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.

Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor

The Story of the Women’s Suffrage Movement in Albany – Part I; The Mothers of Invention

Before 2017 closes, the 100th anniversary of the women of NYS getting the vote, we thought we needed to tell you the story of how the women of Albany figured in that history. The NYS Museum focused on that statewide struggle and the Institute of History and Art focused on the the Albany women who opposed a woman’s right to vote. S0, we felt we needed to tell you what we could about the women who lived in Albany and how they figured in the NYS women’s rights movement. It’s a story that’s never been told in its entirety before, and we decided it was high time. We did a deep dive and found some very interesting stuff about the women and the critical roles they played.

Because the struggle spans 70 years and multiple generations we decided to post in a 3 part series.

Here’s the first part.

Part I – The Mothers of Invention 1848-1879

The women’s rights movement started with a hastily put together meeting in Seneca Falls, NY in summer 1848. It was the brainchild of two staunch abolitionist women – Lucretia Mott and Elisabeth Cady Stanton. What emerged from Seneca Falls was a “Declaration of Rights and Sentiments”. Frederick Douglass, the only Afro-American to attend the meeting, said the result was a “grand movement for attaining the civil, social, political, and religious rights of women”

While the focus was on changing national laws barring women from voting across the country, a key goal was to change New York laws. The Seneca Falls attendees were mostly New Yorkers and believed that if you could change our laws that would change the national landscape.

2Influencing NYS law meant coming to Albany to lobby the Legislature. That started in 1854 when the 2nd NYS Women’s Rights Convention met in Albany. The Convention was held in Association Hall in the upper rooms of the Young Men’s Association at 40 State St. (about where the Hampton Plaza is today). Hundreds of women from all over the state flocked to Albany; on the last day they made their way to the old Capitol to listen to Stanton petition a committee of the NYS Legislature.

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We can imagine scores of women trudging up the hill to the old Capitol 3.3building in pouring rain and icy mud (it was mid-February in Albany), some in heavy crinolines, shawls and bonnets, others in the new “Reform” dress or “Turkish Costume”, loose trousers under a skirt, pioneered by Amelia Bloomer (who had attended the Seneca Falls Convention). Newspapers described convention attendees as “grannies, old maids and young Bloomers.

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But few women from Albany were involved in the woman’s rights movement in its first decades. This general lack of interest would continue for another 25 years or so. Yet during that time Albany was a hub of suffragist activity. Albany hosted several more NYS and national women’s rights conventions. Stanton gave a remarkable address to the NYS legislature in 1860 that resulted in major changes to laws affecting women’s rights; Anthony and Stanton addressed the 1867 NYS Constitutional Convention; Anthony was indicted for violating federal election law in the old City Hall on Eagle St. in 1873 and the next day testified to the NYS Constitutional Convention.

A local newspaper described Albany women as “singularly apathetic” on the issue of woman’s rights during that period.

But there was a quartet of Albanians who were the backbone of the movement in its early days; 3 remarkable women and 1 man.

Phebe Jones (P.H. Jones) was an activist from the earliest days of the movement. She was a widow, originally from Troy, who moved her business to Albany in the mid-1850s. Jones owned a men’s haberdashery at 584 Broadway and lived on Columbia St. She was a Unitarian involved in all sorts of social reforms as well as women’s rights. Both Jones and her daughter Margaret were close allies of Susan B. Anthony, who had joined the movement in 1852 (sort of late in the game).

William Topp was a well-to-do Afro-American merchant tailor with shop on Broadway close to that of Jones, between Maiden Lane and Clinton Ave. Topp was an integral part of Albany’s Underground Railroad and an activist for Afro-American rights; he attended a number of NYS and National Colored People’s Conventions, and was a leader in the American Anti-Slavery Society and the NYS Council for Colored People But Topp was an advocate of rights for all, and was an incredibly important supporter of women’s rights, and key actor at national and state women’s rights conventions before his untimely death in the1857.

Margaret Thompson was a young English women who came to Albany in 1850. She was a practitioner of phrenology (a rarity for women in those days). Phrenology was the study of a person’s head shape to determine character and methods of improving character deficiencies. It was, throughout much of the 19th century, a legitimate science. Stanton and Anthony were fascinated by phrenology because its message confirmed their hope of advancement through personal striving and self-improvement. Thompson’s “phrenological museum” was first at 518 Broadway, near the shops of Topp and Jones, and then later on Chapel St. Mrs. Thompson was at one point president of the NYS Temperance Society, as well as being active in women’s rights and the abolition movement. She too was close friend of Anthony. It appears that Margaret passed away in the early 1860s.

1 (2)            Lydia Mott was a radical Quaker who also owned the Gentlemen’s Furnishing store, first at 60 Broadway and then at 540 Broadway. Lydia was a cousin of Lucretia Mott’s husband and part of a group of activist Quakers who were zealously anti-slavery. Lydia first met Anthony when they were students a Quaker girls school in Philadelphia in 1837; they remained the closest of lifelong friends.

Frederick Douglass’ daughter Rosetta lived with the Mott and her sister Abigail for a number of years in mid-1840s. (Rosetta may very well have been recommended to the care of the Motts on by Anthony.) Lydia was an integral part of the Albany abolitionist (including the Underground Railroad) and temperance movements. Mott was instrumental in forming Anthony’s views on these subjects, as well as women’s rights. Long before Anthony became involved in woman’s suffrage in 1852, Lydia was knee deep in lobbying the NYS Legislature, along with Stanton, on the rights of property for married women. One writer suggests that Lydia was a key member of a group of young Quaker women, including Stanton, which first identified the principles in the “Declaration of Sentiments” a number of months before the Seneca Falls Convention, during the annual meeting of NYS Quakers.

From 1852 until her death in 1875 Mott was the lynch pin of the women’s right movement in New York State. She was its great organizer. It was Lydia’s idea to have the 2nd NYS women’s rights convention in Albany; she and Topp were elected vice presidents. Mott appears to have been indefatigable, simultaneously fighting for women’s rights, temperance and abolition, while running her business (with aid of another sister, Jane).

8Lydia is credited with doing much of the coordinating work of the annual conventions state and national conventions and NYS legislative activity. She was the “glue” that held the movement together in its early days. In 1855 the “New York Evening News” lamented that the women’s rights movement needed some new recruits, beside the same old same old: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Lydia Mott.

8.1Equally as important, Phebe and Lydia provided a “home base”, first on Maiden Lane and then in their Columbia St. homes for 3 decades. Their cozy hearths and merry homes provided a welcome respite for the abolitionists and suffragists who had spent days making speeches, attending meetings and lobbying politicians in Albany.ly as important, Phebe and Lydia provided a “home base”, first on Maiden Lane and then in their Columbia St. homes for 3 decades. Their cozy hearths and merry homes provided a welcome respite for the abolitionists and suffragists who had spent days making speeches, attending meetings and lobbying politicians in Albany.

Her relationship with Anthony was especially close. Anthony spent most her time crisscrossing the country organizing the movement and giving speeches for women’s rights and other social reforms, but in 1875 when Lydia lay dying of consumption, she dropped everything and spent a month at her bedside. On the day Lydia died, Anthony noted in her diary “There passed out of my life today the one who, next to my own family, has been the nearest and dearest to me for thirty years.”

Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor