Albany’s Early Anti-Slavery Movement and its Black Abolitionists

While cruising through old copies of “The Liberator”, the most prominent anti-slavery newspaper in America in the 19th century, I came across a small article from May 3, 1834 that sheds new light on Albany’s Black activism in the early part of the 19th century.

We know a lot about what happened several decades later, but very little about the formative years. In 1827 New York State abolished slavery. ( New Yorkj State was late to the party.)

By 1831 Albany’ had become a hotbed of Black agitation for abolition of slavery in the South and equal rights in the Black community – very much earlier than white abolitionists in the city. While most historians focus on Black activism in Philadelphia, New York City and Boston at that time, Albany was the 9th largest city in America in 1830, and had a Black population of between 700-800. African Americans in Albany were mad as hell about slavery in the South and NYS failure to provide them an opportunity to vote with the same rights as white men.

Members of the Black community had already successfully intervened in court cases that were attempting to send several people (a woman and 2 children) back to the South to be sold in the slave markets in 1828 and 1829.

And then in April 1834 they made their next public move. A “runaway” from a slave state was captured and held in jail (it was at the corner of Howard St. and Eagle St.).According to the article 100 “Negroes” stormed the jail, thronged the jail guards and constables, and rescued the “runaway” and got him away. It appears the guards whomped on the liberators and they didn’t punch back (very smart). Wow.. just wow. . I reached out to a number of historians and they’ve never heard of this.

1834

The men who stormed the jail probably represented at least 1/3 of adult Black men in the City. The article indicates the action was so well-coordinated and timed, it had to have been a planned, not spontaneous (as other such later actions were other cities). And the date of 1834 makes this the earliest incident of this kind that has been described. in the country. Most “liberations” went down in the late 1840s and 1850s.

There are no names identified in the article, but we know who some of the likely suspects are. John Stewart and Michael Douge were fiery 30 something activist barbers.

Courtesy: Refusing Ignorance by Marion Hughes

Stewart had briefly published an incendiary newspaper “The African Sentinel” in 1831 that supported direct action against slavery and slave owners.

His best friend was Charles Morton. Both were agents of The Liberator.

Ben Lattimore, Jr. was the son of the man who had been the leading Black activist in Albany for 20 years, and had stepped into his father’s shoes. The family was probably the wealthiest Black family in the city at the time (they owned a lot of property and ran a thriving grocery store).

In 1834 Ben had recently married a woman born enslaved in Pittstown, Rensselaer County in 1812. Lattimore is identified as a member of the Albany Underground Rairoad (UGRR) , and 1 of 2 Black officers of the Eastern NY Anti-Slavery Society. In 1847 he bought a large farm in south of Glens Falls in Moreau for $3,000 and set up his own UGRR operation with Black and white men in the area.

Other men probably included Stephen Myers, a waiter who would become the supervising agent of the Albany UGRR in the 1850s and William Topp who would have been barely 19.

Topp would later become a wealthy tailor, member of the UGRR, and friend of the white abolitionists Susan B. Anthony, William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips and Frederick Douglass. The group probably included Richard Thompson, who owned an eating house and fruit store (who would become the supervising agent of the Underground Railroad in Albany in the 1840s; Benjamin and Shiperd Paul whose uncle Rev. Nathaniel Paul founded the first Black Church in Albany in the 1820s; John Chambers -another barber, and John Briggs whose son William who would be killed in action while serving with the 54th Massachusetts, the famous “colored” regiment that stormed Ft. Wagner in the Civil War.

Copyright Julie O’Connor 2021

More Lost History; Albany First Black Medical College Graduate Ernest Angus

For over a century Dr. George Carter was thought to be the first Black graduate of Albany Medical College. But I recently discovered there was a much earlier African American graduate – Dr. Ernest Angus. He graduated from Albany Medical College in 1885, at the top of his class.

His story is wonderful and sad. Ernest Angus came to the U.S. from Antigua in 1881 at the age of 17 with other members of his family. They settled in Albany and by 1883 he was enrolled in Albany Medical College. Back then the College was located on Eagle St. about 4 blocks south of State St.

Black newspapers of the time report him working with Albany’s Dr. Thomas Elkins. Elkins was a Black man who was tutored by Albany Medical College professors in the early 1850s, but never officially became an MD, although the entire city treated him as if he was a physician. He was appointed by Albany’s Mayor Nolan to serve as a local district physician. You may know the name Elkins from Albany’s Undergrounds Railroad (UGRR). He was a member of the Vigilance Committee.

Dr, Thomas Elkins

While in med school Ernest also worked for Thomas Pennington. Pennington was the son of a famous Black abolitionist, the Rev. J.W. Pennington. In 1884 Pennington owned the only pharmacy in Saratoga Springs operated by a Black man. Thomas Pennington and Thomas Elkins were the best of friends. When Pennington was in his 20s he apprenticed with Elkins, at the same time Elkins was a member of the UGRR.

Angus graduated with a College prize.

By 1886 Angus was living in New York City. Ultimately he decided to settle in Clarksville, Tenn. By then it appears only Ernest’s father had survived. (There are several burials at Albany Rural Cemetery in 1884 that appear to be his younger siblings.) Sadly, Mr. Angus died in 1887 and is buried in Clarksville. Dr. Angus married a young Black teacher from Arkansas in 1890.

His future looked bright, and he appears set to accomplish great things. In the same year his name appears as one of a group of Black physicians who are holding a convention for Black doctors in the South. At this time most southern (and some northern) Black doctors were denied admission to local medical societies. Their participation in the American Medical Association was not a thing (although it appears that a couple of Black physicians in the North were allowed to join).

Sadly, Dr. Angus contracted tuberculosis. He went to a sanitarium in Colorado Springs, but died there in 1892, barely 28 years old.

Courtesy Find-A-Grave

Note: In 1895 Black physicians across the country would establish their own medical association, the National Medical Association.

Copyright 20121 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.

Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor

African American Men from Albany in the Civil War; the 54th Massachusetts, NYS “Colored Regiments” and an African American serves in the 77th “Saratoga Regiment”

By the end of the Civil War roughly 175,000 black men (10% of the Union Army) served as soldiers in the U.S. Army, and another 19,000 served in the Navy. About 4,500 men from New York State served in the War. So far we’ve found the names about 90 men with links to Albany.

Black men were not allowed to serve in the Union Army until 1863 when Massachusetts raised the 54th regiment of “colored troops” in spring 1863. These are the men whose gallantry and courage are portrayed in the movie “Glory”. By early 1864 New York State finally raised 3 regiments of colored troops – the 20th, the 26th and the 31st. About 3,000 men from New York and elsewhere enlisted in this regiments, and in similar regiments mustered in the other Union states. Other Black men served in the Navy before 1863, scattered on various Union ship as cooks and stewards.

The 54th Massachusetts

We’ve identified 10 men from Albany County (mostly from Albany city) who served in the 54th Massachusetts.

  • Charles Bell – age 20, waiter, private
  • William Briggs – age 21, waiter, private
  • William Everson – age 19, laborer, private
  • William Francis – age 30, waiter, private
  • Benjamin Helmus – age 21, waiter, private
  • James Jones – age 33, waiter, mustered out as Sargent
  • Edgar Morgan – age 20, laborer, private
  • Alexander Thompson – age 25 laborer, private
  • John Titus age 21, laborer, private
  • George Alfred Wilson – 23, laborer, private

Bell, Briggs, Everson, Francis, Helmus, Jones, Morgan, Thompson, and Titus went to Massachusetts, and enlisted as a group on March 29, 1863, and became part of Company E. All but two of the of the men, Bell and Wilson, are identified as being present at the attack of the 54th on Fort Wagner in Charleston, South Carolina. Although the attack was unsuccessful it proved to the nation that Black men could fight with courage, bravery and skill. The Confederate soldiers buried the dead Union soldiers in a mass grave, and in a gesture of utter contempt, threw the body of their white commander Col. Robert Gould Shaw in the same pit. Later Shaw’s father wrote, “We would not have his body removed from where it lies surrounded by his brave and devoted soldiers. … We can imagine no holier place than that in which he lies, among his brave and devoted followers, nor wish for him better company. – what a body-guard he has.”

While some of the men from Albany were wounded, all but one survived – William Briggs died from his wounds a number of days after the battle. Some of the wounds were horrendous, and left many of the men serious disabilities from gunshot and bayonet wounds.

Alexander Hill from Hudson died in Albany in 1876; his death was attributed to the wounds received at Fort Wagner.

NYS Colored Regiments

The 20th, the 26th and the 31st regiments were raised in in New York City in Spring 1864. While many people were not totally on board with NY establishing African American regiments the State was having difficulty meeting its enrollment quotas, and the draft was despised. We’ve identified about 50 men who were born or lived in Albany County who served in these regiments.

Most of the Albany men were members of the 20th and 26th regiments, the first two established. Many of the volunteers were from outside of the city; farmers and laborers from Bethlehem, Coxsackie, Rennselaerville, etc. Most were in their late teens or early 20s. We need to do more research to find out more, but we can tell you some about two of the men.

William Latour was an older man, age 38, and a barber when he enlisted in the 26th NY (CT). His father Henry was born enslaved on the farm owned by the French aristocrat émigré the Marquis de La tour du Pin who fled to this area in the 1790s after escaping the guillotine in the French Revolution. When they purchased their farm in Watervliet Madame La Tour was shocked that General Schuyler and others advised that they would be unable to sustain the farm without slaves. It appears that when the family sold the farm before their return to France in 1798 they freed those they had enslaved. (There is no mention of slaves in the description of the farm used for the sale.) Most of the those previously enslaved made their way to Albany city, and appear as free people in the very early city directories. Henry was one of the Black men who attended the first New York State Colored Convention held in Albany in 1840, and played a pivotal role in aiding the escape of the fugitive Charles Nalle in Troy NY in 1859. (In the nick of time Henry arrived with a wagon and whisked him away, with the help of Harriet Tubman.)

Sylvester Dorsey was born in Ithaca and enlisted in the 26th in 1864. He was also 38. After the War he settled in Albany (we think that there was a family relationship with the family of John Titus who served with the 54th Massachusetts). In Albany he married Frances Johnson, a member of a leading Black Albany family. He was a blacksmith by trade, and in 1879 he was the armorer for the Albany Zouave Cadet Company (which would become part of the 10th NYS National Guard). In 1910 the history of the Company was published and this description of Sylvester Dorsey in 1879 appears:

“Many of the exempts (note: this means members of the Company) will remember the faithful old servitor, and will the dispute the truth of the present day saying about all “coons” looking alike. Dorsey has an individuality all his own, and as the members of the old Guard conjure up his shining ebony face there will come trooping many recollections of happy days gone…”

(By 1879 many members of the Company were young and merely “playing” at being a soldier, yet Sylvester Dorsey had actually served in the War.)

Other Colored Troop Regiments

Based on information from various data bases we found another 40 or so additional African American men born in Albany who served in the other “colored” regiments across the North and in the Union navy who enlisted in places as diverse as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Maine.

Black Men Who Served in White Units

No one really knows how many African American soldiers served with white regiments in the Civil War. A low estimate is about a 1,000, and they are thought to have been mostly “contrabands”, enslaved men who made it to Union positions, and served as cooks and officer valets and stewards in white regiments.

But what we found turns that theory on its head. In late summer 1861, at the very start of the War, William Topp Lattimore , an African American born in Albany enlisted in the 77th NY (the “Saratoga Regiment”). Their grandfather, Benjamin Lattimore, who had been one of the few Black Revolutionary War soldiers, settled in Albany in the late 1790s. He had been instrumental in creating the first African school in the city and had been a major mover and shaker in the Black community. His son, Benjamin Lattimore, Jr., followed in his father’s footsteps. He was an active member of Albany’s African American political and social community, an ardent abolitionist and a member of Albany’s Underground Railroad (UGRR). In 1847 he pulled up stakes and moved his large family to a farm he purchased in Moreau N.Y. in Saratoga County just south of Glens Falls. There he continued his UGRR activities.

he time the War started both William (Billy as he was called) had lived in Moreau for 14 years. He enlisted and fought side by side with the white men with whom he had attended school and church.

Billy re-enlisted (he may have been the only African American soldier, or one of a few who served at Gettysburg), and was seriously wounded at Fort Stevens in 1864. After the War Ben became a rolling stone, traveling across the country, finally ending up as a porter at a San Francisco Hotel for several decades. Billy first went to New York City and then came back to the farm after his father died in 1873. For the rest of his life he would remain proud of his military service and was an active member of the 77th NY GAR (Grand Army of the Republic) Association for Union Army veterans. He attended every encampment and reunion, and often served as an officer of the Association.

We aren’t sure if the enlistment of the William Lattimore is a complete anomaly or similar enlistments happened across the North. We do know, based on picture of Billy in a large GAR re-union he was very light skinned (the family is listed variously as Black or Mulatto in different census data.) There is no indication in any military active service or pension records that either brother was not white. It’s a mystery that’s worth pursuing.

Here is the list we have so far of Albany men who served in colored regiments or the U.S. Navy,

  • Alexander, John – U.S. Navy
  • Anthony, Andrew 8th US CT
  • Anthony, Fleetwood – 29th NY CT
  • Baker, Charles – 26th NY CT
  • Becker, John Henry – 20th NY CT
  • Brent, William – 2nd Cav CT
  • Brown, Jackson – 20th NY CT
  • Bulah, Joseph – 11th Heavy Artillery CT
  • Burns, William – 26th NY CT
  • Cain, Andrew – 26th NY CT
  • Cambridge, Samuel – U.S. Navy – “Grand Gulf”
  • Cane, David – 26th NY CT
  • Ceasar, John – 31st CT – KIA in Petersburg
  • Champion, Theodore – 26th NY CT
  • Cisco, John 20th – NY CT (also listed as 31st CT)
  • Crummel (Cromwell?), James – 5th Heavy Artillery CT
  • Curtis, Milo – 20th NY CT
  • Darby, George = 26th NY CT
  • Dickson, Albert – 26th NY CT
  • Dickson, Peter – 20th NY CT
  • Dickson, Richard – 26th NY CT
  • Dickson, William – 26th NY CT
  • Diffenderf, Henry – regiment unknown
  • Dixon, Robert – 26th NY CT
  • Dorcey, Abraham – 20th NY CT
  • Fletcher, Harvey – 26th NY CT
  • Green, Zebulon – 11th Heavy Artillery CT (also appears to be listed as sailor and 24th CT)
  • Groomer, Solomon – 26th NY CT
  • Habbard, Luther – 26th NY CT
  • Hallenbeck, William – regiment unknown
  • Harden, Steven – U.S. Navy “Mohongo”
  • Harding, George – 8th US CT
  • Holland, George – 20th NY CT
  • Harding, Morris – 26th NY CT
  • Holland, George – 20th NY CT
  • Hollin, Samuel – 26th NY CT
  • Holmes, Poliver – 26th NY CT
  • Houzer, Richard – 3rd CT
  • Ingold, George – 29th NY CT
  • Jackson, Abram – 26th NY CT
  • Jackson, Anthony – 36th NY CT
  • Jackson, Charles – 11th Heavy artillery CT
  • Jackson, Jacob – 26th NY CT
  • Jackson, Jerod – 26th NY CT
  • Jackson, John – 31st CT
  • Jackson, Joseph – 26th NY CT
  • Jackson, Prime – 31st CT
  • Jackson, Robert – 26th NY CT
  • Jackson, Samuel – 26th NY CT
  • Jackson, William – 26th NY CT
  • Jackson, William Henry – 11th heavy artillery CT
  • Jarris, Henry – 26th NY CT
  • Johnson, Daniel – 26th NY CT
  • Johnson, David – 26th NY CT
  • Johnson, Henry – 20th NY CT
  • Johnson, Nicholas – U.S. Navy
  • Johnson, William – 44th NY (may be in accurate)
  • Johnston, Henry – 24th CT
  • Jones, Davis – 20th NY CT
  • Jones, Solomon – 1st CT and 1st CT Cavalry
  • Keyser, Zacariah – 26th NY CT
  • Kniskern, Harrison – 61st NY (may be inaccurate)
  • Lavendar, Benjamin – 11th Heavy Artillery CT
  • Lawyer, George – 20th NY CT
  • Lewis, Peter – 26th NY CT
  • London, George – 26th NY CT
  • London, Michael Thomas – 26th NY CT
  • Manuel, Charles – 26th NY CT
  • Marco – 30th NY – probably inaccurate
  • Moore, John – 41sr CT (New Hampshire)
  • Morgan, George – 14th Rhode Island CT
  • Morgan, Henry – 11th Heavy Artillery CT and 14th Rhode Island CT
  • Morgan, Luther- 20th NY CT
  • Murphy, Charles – 20th NY CT
  • Nash, James -26th NY CT
  • Nash, Samuel – 26th NY CT
  • O’Neil, William – 26th NY (also listed with 31st CT)
  • Panton, Charles – no regiment listed CT
  • Raymond, J.S – 5th CT Cavalry (Mass) CT
  • Richard, Hart – 26th NY CT
  • Richard, Scott – 26th NY CT
  • Rix, Ambrose – 144th NY (probably inaccurate)
  • Rondout, John – no regiment listed
  • Saulter (Salter), Isaac – 26th NY CT
  • Sawyer, George – 30th CT
  • Scott, Richard – 30th CT (also listed as 26th NY CT)
  • Smith, William – 8th CT
  • Smoke, Josiah – 20th NY CT
  • Smoke, William – 31st CT
  • Snyder, Thomas – 18th NY (probably inaccurate)
  • Spanberg (Speanbergh), Henry – 91st NY (probably inaccurate)
  • Sternbergh, Lorenzo – 26th NY CT
  • Sternberg, William – 26th CT
  • Stewart, John – 26th NY CT
  • Stewart, William – 29th NY CT
  • Sutphen, James – 31st CT
  • Swailes, Thomas – U.S. Navy – U.S. Saratoga
  • Swan, Elisha – 26th NY CT
  • Sylix, Andrew – 20th NY CT
  • Teabout, Joseph Henry – 11th heavy artillery CT
  • Ten Eyck, Anthony – 20th NY CT
  • Thompson, John – 20th NY CT
  • Thompson, Prime – 26th NY CT
  • Thompson, Lysander – 26th NY CT
  • Tilson, John – 26th NY CT
  • Titus, George – regiment unknown
  • Van Cruren, Peter – 6th cavalry CT
  • Van Slyke, John – 26th NY CT
  • Van Slyke , Samuel – 20th NY CT
  • Vroman, Daniel – 26th NY CT
  • Ward, Phillip – 31st CT
  • Weddington, George – 20th NY CT
  • White, John – 11th Heavy Artillery CT
  • Wilbur, Noruse – 26th NY CT
  • Williams, Edward – U.S. Navy “Sebago”
  • Williams, Henry – 20th NY CT
  • Williams, James – 20th NY CT
  • Wilson, Frank – 8th CT
  • Wright, Major – 26th NY CT

Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor

Helena R. Goines, Albany’s First African American Teacher

Circa 1880

For many decades the first African American teacher in the Albany School District was thought to be Harriet Lewis Van Vranken who began teaching in 1915, and who subsequently became the first African American social worker in the city. However, new information has come to light and we’ve found that Helena R. Goines started teaching in the district two decades earlier in 1895. We couldn’t have corroborated what we found without the help of School District staff; Alicia Abdul – Librarian, Albany High School and Paula Tibbitts, Assistant to the Superintendent.

In the late part of the 19th century African American women began to emerge as a force to be reckoned with. Some doors opened and others were pushed open. Increasingly their voices were heard, and they entered fields previously denied to them; education, law, medicine, and science. They began to organize and mobilize to create institutions to serve their communities, including day nurseries, old age homes, and hospitals. Helena Goines would become part of this group.

Helena was born in 1868, likely in New York City (because her father, John Butler, is listed in NYS Civil War registration records in the City in 1863.) John was probably from the Mohawk Valley (Schoharie or Oneida County), and her mother Eliza Goines Butler from Pennsylvania. It’s quite possible John and Elizabeth met in Philadelphia where she lived and he had family. The family first appears in Albany in the City Directory and the 1875 Census living at 352 Hamilton St. between Dove St. and Lark St. – John Butler, Eliza Butler, Jim Butler and Nellie (Helena) Butler. When Helena began school, she would have attended an integrated school – probably District School 16 at 201 Hudson Ave. below Swan St. It was the same school building which her brother Jim, five years older, had attended, but until Fall, 1873 when Albany integrated its schools, it had been the Wilberforce School, a segregated school for African American children.

Circa 1880

Within a couple of years, the family moved to the 100 block of Third St. in Arbor Hill and the children attended attend District School 22 just around the block on Second St. When Helena was about 11 her father died. Mrs. Butler and the children moved to Elm St. between Dove St. and Swan St. Around the time of their father’s death there appears to be have been a major family break. Jim and Helena started using their mother’s maiden name, Goines, as their surname – which they would retain for the rest of their lives. At the time of his death John Butler appears to have been living apart of from his family. (Further evidence of the break is John Butler ‘s burial in Albany Rural Cemetery, while Mrs. Butler, Helena and Jim are interred elsewhere.)

Albany High School

Eagle St., corner of Steuben St.

In 1883 Helena passed the admission test for Albany High School, then located on the corner of Eagle St. and Steuben St. (The County Courthouse is there today.) Only a decade before Arabella Chapman, older sister of Helena’s best friend Harriet, was the first African American child admitted to the High School in 1873 when Albany schools were integrated. Helena graduated in 1887 from the English Division from the High School (we think she may have only been the third African American to graduate in that first decade.) She then pursued a yearlong course at the High School and was awarded a Graduate Teaching Certificate in 1888. (Again this may have been a first.) Her accomplishment was so significant woman it was reported in the New York Age a newspaper that focused on African American life and accomplishments across the country.)

Teaching in Delaware

In 1889 Helena became a teacher in a “colored” school in the Wilmington, Delaware segregated school district, where she remained for at least 4 years. (Wilmington seems to be an odd choice, but, based on some old census data, quite possibly some of her mother’s family may have lived in Wilmington.)

Return to Albany

In 1895 Helena returned to Albany, becoming part of the corps of substitute teachers for the school district. In 1896 she was appointed to a permanent position in School 14 at 70 Trinity Place. The following year she appears in District records as a teacher in School 12 on the corner of Washington Ave. and Robin St. Helena remained at School 12 for about a year.

1894
1894

Queens

In Fall, 1898 she took a position in Jamaica, Queens at a much enhanced the salary. Jamaica was still a segregated school district. It wasn’t until late 1900 when Governor Theodore Roosevelt signed legislation that prohibited children of any race from being excluded from any school in New York State.

Her brother and mother soon joined her in Queens. Helena continued to teach in Queens schools in Jamaica and Flushing for another 25 years or so.

Newspaper accounts of the time document Helena’s activities among a group of African American women who were creating new social and political institutions for the Black community in New York City and the country, including the wives of W.E. B, Dubois, one of the founders of the NAACP, and Mrs. Adam Clayton Powell, wife of the immensely influential reverend of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Manhattan. These women were the supporters of the first “Colored” YWCA in New York City, and the Utopia Neighborhood Club that supported the development of what is today’s Urban League. They were the women who were members of the National Association of Colored Women, a driving force behind the activism of African American women across the U.S. at the local level. Many were supporters of the African American contingent of the Equal Suffrage Party in New York City that worked to secure the vote for women.

Helena passed away in Queens in 1944. She’s buried in Ballston Spa Cemetery, along with her brother Jim who died in 1906 and her mother who passed away in 1922.

Note: There is compelling evidence that Helena was also Native American. Her mother’s death certificate lists her race as Native American. When Helena died there was a single heir, Jennie Brock in Philadelphia. Jennie identified as Native American in the 1940 census. It appears that the surnames Goins/Goines is closely associated with the Native American population in Philadelphia dating back to the early 1800s.

Julie O’Connor M.L.S

(Special thanks to Lorie Wies, Local History Librarian, Saratoga Springs Library who found the original newspaper article that indicated Helena received a teaching certificate.)

Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor

Thomas Elkins – Albany’s Renaissance Man:Doctor, Dentist, Druggist, Inventor, Abolitionist, Community and Political Activist

Thomas Elkins was one of the most fascinating African-American men in Albany in the 19th century. He was born about 1819 in New York City. He came to Albany with his parents in the 1820s, and when in his early teens served as an apprentice to the druggist Herman Wynkoop at Wynkoop’s shop at Broadway and Maiden Lane (living in Wynkoop’s home at 14 Orange St.).*

Following his apprenticeship with Wynkoop he studied with a local dentist. (His obituary said they were associated in practice in Montreal and then Saratoga.)

Unlike other local African American men in Albany of the time Elkins was not opposed to the colonization movement. In 1847, when he was 28, he sailed to Liberia under the auspices of the Maryland Colonization Society. In 1848 Frederick Douglass’ newspaper “The North Star “reported he was also serving as a school superintendent as well as practicing dentistry.

Upon his return he entered into the study of medicine with Dr. Alden March, founder of Albany Medical College, and professor Dr. Thomas Hun. (There’s a reference in the “The North Star” to as student from Liberia, c. 1850, studying at the College – we believe that is Dr. Elkins.)

By 1850 Elkins is listed as a practicing dentist at 188 Lumber St. (now Livingston Ave.), home of his step-father, John Butler, his mother Sarah and his half-sisters. By 1852, he’s set up his own shop at 84 North Swan St., around the corner, and he’s still living at home with his mother who has become a widow. In 1855 he moved his apothecary shop to 790 Broadway (where he would remain for decades in the same general location). It was about this time he was appointed by Albany’s Mayor Nolan to be a city district physician.

It was also at this time he became politically active. Elkins is identified as the Secretary/Treasurer of the Vigilance Committee tasked with raising funds for the Underground Railroad (UGRR). During the Civil War he was appointed by Massachusetts Governor John Andrew as medical examiner for the recruits for the 54th Massachusetts “colored” regiment (you know it from the movie ‘Glory”), and the 55th regiment created to handle the overflow influx of African-American recruits.

Just after the War his mother dies and Elkins moves his residence to 67 Second St. near North Swan St. He also plunged into social and political activities. He attends the New York State Colored Convention in Albany in 1866, becomes the Vice President of the newly formed African American Literary Society (for men only), immerses himself in Republican politics (the 15th amendment granting African American men the right to votes was passed n 1870), and becomes part of a coalition to pressure the Albany Board of Education to integrate the High School. He’s an active member of the County Dental Society.

And he tinkers. Over about a decade he patents 3 inventions; the first was a quilting/ironing table The second invention was the most splendiferous commode you’ve ever seen – a veritable throne. His final patent was for the technology of one of the earliest refrigeration units (patent number 221,222 in 1879).

And over the next two decades his was a life well lived. He continues to practice, participates in the social and activities of the African –American Albany (he’s the first African –American to serve on a federal grand jury in Albany County).

Dr Elkins died in August 1900. His funeral at the Cathedral of All-Saints was thronged, and his pall bearers were the sons of Francis Van Vranken, his closest friend – a barber – who had been a member of the UGRR.

One of the newspaper obituaries makes it quite clear that, but for his race he would have become a licensed physician (although he was treated as if he was by most of Albany, including the police and the courts).

“‘Prejudice alone at his color has prevented him making a competence at his profession, as he is in the opinion of many competent to judge, one of the ablest physicians and dentists of this or any other age, either in this city or elsewhere”

*Wynkoop was related to high society of New York – the Lansings and the Gansevoorts, which probably opened doors for Elkins that would have been otherwise closed.

“He Put the Huns on the Run” – Albany’s Sgt. Henry Johnson and the Medal of Honor

June 5, 2017

Today is the first annual Sgt.Henry Johnson Day in Albany, celebrating the life of this distinguished war hero.zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz18951357_1334296046618654_3469178987009407237_n

He was born William Henry Johnson in Winston Salem, North Carolina. In his teens he moved to Albany, and worked various jobs – as a chauffeur, soda mixer, laborer in a coal yard, and a Redcap porter at Albany’s Union Station.

 

 

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The 369th Infantry Regiment was ordered into battle in 1918, and Johnson and his unit were brigaded with a French army colonial unit in front-line combat. It was during this service that Johnson came to be a hero. He fought off a German raid in hand-to-hand combat, killing multiple German soldiers and rescuing a fellow soldier while experiencing 21 wounds.

For his battlefield valor, Johnson became one of the first Americans to be awarded the French Croix de Guerre avec Palme, France’s highest award for valor. Upon his discharge, the Army used Johnson’s image to recruit new soldiers (Sgt. Johnson’s heroics were also used as a recruitment tool in World War II) and to sell Victory War Stamps. (“Henry Johnson licked a dozen Germans. How many stamps have you licked?”) Former President Theodore Roosevelt called Johnson one of the “five bravest Americans” to serve in World War I.

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Johnson returned home from his tour and was unable to return to his pre-war position as a railroad porter, due to the severity of his combat injuries. Johnson’s inability to hold down a job led him to drink. It didn’t take long for his wife and three children to leave. Veterans Bureau records show that a “permanent and total disability” rating was granted to Johnson on September 16, 1927 as a result of tuberculosis. Additional Veterans Bureau records refer to Johnson receiving monthly compensation and regular visits by Veterans Bureau medical personnel until his death.

He died of myocarditis, destitute, in 1929 at age 32 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Johnson was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart in 1996 and the Distinguished Service Cross in 2002; President Obama awarded the Medal of Honor in 2015.  Sgt. Johnson’s Medal of Honor Citation is found below.

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Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor