefulness his cherished Memory will remain enshrined in the hearts of His sorrowing Widow, attached People, the Churches and Ministers of Christ With a Large circle of Friends.

“Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord, From Henceforth, yea saith the Spirit, that they may Rest from their Labours: and their works do Follow them.

Rev. XIV. 13. They mourn the dead who live as they desired.

On his death “The Liberator” published the following:

“DEATH OF REV. NATHANIEL PAUL. The decease of this estimable and eloquent colored brother, who was pastor of the Hamilton-street Baptist church in Albany, is announced in the daily papers of that city. Mr. Paul was in almost constant companionship during our sojourn in London, a few years since, and to his active and efficient co-operation were we greatly indebted for the triumphant success. “

His widow Ann remained in Albany until at least 1841 (living on Madison Ave, below Swan St.) while she assembled a collection of her husband’s writings, with a view to publication by Garrison, but nothing came of the effort. (The Rev. Nathaniel Paul’s legacy is the sermon he delivered On July 5, 1827 on the need for abolition which is still read today.) By 1850 she had moved to Northampton where she died in 1853.

But that was not the end of the Paul family in Albany. In 1840 the city would agree to open a public school for “colored” children. The first principal of this new Wilberforce School in 1841 would be Thomas Paul Jr. son of Nathaniel’s brother Thomas. Thomas was one of the first the first Black graduates of Dartmouth College, and had worked as a printer’s apprentice for William Lloyd Garrison. He remained in Albany for a number of years; there was a disagreement with the school supervisors and he was terminated. He went to teach Boston, but about 3 decades later he would return briefly to Albany’s Wilberforce School.

While in Albany he would live with some of his uncle Benjamin’s family. Two of Benjamin’s sons, Benjamin Jr. and Shipherd (also known as Samuel) made their home in Albany, and were deeply involved in the fight for abolition and equal rights for African Americans, including participation in the Underground Railroad.

Julie O’Connor

Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor

Michael and Susan Douge: Albany’s African American Power Couple

We’ve been taking a deep dive into the African American population in Albany in the 1800s, to try to get a sense of what their lives were like before the Civil War -the defining event of the century., and after.
One couple, Michael and Susan Douge, stands out for their dedication for decades – to their community and to the causes of abolition before the Civil War and equal rights after the War. They were perhaps the most influential couple in Albany’s African American community during the 19th century.
Michael was born in New Yok City in 1804, son of a freeman. There is some evidence that his father had been enslaved in Haiti, but made his way New York after the slave revolt in the 1790s. Susan was born in Albany; we know little of her origin story. Census data indicate her mother, Mercy Franks, was born in Dutchess County in the 1780s; she’s identified as a free woman in the 1820 Albany census.
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In 1827 the Freedom’s Journal, the first African American newspaper in America (published in New York City) carried the wedding announcement of Michael Douge (New York City) and Susan Ames (Albany) on April 25, 1827 . The ceremony was performed by Rev. John Chester of Albany’s Second Presbyterian Church.
In 1830 Michael is identified as a hair dresser, living and working at 14. South Pearl, close to State St.
By the time Michael was in his late 20s he became publicly involved in Albany’s African American community. In 1831 the Albany African Clarkson Society (Thomas Clarkson was an Englishman who campaigned vehemently against the slave trade) held a major event, including a procession, accompanied by music through the streets celebrating the 4th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in New York State; Michael Douge gave the major address.
Throughout the 1830s he continued his involvement. He writes letters to  The Liberator the anti-slavery newspaper published by William Lloyd Garrison. He was one of the founders of the Philomethean Society, a Black literary association in 1835, (modeled after a similar society in New York City); an officer in the “Colored Person Union” of Capital District (est. 1837) dedicated to moral improvement and education of the Black population, and active in a group vehemently opposed to African American colonization in Liberia and elsewhere, outside of the United States.
Both Michael and Susan were active in establishing the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Albany.
In 1833 Susan was one of the founding members of the Female Lundy Society. (The Society was named after Benjamin Lundy, a white abolitionist who published the newspaper “The Genius of Universal Emancipation”);it was dedicated to charitable works in the African community and anti-slavery activities.) In 1837 she was also part of the group of Black women that established Albany’s Female Lovejoy Society. (Elijah Lovejoy was a white abolitionist and newspaper publisher murdered in Ohio in 1837 for his anti-slavery views. His murder shocked the nation.)
In 1840 Michael was an attendee of first New York State Convention of Colored Citizens , which happened to be held in Albany. The same year he was part of a group of men who lobbied to establish a publicly-funded school for Black children as the city had done for white children. Ultimately they was successful and by the mid-1840s the Douge’s daughter Catherine Mary was a teaching assistant at the segregated Wilberforce School for African American children. (Although records indicate that the Douge children, along with children of some other African families may have been allowed to attend white schools.)
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In 1843 he was part of a group of men, including, Rev. Benjamin Paul (one of the founders of the Black Wilberforce Colony in Canada), Thomas Paul (the noted teacher in Albany and Boston and one time William Lloyd Garrison printing apprentice),  and Benjamin Lattimore and William Topp (active members of the Underground Railroad in Albany) who presented an address to Governor William Seward, thanking him for what he had done for the Black community. (Seward would go on to be a U.S. Senator from New York State and Lincoln’s Secretary of State.)
During the 1830s and 1840s the Douges were busy raising their children – (Catherine) Mary, (Susan) Cornelia, Francis, Julius , and John. Michael’s barbershop seems to have thrived. In early Albany city directories they’re listed various as living at 14 South Pearl St., just in from State St. Through the 1830s and early 1840s they remain in the South End, living in in various locations on South Pearl St.
At one point in the mid-1830s the Douges lived at 9 Plain St,, owned by Benjamin Lattimore, Jr. Lattimore was one of the first Albany men to attend Colored Conventions (the first national expressions of abolition and political equality for African Americans). He was a friend of William Lloyd Garrison, and anyone of consequence in the early days of the anti-slavery and political equality movements in the 1830s. It’s safe to assume that through him and others the Douge family shared similar linkages to the world outside Albany. These would come to include Frederick Douglass, who had close ties to many white and Black abolitionists in the city.
By the mid-1840s the Douges moved to 100 Franklin St,. where they remained for a number of years.
While teaching the Wilberforce School Mary married the principal Henry Hicks. Sadly Henry died only a few years after the marriage; in 1855 Mary is identified as living with her parents and her two small children, along with her younger brothers.
Abolition is a Douge family affair. When Mary was just 17 she became a subscriber to Frederick Douglass’ Northstar newspaper. (In 1853 Michael and other local prominent African American abolitionists gathered at the A.M.E church to endorse the Frederick Douglass Paper\ the successor to the Northstar.)
By the mid-1850s the Douge sons had assumed the role held by their father. and were participating in the Colored Conventions and delegate selection for Frederick Douglass’ nascent National Council for Colored People.
After the Civil War Mary went south to teach freed Blacks under the auspices of the Freedman’s Bureau while her parents raised her children. Susan continued her activities with the Female Lundy and Lovejoy Societies.
Michael appears to have been slowing down, but he did play a role, along with his sons Julius and John in Black Republican politics in the city. Julius was also one of a about a dozen prominent African American men in the city who lobbied the Board of Education to permit Black children to attend local (white) public schools, and to admit Black children to the Free Academy (High School) over a number of years (In 1873 they were successful.)
Julius was cut from the same mold as his father, and was soon a member of the African American Masonic Lodge and the Black chapter of the Oddfellows The Douge men were members of the Charles Sumner Association – a mutual aid society for African Americans in Albany (its motto was “ We care for our sick and bury our dead”), as well as the Burdett-Couts Benevolent Association.
But the battle for equal rights was not over. Mary Douge Williams stepped up for women’s suffrage, and became a vice president of the newly formed Albany Woman’s Suffrage Association in 1880. There is a wonderful description in a suffrage newspaper of very dignified Mary leading a contingent of African American women, including her mother Susan, then in her late 70s, to register in Arbor Hill (where the Douges were now living at 25 Lark St.) and vote in the School election of 1880. (This was the first time New York State allowed women to vote.) We know that Mary and Susan voted in subsequent years.
Then tragedy struck. Michael died at the age of 79 in late 1883 and Mary, at age 51, less than six months later in 1884. (Their children Cornelia and Francis had both passed in 1859.)
But Susan continued to play an active role in her community as a member and sometimes officer of both the Lundy and Lovejoy Societies until she died in 1897 at the age of 92. She would live to see her grandson Robert Douge become only the second Black man to graduate from Albany Law School in 1890.

Michael and Susan Douge and other family members are buried in Lot 3 Section 99 of Albany Rural Cemetery.

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Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor

James Gardner: The first African American Graduate of the Albany College of Pharmacy

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James Gardner was born in 1864 just before the end of the Civil War to William and Elizabeth Gardiner.
His father William was a barber. By the early 1850s he been active  for some time in Albany African equal rights politics, and attended several New York State Colored Conventions.
In the 1850s he was the Vice President of the Albany Vigilance Committee, tasked with financing Albany’s Underground Railroad (UGRR) to help fugitive slaves escape from South.
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After the Civil War he was very active in the Republican Party, and a member of the group of men who lobbied the Albany Board of Public Instruction to desegregate Albany Schools. Elizabeth was active in Albany’s African American female charitable organizations – the Female Lundy Society and the Female Lovejoy Society. Mr. Gardiner was trustee of the African Baptist church.
The family lived for several decades on Second St. (first at #49 and then #67) in Arbor Hill in the close knit community bounded by Hall Place, Third St., Lark St. and Livingston Ave.
William Gardiner was fast friends and a business partner of Dr. Thomas Elkins. They were both officers of the Vigilance Committee, and involved in other political and community affairs. Elkins was the only black druggist in Albany in the 1800s, and during James’ childhood Elkins lived with the family. We think that it was the influence of Elkins that led Gardner to attend the Pharmacy College.
Gardner graduated from the Albany College of Pharmacy in 1888 when it was co-located with Albany Medical College on Eagle St. between Lancaster and Jay Streets. He was vice president of his class and won a cash prize of $20 from the Alumni Association for the best graduation thesis on “Percolation”.

Albany College of Pharmacy co-located with Albany Medical College on Eagle St.

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The same year he married Caroline Deyo from Jefferson St.; after their marriage they lived with his parents. His best friend, Robert Douge, served as his best man. In 1890 Douge would be only the second African American graduate of Albany Law School. In the late 1890s the couple moved to Livingston Ave.
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After graduation Gardner worked for the drugstore owned by Clement & Rice at the corner of Broadway and Clinton Ave., Huested’s Pharmacy at the corner of State and Eagle Streets, and for Thomas Pennington at his drugstore in Saratoga Springs (he was the only black druggist in the city at the time).*

State St., just below Eagle St.

It appears Gardner also had a love of music, spent some time working for a music store at 46 North Pearl St., and listed himself in several city directories as a music teacher But it’s also quite possible that it was difficult for Gardner to find employment as a druggist because of his race. (Thomas Pennington recounted the serious problems he encountered in Saratoga Springs because of racial prejudice.)
Sadly James died in late 1901 at the age of 37. He was found drowned in the river off New York City. We have been unable to discover the details. Why was he in New York City? How did he drown?
Caroline outlived James by another 18 years; never re-marrying and working at various jobs, including seamstress.
*Thomas Pennington apprenticed with Dr. Elkins in the mid-1850s, and they remained lifelong friends. The presence of Pennington in Albany speaks to the relationships in Albany and the larger world ante-bellum world of African American activism against slavery and for equal rights. Pennington’s father, the Rev. James Pennington was the president of the National Colored Convention in Rochester in 1853, attended by two Albany men – Stephen Myers who ran the Albany UGRR and William Topp, a member of the UGRR and of its Vigilance Committee. Pennington’s association with Elkins again demonstrates the outsize role and political importance of Albany, in both African American politics and the anti-slavery movement in the ante-bellum period.
Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor

Celebrating NYS Abolition of Slavery – July 5, 1827 in Albany

On July 4th 1799 New York State began gradual emancipation for those enslaved in the State. It was a complicated process based on date of birth (after 1799) and gender of those born to enslaved mothers, and required service to the mothers’s owners for years although these children were technically “free”.
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In 1817 another emancipation law was enacted; it too still required service to owners for some, but set the date of July 4th 1827 for final emancipation, 50 years after the Declaration of Independence.
Planning the Celebration in Albany
When the time came to plan how to celebrate the end of slavery the free Black men of Albany gathered in the African Baptist Church on Hamilton St. (between Grand and Fulton) on March 27, 1827.

The planners included Benjamin Lattimore, Sr. (who had served as a soldier in the Revolution) and his son Benjamin Jr. and Lewis Topp.

(Within the next decade Lattimore Jr. and Topp’s son William would become fast friends, despite a difference in age. By 1840 they were both heavily engaged in the Black anti-slavery movement, attending Colored Conventions and would be members of the Albany Underground Railroad.)

Benjamin Lattimore, Jr.

Topp proposed that, although the official date for emancipation was July 4th, the Albany community celebrate Abolition on July 5th. Historians have debated the reasons. Was selection of another date merely practical, to avoid the potential for violence from drunk Whites celebrating the historic 4th, or was it something else? Did they object to celebrating this momentous occasion at the same time as the Declaration of Independence, a document that belied the truth of the lives of most Black Americans.
Other committee members included Thomas Alcott, Richard Thompson, William Hyres, Robert Harrison, John Jackson (husband of the daughter of Ben Lattimore Sr. ), Asher Root, Anthony Olcott, Daniel Maynard, Peter Hallenbeck (who would later  own a business with Lewis Topp), Henry Jackson and Adam Blake.   Blake had been enslaved by Stephen Van Rensselaer III ( the “Good Patroon”) who only freed Blake after  the end of the War of 1812  (probably about 1815).
Whatever the reasons July 5th was selected. There was a parade through the streets of Albany, singing and other celebration. A highlight of the day was a sermon delivered by the Rev. Nathaniel Paul on the Abolition of Slavery in the Church.
The Sermon
Paul’s sermon reminded his audience that abolition was a “holy cause”. He urged them to enter into it with a “fixed determination”. Put quite simply his message was – don’t be content with your freedom when millions of your sisters and brothers remain enslaved in the North and South. None of us are free until we are all free.
His sermon was printed in the “Freedom’s Journal” newspaper published in NYC (the first African American paper in the country), and became a call to action for free Blacks.
Within 5 years the first Colored Convention was held in Philadelphia. Although it started out small, the Colored Convention movement would grow, and become a powerful political force for free Blacks for decades. It would focus on abolition (and later Civil Rights after the War) , but also education of adults and children, and re-inforce the need for the Black community across nation to remain as one. The attendees at the first Convention included Albany’s Benjamin Lattimore Jr, and Captains Schuyler and March, sloop owners who sailed the Hudson River.
And so in Albany Blacks would continue to celebrate Abolition on July 5th for decades. That is not to stay that the 4th of July wasn’t important for some, especially the Lattimores and Nathaniel Paul whose father had been a Revolutionary War veteran from New Hampshire.
(Twenty-five years later Frrderick Douglass would give a speech “What to the Slave is Fourth of July? It’s still read today; but it was the Rev. Nathaniel Paul in Albany who issued the first call. )
After Civil War the tradition of celebration of abolition in Albany finally fell away, as the Constitution was amended to abolish slavery and to give Black men the right to vote. The Black community in Albany would celebrate July 4th.
Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor

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

Lydia Mott is probably the most important woman who ever lived in Albany and you probably never heard of her

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Lydia was born into a a large Quaker family  in 1807,  The family alternated between Long Island and Albany. In the 1820s, some of the family settled permanently in Albany, where the brothers and several of the sisters taught school (first on Broadway and then at the corner of State and Lodge). In the 1830s Lydia went to teach at a Quaker boarding school in Philadelphia where she met Susan B. Anthony. They would remain best friends for 40 years.*

Upon her return to Albany Lydia became a shop keeper, selling men’s furnishings (shirts, gloves, scarves, etc.) Her first store was on Broadway, while the family lived on Chapel St. Her brothers died relatively young, and Lydia would maintain the business with the help of her sisters, Abigail (who passed away in 1851) and Jane (who outlived Lydia). The business moved to several locations including Maiden Lane, over a period of 15 years, until she started acquire property in Albany and operated a boarding house at 716 Broadway in the late 1850s until about 1870. This alone would have been amazing accomplishment for a single woman in the mid-19th century, but it was her extracurricular activities that are truly remarkable.

By the late 1830s, when she about 30, Lydia began to translate her interest in women’s rights and abolition into action. Several years before Susan B. Anthony became associated with women’s suffrage, Lydia was working in the trenches with feminist movement pioneers like Ernestine Rose, the Grimke Sisters, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott (whose husband was Lydia’s cousin and part of the vast Quaker reform activist movement.) Most of these women were also knee deep in anti-slavery activities. (Lucretia Mott and Stanton first met at an ant-slavery convention in London in 1840 to which they were not admitted because they were women.) Lydia Mott hosted lobbying activities and monitored legislative action from her home near the Capitol that were critical to the passage of The NYS Married Women’s Property Law in April, 1848 (which a gave women right to own property independent of their husbands).

The Seneca Falls “Declaration of Sentiments” 3 months later in July, 1848 focused attention on the women’s rights movement, and over the next 30 years Lydia was at the center of the activities in the critical state of New York. It was here in Albany in 1852, when Susan B. Anthony, spurred on by Lydia, decided to focus her enormous energy on this issue of women’s rights. (They both had been denied admittance to a Temperance convention because they were women.). Lydia organized the conventions (ever the businesswoman, she was adamant that an admission fee be charged and speakers paid), coordinated lobbying, and corresponded with other states and key leaders. Her home was the gathering place when anyone came to Albany to discuss women’s rights. In 1873 when Susan B. Anthony was indicted by a federal grand jury in Albany’s old City Hall on Eagle St., she stayed with Lydia at her home, now on Columbia St.

But that wasn’t enough for Lydia. At the same time she had her awakening about women’s rights she became passionately involved in anti-slavery activities. Initially her involvement was local. She was the only White female member of the Albany Vigilance committee. She served as a conductor on the city’s Underground Railroad for fugitive slaves. In the 1840s Rosetta, eldest daughter of Frederick Douglass, was placed in the care of the Mott sisters for 5 years (Abigail taught Frederick Douglass how to read and write.) She coordinated the conventions, organized the correspondence and lobbying and scheduled speakers. Again the Mott home became the home away from home for William Lloyd Garrison, Gerrit Smith, Wendell Philips and other leading lights of the anti-slavery movement when they were in Albany.

As the movement picked up intensity in the 1850s, Lydia made her way to the national stage. By 1858 she was a vice president of the American Anti-slavery Society.

Lydia Mott was at the intersection of and played a key role in two of the most important social and political reforms of this country. There are few if any histories of the anti-slavery or women’s rights movements that don’t mention her or don’t include her correspondence with national leaders of the movements. During her life time she was nationally known; she was often referred to in the newspapers the same way as they referred to Susan B, Anthony, William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Yet in this country and in even in her own city she is mostly forgotten. How does that happen? How does a woman so critical to our history simply disappear?

*Lydia was so important to Susan B. Anthony, that as Lydia was nearing the end of her life in 1875 , Susan cast aside her fast paced and often frenetic women’s rights travels and speaking engagements to spend the last month of Lydia’s life with her on Columbia St.

Eight short stories recalling the lives of African Americans buried in the Albany Rural Cemetery

 

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Mention the Albany Rural Cemetery and the most common response is, “Oh, that’s where President Arthur is buried!”

Its 467 acres contain the graves of governors, mayors, soldiers, actors, bankers, and poets, as well as works of monumental art by Erastus Dow Palmer, Robert Launitz, and Charles Calverley.

Buried here, too, are dozens of prominent figures in Albany’s African-American history — from slaves to doctors.

Here are the stories of some of those Albany residents…

Born Before The Revolution

An Albany Daily Evening Times article from 1873 reported on the death and funeral of a woman named Diana Mingo who, at 106 years (or, according to some sources, 105 years and 6 months), was said to be the oldest person buried in The Rural to date. Born in Schodack as the slave of Matthew Beekman, she was reportedly freed before New York State’s gradual emancipation began in 1799. For a time, she worked as a cook for the Van Rensselaer family at their manor house in Albany.

Mingo was well known among her friends and neighbors for her vivid recollections of the Revolution and Lafayette’s celebrated visit to Albany in 1825. She died on July 25, 1872 and her funeral was held at the African Methodist Episcopal Church on Hamilton Street. Attendance was so great that mourners overflowed the pews and sat on the pulpit steps. She was buried on the cemetery’s North Ridge in a lot owned by her niece, Mary G. Jackson. Her grave is not marked. (Lot 8, Section 99).

Soldier of the Revolution

Benjamin Lattimore, a leading member of Albany’s post-Revolution African-American community and founder of the A.M.E. Church, was born a free man in Weathersfield, Connecticut in 1761. He was living in Ulster County, New York at the beginning of the Revolution and helped his family operate a ferry there. The fifteen-year old Lattimore enlisted in the Ulster County militia in September 1776. He took part in the battle for Manhattan and, a year later, was captured by the British at Fort Montgomery near West Point. Relegated to the role of a servant by British officers, Lattimore was recovered by the Americans in Westchester County and returned to service in the Continental Army. In 1779, he visited Albany for the first time when his regiment, en route to the Schoharie and Mohawk Valleys, was forced by ice to remain in the city for two weeks.

In 1794, Lattimore settled in Albany and found employment as a licensed cartman. Within five years, he had purchased several lots in the area of South Pearl Street, as well as a two-story brick home at 9 Plain Street (an area now covered by the Times Union Center). Described as a man of “irreproachable character for integrity and uprightness,” Lattimore became a pillar of early Albany’s middle class black community; he was a founding member of the Albany African Temperance Society, the first black school. This veteran of the Revolution died in April 1838 and was buried at the State Street Burying Grounds. His remains were moved to the Church Grounds section of the Rural Cemetery during the mass disinterment of the Burying Grounds in 1868. His headstone, and that of his wife are now missing. (Lot 14, Section 49)

The Two Adam Blakes

Beginning in slavery, the first Adam Blake’s life spanned from the Revolutionary War to the middle of the Civil War. Born in New York City around 1773, he was brought to Albany while still young, where he was a servant to Stephen Van Rensselaer III. As an adult, he would become manager of the household staff at the Van Rensselaer Manor. Until it was abolished by the city in 1811, he presided as the master of ceremonies of the popular Pinkster celebrations held by Albany’s black community each spring on what is now Capitol Hill. He also took part in the grand ceremonies welcoming Lafayette on his return visit to Albany in 1824, shielding the elderly French patriot from the sun with an umbrella at all times during the procession through the city. He was also one of the first depositors on record with the Albany Savings Bank after its founding in 1820. Adam Blake married Sarah Richards in 1803.

When Blake died at the age of 94 in 1864, the first Adam Blake was remembered as a “remarkable man” who “commanded respect by that high order of good breeding and courtesy to all, for which he was proverbial.” Stephen Van Rensselaer IV sent a message to his funeral at the Old Dutch Church to express regret that his own ill health preventing him from paying his respects in public.

kenmore hotel ad appletons guide 1893
The younger Adam Blake would found the Kenmore Hotel on Pearl Street in 1880.

According to his obituary, the younger Adam Blake was an adopted son. Raised at the Van Rensselaer Manor, where he received his early schooling alongside the Van Rensselaer children, he would later be regarded as one of the most successful black businessmen of his era. Described as “a born hotel owner” who took to the profession as instinctively “as a fish takes to water,” he first went to work as a porter in the famous Delavan House and was eventually promoted to head-waiter there. He rapidly built his reputation as a restaurant proprietor with the opening of his own establishment on Beaver Street in 1851. Well-known as “a first-class caterer for the public,” he became the owner of Congress Hall, a notable Albany hotel heavily used for lodgings, meals, and meetings by countless politicians during the state’s legislative sessions. Congress Hall, which stood at the corner of Washington Avenue and Park Street near both the old State Capitol and City Hall, ranked with the Delavan House as one of the leading Albany hotels of its era.

In 1878, Congress Hall was demolished by the state to make way for the construction of the new State Capitol. With the money he received in compensation for the building, Blake established the Kenmore Hotel at the corner of North Pearl and Columbia Streets. Designed by architect Edward Ogden, Blake’s new hotel would be described as “the most elegant structure on the finest street in Albany.” He managed the hotel until his death in 1881. Known as a generous man “who never turned away a stranger or neighbor in need, he left an estate valued at $100,000 when he died. And his widow, Catherine, successfully managed the Kenmore herself until 1887. Adam Blake II was buried in his family lot at the Rural Cemetery and memorialized with a stained glass window at the Israel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Hamilton Street. (Lot 22, Section 42)

The Riverboat Captain

Albany Rural Samuel Schuyler marker

A towering marble monument on the Middle Ridge overlooking the Cemetery chapel is carved with large anchors which, in this instance, symbolize both faith and the deceased’s profession — Samuel Schuyler was a successful riverboat captain. He was born in 1781, but little is known of his origins or of his connection (if any) to the family of General Philip Schuyler.

Samuel Schuyler worked as a laborer along the city’s riverfront before operating his own towboat on the Hudson. Widely respected as a captain on the river, he also invested well in real estate in what is now Albany’s South End, eventually owning much of a two-block parcel between South Pearl Street and the Hudson River. With his sons he established a hay and feed business, Samuel Schuyler & Company at Franklin and Bassett Streets, as well as a coal yard.

Captain Schuyler died in 1842. His sons would continue doing business on the river with the founding of the Schuyler Towboat Company. (Lot 66, Section 59)

A Physician and Inventor

zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz20139808_1375260859188839_4575257260972589733_nThomas Elkins, born in 1819, was one of the few black doctors in Albany during the 19th century. According to an 1897 edition of The Druggists’ Circular and Chemists’ Gazette, Elkins received his early apothecary training under one Dr. Wynkoop, “a physician and druggist of the old school,” before studying dentistry and surgery. He operated a pharmacy on 84 North Swan Street and, later, at Broadway and Livingston Avenue.

During the years prior to the Civil War, Elkins — who lived at 186 Lumber Street Avenue (now Livingston Avenue) — was active with the Underground Railroad in Albany as member of its Vigilance Committee. At the time, the home of Stephen and Harriet Myers, just a half dozen houses away at 198 Lumber Street, was a center for Underground Railroad and abolitionist activity in Albany.

According to the Bicentennial History of Albany, Dr. Elkins served as a medical examiner attached to the 54th Massachusetts regiment during the Civil War. He also traveled to Liberia, bringing home a collection of minerals, shells, and other artifacts. The location of those relics is now, unfortunately, unknown.

 

An inventor as well as a doctor, Elkins patented a special refrigerator for the cold storage of corpses, as well as a large piece of furniture which combined a toilet or commode with a washstand, bureau, mirror, chair, bookshelf, and table. In a similar vein, he also patented a combined quilting frame, ironing table, and dining table. Elkins received a “certificate of highest merit” from the New York Agricultural Society for the refrigerator and a “certificate of merit” for the combination table. He was also one of only two African-Americans to be pictured in Albany’s Centennial Historic Album and served as vice-president of the Albany Literary Association.

Dr. Thomas Elkins died in 1900 and his funeral, presided over by the canon of the Cathedral of All Saints, was attended by a large number of prominent local citizens. (Lot 97, Section 100)

Lost At Sea

In a lot just a few feet from the grave of Dr. Elkins, a tall, simple marble shaft plot bears the name Jacob F. Benjamin, the phrase “LOST AT SEA,” and a date — December 25, 1853. It was on that Christmas when the San Francisco, a vessel from the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, encountered a terrible gale and foundered near Charleston. The ship had left New York and was bound for Panama. Aboard were both soldiers (the ship was transporting the Third Regiment of the United States Artillery) and civilian passengers, including women and children. The decks were swept with wind and water, the smokestacks toppled, the boats lost. Reports of the total casualties varied, but some contemporary newspapers reported about 300 casualties and 150 saved.

Among those reported dead that night was a man simply identified as “The barber, colored, washed overboard.” It was Jacob F. Benjamin who, that same year, had been listed in the Albany city directory as a barber residing at 111 Knox Street. His body was not recovered, but his name was carved on the marble shaft in a family plot deeded to his wife, Abigail. At the time of his death, they had five children who ranged in age from an infant (his father’s namesake) to 11 years old. Jacob was thirty-five when he was lost to the waves. His daughter, Catherine, would marry the younger Adam Blake. (Lot 94, Section 100)

A Civil War Veteran Honored

The Storming of Ft Wagner lithograph by Kurz and Allison 1890
A lithograph of the 54th storming Fort Wagner. / via Wikipedia

Among over 900 Civil War soldiers buried at Albany Rural are several men who served in the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the unit depicted in the 1989 film Glory. One of them was William A. Francis, whose grave remained unmarked for 112 years.

There are very few details of Francis’ life, though records show he was an Albany waiter, about 30 years old, married, and the father of a two-year old son when he joined the 54th. He would take part in all of the unit’s battles, including the bloody 1863 clash at Fort Wagner in South Carolina. He became the 54th second highest ranking black member, second to Master Sergeant Lewis Douglass (son of abolitionist Frederick Douglass).

William Francis returned to Albany and again took work as a waiter. He died on December 2, 1897. In 2009, thanks to the efforts of local historian Mark Bodnar, funds were raised by Civil War re-enactors to mark Francis’ burial place with a military headstone. (Single Grave, #, Tier 4, Section 111).

Others

Albany Rural marker Dick Slave of John Pruyn

Other African-American residents of Albany buried at the Albany Rural Cemetery include Stephen and Harriet Myers, leaders of Albany’s Underground Railroad community (Lot 2, Section 98), Arabella Chapman Miller and family, subjects of a University of Michigan research project, (Lot 448, Section 104), William H. Topp, a tailor active with the Vigilance Committee ,  the Temperance Cause and staunch advocate for women’s suffrage in the mid 1800s (Lot 25, Section 11), and Dick, whose grave marker describes him as a slave of the well-known merchant John F. Pruyn (Lot 14, Section 49).

A Presidential Postscript

In 1853, Elizabeth Jennings Graham, an African-American teacher and church organist, was refused a seat on a lower Manhattan omnibus operated by the Third Avenue Railroad Company. When she refused to get off the horse-drawn streetcar the conductor had her removed by the police. Graham filed suit against the company which owned the streetcar. The jury found in her favor, awarded her damages, and the Third Avenue Railroad Company immediately desegregated its streetcars. Her lead attorney was future President Chester A. Arthur.

Written by Paula Lemire (significant Friend of Albany History) and appeared in Allover Albany.com  in February 2016.

An Albany Family Story; a Rise to Fortune from Slave to Hotel Mogul.

2Adam Blake Sr. was born about 1773 in an area south of Albany (possibly New York City) and brought to Albany as a slave by a local merchant Jacob Lansing as a young boy to serve the Van Rensselaer estate. (In the NYS 1790 census, there are 15 slaves listed on the estate.) As an adult, Blake was manager of the household staff at Van Rensselaer Manor, home of the Stephen Van Rensselaer III (the “Last Patroon”). In 1803 he married Sarah Richards in the Dutch Reformed Church (now known as the First Reformed Church) on North Pearl St. (Notably, this was the same church attended by Alexander Hamilton while he was in Albany and there is no doubt their paths crossed.)

The relationship between Van Rensselaer and Blake appears to have been more than slave and master. Blake was a trusted confident, yet Van Rensselaer didn’t free Blake until about 1811 or later, despite the fact that Blake had married a young woman, Sarah Richards, probably another Van Rensselaer slave in 1803. In later years Van Rensselaer confessed deeply regretting his failure to free Blake at an earlier date, but made no explanation.) Nonetheless, when Van Rensselaer died, Adam Blake led his funeral procession.

After becoming a free person of color Blake continued in the employ of Van Rensselaer although his obituary refers to connections with Governor DeWitt Clinton. Blake enjoyed a position of esteem throughout the Albany community, among both White and Afro-Americans citizens; he was, by all accounts, a very elegant (he was called the “Beau Brummel of Albany”, intelligent and charming man.

3He and his family lived in the 100 block of Third St. between Lark and S. Swan, on land that was previously part of Patroon holdings (probably given to him by Van Rensselaer) and owned several adjacent lots (107, 109 and 111). Blake was a major figure in the Afro-American community in Albany, involved in the first African school in Albany in the early 1800s. He was immersed in abolitionist activities; he was one of the notable speakers during the 1827 Albany celebration of the abolition of slavery in New York State and was a key figure in the National Colored Peoples Convention held in Albany in 1840.

Blake’s son, Adam Jr. was adopted – we know nothing of his birth parents or antecedents. He was raised at the Van Rensselaer Manor, where he received his early schooling by the side of the Van Rensselaer children. He would become one of the most successful businessmen and entrepreneurs in the 1800s in Albany of either race. While in his 20’s he worked his way up to the position of head waiter at the famous Delavan House on Broadway. Blake rapidly built his reputation as a restaurant proprietor with the opening of his own restaurant on Beaver and Green Streets in 1851. Over the next 14 years he opened two more establishments, first on James St. and the next on State St., each one more upscale. His restaurants were favorite haunts of the young swells, NYS legislators, and diverse governmentos of all stripes. He catered private parties, assemblies, balls and picnics. Young Blake appears to have been a naturally genial, gracious and discreet host. We have a vision of a man who could cater an elegant reception for Albany’s society women or organize a back room dinner for politicians with equal ease – the “prince of caterers”.

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6In 1865 Blake secured the lease for the Congress Hall Hotel, adjacent to the Old Capitol on the corner of Park St and Washington Ave. This was a fabled landmark (Lafayette stayed the night during his 1824 Albany visit), but fallen on hard times. . He acquired 3 adjacent buildings (Gregory’s Row) combined them with the Hotel, and spent a large sum furnishing it in a sumptuous fashion, The Hall was a lucrative concession – its location was favored by legislators and other politicians for lodgings, meals, receptions and meetings.

In 1878 the Hall needed to be demolished for the new Capitol building; Blake received $190,000 compensation from New York State. He used the money to open a large hotel on N. Pearl St. that remains today. The hotel was built for Blake by the son of the late Dr. James McNaughton (former president of the Albany Medical Society) on land they owned; it was named the Kenmore after the small village in Scotland in which McNaughton was born. The hotel was designed by the Ogden and Wright, leading Albany architects, and no expense was spared

7Not one to let the grass grow under his feet, while the Kenmore was under construction, Blake took over the management of the Averill Park Hotel across the river for the summer of 1879.

 

 

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McNaughton’s willingness to build the Kenmore for Blake to his specifications speaks volumes about the general estimation of his business acumen and confidence in potential for its success. While he benefited greatly from his father’s connections and those of the Patroon, he clearly had natural and innate ability.

9The Kenmore Hotel opened in 1880. It was Adam Blake’s dream- a marvel of modern technology and comfort; it was called “the most elegant structure on the finest street in Albany”. It was wildly successful, not only for its convenience, but for its level of service. It included hot and cold running water (and new-fangled water closets), an elevator, telephones and, of course a fine and palatial dining room.

 

 

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Throughout his life Adam Jr. moved easily among both the Afro –American and white communities, and was as widely respected as his father had been. He apprenticed a number of young Afro-American men who went on to manage major hotels throughout the New York State, including the Clarendon Hotel in Saratoga Springs; Leonard Jerome and family were guests (daughter Jenny would marry Lord Randolph Churchill and give birth to Winston.) While James Matthews (the first Afro=American judge elected in the U.S.) was in Albany Law school, Blake employed him as a bookkeeper in the Congress Hotel. He used his community standing to advance Afro-American causes whenever possible. In the early 1870s he hosted and promoted an appearance by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a choral group that toured to raise funds for one of the first Afro-American college in Tennessee. Several years later he worked diligently in the fight to desegregate Albany’s public schools.

He was known as a generous man “who never turned away a stranger or neighbor in need”. In 1881 beautiful stained glass memorial window was dedicated in the Israel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Hamilton St (the oldest Afro-American church in Albany, established in 1828). Adam Jr.’s activities in the Abolitionist movement are not documented as are his father’s, but the Blake family houses on Third St. we’re situated directly behind that of Stephen Myers on Livingston Ave., leading figure in Albany’s Underground Railroad, and at one point Blake lived at 198 Lumber St. (now Livingston), 2 doors away from the Myers’ house at 194 Lumber. It is improbable to think that neither father nor son was not involved in the Railroad. Upon the dedication of the church window, Dr. William Johnson delivered a speech commemorating Blake, in which he said:

“He loved liberty and abhorred slavery. He believed in the equality of all, in the manhood of all and in the common brotherhood of all. He was identified with Frederick Douglass, Stephen Myers, Drs., Smith and Pennington and their compatriots, in untiring efforts tending to the overthrow of slavery…. he took active part in state and national councils of the oppressed and served in honorable official capacity in the Equal Rights League of the state….”

Unfortunately, Blake died an untimely death in 1881 at the age of 51. He didn’t really get to revel in his success. At the time of his death his private fortune was estimated in excess of $100,000, an astonishing sum for anyone, let alone the son of a slave. For the next seven years the Hotel was managed by his widow, Catherine, who was equally good at business, accumulating real estate all over the Albany, including 2 row houses on Spring St. near Lark St. that stand today When the lease on the Kenmore Hotel expired in 1887, Catherine left the hotel business, selling the furnishing and the Hotel’s goodwill for a tidy sum to the new owners. While the Blakes were involved with the Kenmore, they lived on Columbia St., but when Mrs. Blake gave up the Kenmore, she moved to First St to an elegant townhouse (that also remains today), between S. Hawk St. and S. Swan St., taking her place among the other wealthy families of Albany, just above the Ten Broeck Triangle.

Thanks to Paula Lemire https://www.facebook.com/ARCbeyondthegraves/ and her contributions to the research on the lives of both Adam Sr. and Jr.