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

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.

Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor