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.
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.
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.
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.
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, African American brothers born in Albany enlisted in the 77th NY (the “Saratoga Regiment”). They were William Topp Lattimore and Benjamin Franklin Lattimore. 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.
By the time the War started both William (Billy as he was called) and Benjamin had lived in Moreau for 14 years. They enlisted and fought side by side with the white men with whom they had gone to school and church. Benjamin served one enlistment and returned to the farm.
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 Lattimore brothers 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
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
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
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
Harding, George – 8th CT
Hallenbeck, William – regiment unknown
Holland, George – 20th NY CT
Harding, Morris – 26th NY CT
Holland, George – 20th NY CT
Holmes, Poliver – 26th NY CT
Houzer, Richard – 3rd CT
Ingold, George – 29th 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, Henry – 20th NY CT
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, Henry – 11th Heavy Artillery CT
Morgan, Luther- 20th NY CT
Murphy, Charles – 20th NY CT
Nash, James 20th 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, Isaac – 26th NY CT
Sawyer, George – 30th CT
Scott, Richard – 30th 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)
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.
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
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.
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.)
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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).*
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.
Mary Williams was born Catherine Mary Douge in Albany in the 1830s to Susan and Michael Douge. Michael was born in Albany around 1800. More research is needed, but we think his father may have been part of the slave revolt in Haiti in the 1790s.
By the 1830s Michael and Susan were leaders of the African community in Albany. Michael was a barber, and through newspaper accounts of the time we can see that he was in the middle of everything that affected the community socially and politically; advocating tirelessly for the rights of his people. Meanwhile Susan was organizing the Female Lundy Society, the first African-American women’s charitable organization in the city. They were both deeply involved in support of the African M.E. Church.
In the early 1840s we find the family living on Plain St. in Albany in a building owned by Benjamin Lattimore. Lattimore was one of the first Albany men to attend the earliest Colored Conventions (the first national expressions of abolition and political equality free Blacks in the U.S.). Lattimore was a friend of Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison and anyone of consequence in those movements.) So it’s safe to assume that Douge family had similar linkages to the world outside Albany.
In 1847 Mary became an assistant teacher in the segregated Wilberforce School for African children in Albany. It was here she would meet her first husband, Henry Hicks, who was at one point principal of the school. Although Henry died in 1853 Mary would teach at Wilberforce for another 6 years or so.
We lose track of Mary until after the Civil War. Despite the fact that appears to have been suffering from TB she ventured south to Virginia and South Carolina to teach children and adults recently freed from enslavement. She would have taught under the auspices of the Freedmen’s Bureau. (One of the assistant commissioners of the Bureau, J. Sella Martin, was the husband of her childhood friend Sarah Lattimore. )
While in South Carolina Mary met her second husband, Andrew Williams, and the couple returned to Albany.
In 1880 we find the couple and their daughter Susie living with Mary’s parents at 25 Lark St.*In that year the New York State Legislature enacted a law permitting women in New York to vote in school elections. This is known as the “School Suffrage” law. Lillian Devereux Blake, the president of the New York State Women’s Suffrage Association had lobbied tirelessly for the law. She and others used it as a catalyst to establish women’s suffrage societies around the state. The first meeting of the Albany group was held in March, 1880.
The immediate goal of the women was to get the word out about the School Suffrage and get women registered to vote in the school commissioner election on April 15 . Mary was in the thick of it. We can only depend on spotty newspaper accounts of the time, but at least 6 African-American women from Arbor Hill voted. (We suspect there were more.) They included Mary, her mother and Julia Myers, daughter in law of Stephen Myers, superintendent of Albany’s Underground Railroad.
Mary was committed to women’s political equality. She would become the Vice President of the Society, and remain in that position for at least 2 years (she and her mother voted in 1882).
The importance of Mary’s participation in the Society as an officer can’t be underestimated. It tells us that Albany’s women suffrage activities at that time included women of color, unlike other areas of the country. It’s quite possible that she may have been influenced through her family’s personal connections to Douglass, who was one of the only 2 Black men to sign the “Declaration of Sentiments” at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 advocating political equality for women. Or even Susan B.Anthony herself who had close personal connections with members of the African American anti-slavery and temperance community in Albany for decades.
It speaks to Mary’s significance in Albany, both in the White and African American communities, and the esteem in which she was held. Mary died in 1884. In her death notice it refers prominently to her membership in the Suffrage Society. That mention makes us think that she was proud of her role in the political equality movement for women, and she understood its importance. Her father was afforded full voting rights in 1870 with the passage of the 15th amendment. Yet she and her mother and other women who had worked tirelessly to improve their world would be denied that right for another 50 years until the passage of the 19th amendment. We suspect that reactions ranged from grave disappointment to outright fury.
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 the city to be the district physician in the 3rd ward, and would continue in that position until 1870.
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.
In 2020 we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution that allowed women to vote. Most history of the suffrage movement focuses on the 20th century and the triumvirate of Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in the 19th century.
But there were hundreds of thousands of women who fought for their rights over multiple generations. They included many women in Albany.Generally the story of the women’s suffrage movement starts with the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 and “the Declaration of Sentiments”, the document that stated the principles of women’s rights. Over decades women chipped away at the ties that bound them. Along the way there were some small victories – changes to women’s property rights, divorce laws and guardianship laws that began to favor custody for mothers.
1880 School Suffrage Law
In the late 1800s states started to pass laws that allowed women to vote in school and some other municipal elections. Women who met the same requirements as men were allowed to vote. In New York State the initial “school suffrage” act was passed early in 1880.
The Albany Women’s Suffrage Society
The Albany Women’s Suffrage Society, in response to the new State law, was established under the auspices of the New York State Women’s Suffrage Association. The first general meeting on March 19, 1880, was held at the NYS Geological Hall on the corner of State and Lodge Streets before the proposed vote on April 15, 1880. About a hundred women (and some men) attended.The importance of the Suffrage Society in Albany can’t be under-estimated. In 1880 Albany had a population of 90,000 and was the 21st largest city in the country. It was a hub of industry and forward thinking commerce. Yet in many ways Albany was still the sleepy, totally traditional and “proper” town it had been before the Erie Canal propelled it into the 19th century. It was devoted to the status quo. Even newcomers quickly adopted the cultural zeitgeist of the city. Albany was in no way a “modern” city of thoughts and ideas. James H. Wilcox in the “Women’s Journal” (Boston) said, “Albany County was .. deemed almost hopeless, the conservativism of its social aristocracy being intense and powerful”.
Suffrage Society Officers
Mary Seymour Howell became the President. She was 35, lived at 1 High St. (corner of State St. opposite the Capitol) with her husband George Howell, who was the Assistant Librarian of the NYS Library in the Capitol. She had formerly been a teacher and employed by NYS to give training institutes for teachers. Mary would be the most active member of the woman’s rights movement in Albany for the next 2 decades. She served as an officer of the NYS Women’s Suffrage Society, did a lot of public speaking across the country, toured New York State with Susan B. Anthony, and testified to Congress. (There’s a description of the Society in its early years in a “Bi-centennial History of Albany County”, written by her husband and Jonathan Tenney in 1886.)
C. Mary Williams was the First Vice-President. She was African American, 48, and lived at 25 Lark St. with her husband Andrew and her daughter in the home of her father and mother, Susan and Michael Douge. Catherine had been a teacher in the segregated Wilberforce School for African-American children in Albany, and after the Civil War had gone into the south to teach Black children under the auspices of the Freedman’s Bureau. She would be an active member of the Society until her death from tuberculosis in 1884.
Hendrika Iliohan became the Treasurer. She was 30, and a naturalized citizen, born in Holland. Her husband Martin was baker (also born in Holland), and in 1880 they lived at 154 Livingston Ave. (near North Swan St.) with 1 son. She would remain an active member of the Society until the family moved west in the late 1880s.
Kate Stoneman was elected Secretary. Stoneman was 33, single and living at 134 Swan St. between Madison Ave. and Hamilton St. She was a teacher at the NYS Normal School. Kate was a lifelong women’s rights pioneer and member of the Albany Woman’s Suffrage Society, and then its successor, the Political Equality Club. She would become the first woman to graduate from Albany Law School.
The first order of business of the Society was to identify two candidates for run for school commissioner. The group nominated Emily Weed Barnes and Mary Pruyn. Barnes was 22, the granddaughter of Thurlow Weed. Weed had been the owner of “Albany Evening Journal”, the most widely read newspaper in the country in the 1850s, and a political king maker in the Republican Party, helping to elect Lincoln. Weed was a strong supporter of women’s suffrage. Mary Pruyn was 60; she the wealthy widow of Samuel Pruyn, a prominent Albany attorney and businessman. The couple had been well known for their philanthropy and charitable good works. After her husband’s death she spent many years in in Japan as a missionary. Alas, both women declined.
The Society established an executive committee and designated committeewomen in each election ward to canvass prospective voters. It printed a circular to be distributed, “Women’s Right to Vote in Albany and Other Cities and Villages”, that instructed women on the new law, how to register and vote, and concluded with the following. “Every woman who registers and votes this spring helps the cause of virtue and justice throughout the world”
We think over 100 women in Albany tried to vote in the 1880 school suffrage election. There are no official records, and all we have to rely upon are spotty newspaper accounts of the time. We know from these accounts that it wasn’t easy, and all sorts of obstacles were thrown in their path. First they had to register. While some women enrolled with ease, others were denied that right.
Inspectors refused to allow women to register in the Third Ward (including South Pearl and Arch Streets) and the Fourth Ward (including South Pearl and lower Hamilton Streets). In the Sixth ward (the heart of downtown Albany) 14 women tried to register, but were turned away. The “National Citizen and Ballot Box” newspaper reported that at least 50 women enrolled, but many others were refused that right. Despite impassioned pleas from about a half dozen women (and spectators) who tried to register to vote in City Hall they were denied. Even the local judges refused to intervene. (A newspaper observed that some of inspectors were store owners, and the fashionable and quite wealthy women among those denied the right to enroll made it known they and their friends would henceforth boycott those merchants.)
There is no way of knowing how many women were discouraged from enrolling when reports of the rudeness, mockery, ridicule and open hostility of the election officials were made known.
Yet other women enrolled with little problem. “… half a dozen colored females headed by Mrs. C. Mary Williams, Vice President of the County Woman’s Suffrage Society went to the place of registration in Eleventh Ward and had their names enrolled. They were followed by an immense crowd of white and colored people, and when they issued from the place of registry on the street, were cheered in an hilariously boisterous fashion. Mrs. Williams is a stately mulatto of considerable education and refinement.” “National Citizen and Ballot Box”, April 1880.
.On the day of the 1880election there were varying circumstances. A local newspaper reported that Kate Stoneman was the first woman to vote – bright and early at 8:30 AM, “just like a little man”. Other women were successful as well, but some were denied the right to vote. “In the 13th ward the inspectors refused to accept the women’s votes, even though they were registered.” “Albany Morning Express” April 15, 1880. (The area immediately surrounding the Capitol comprised the 13th ward.) The same thing happened in the 17th ward (almost everything east and north of Clinton Ave. down to the River).
The newspapers identified about 30 women who voted successfully. (We assume there were others.) We know some were members of the Suffrage Society: others we think were not. But they represented “Every Woman”. They were a remarkably diverse group. They were old and young and middle-aged. Many were married, some widowed, others single. Some were enormously wealthy, and others were probably barely scraping by (based on their address in the 1880 census); most of the women seemed to be middle class. (We suspect that there were more women who lived in North Albany and the South End, less economically advantaged areas, who tried to vote; but they lived in the wards where there appears to have been the greatest and most systemic voter suppression.)
Most listed their occupation as “keeping house” in census data, but some were employed as teachers; there were several seamstresses and paid/unpaid housekeepers; one woman was a laundress. Two women managed the House of Shelter, a refuge for women of “ill-repute” found by Mary Pruyn and her husband Samuel. The three female physicians in the city were part of the founding group of the Society, and we know 2 voted successfully.
Most were native born, but a few were naturalized citizens.
There was a dedicated contingent of African-American women, who had seen their fathers, husbands, brothers and sons get the vote a decade earlier under the 15th amendment. We know that these women had stood by the side with their male counterparts as they fought against slavery and for political equality. Yet they were not rewarded.
The women represented most areas of the City. The largest group lived in the upper middle class area that we think of as Center Square and Hudson Park today. Another group of women, Black and White, came from a middle class neighborhood in Arbor Hill, bounded by North Swan St, North Swan, Lark St. and Livingston Ave. Given the response of the election officials in the South End/River Wards and in North Albany, we’re not surprised no women from those areas were identified.
In the subsequent years the school votes became more complicated and difficult. At every turn there were attempts to discourage and deny women the ability to vote in school suffrage elections. In the early 1880s both the New York State Attorney General and Assistant Attorney General rendered widely circulated opinions that were at odds with the actual law – if a husband was qualified to vote, a wife was not eligible. Some election officials believed that if there were other elections (besides a school commissioner vote) women were not eligible to vote. Election inspectors who opposed women’s suffrage became emboldened over time. In 1885 even Mary Howell was denied the right to vote. She attempted to get a judge to provide a legal remedy; he refused. This happened all over the state. A newspaper report from 1885 estimated that the number of women who voted in Saratoga Springs in 1880 dropped by more than half in 1885.
Nevertheless the Albany Women’s Suffrage Society persisted, and it acquired new members. It was provided the opportunity to hold meetings in the Assembly chamber of the Old Capital (before it was demolished) and then met in Tweddle Hall, a large theater/auditorium on the corner of State and Pearl. Besides the women’s franchise, they lobbied for pensions for the women who had served as nurses in the Civil War, supported the NYS Governor when he appointed women managers to one of the boards of a NYS insane asylum, and lobbied for a woman matron in the Albany Police Dept.
In 1884 a new suffrage group was formed in the City – the Political Equality Club. It included both men and women in its membership. Mary Seymour Howells became president, It included many of the same women who had been original members of the Suffrage Society. We suspect these women were members of the both groups.
Yet it wasn’t all roses. In 1885 Martha Winnie was elected president of the Society. Martha was a local woman who attended the NYS Normal School. She’d worked her way up through the Albany public school system and was the principal of School 17 (a rarity for a woman at the time). After her election she was fired by the Board of Education. (She was ultimately appointed as a school principal in Glens Falls in 1893.) Martha was called the “first martyr for the cause. Ironically, her successor as President was Joan Cole, wife of the Superintendent of Albany Schools. (Mr. Cole ensured that the Albany school manual include a copy of the 1880 school suffrage law.)
Around 1890 Society membership and activities began wane, despite the fact that the National Women’s Suffrage Association was formed that year. There are fewer newspaper references to the Political Equality Club as well. And then came buzz saw – the Anti-Suffragists of Albany organized to ensure that the NYS State Constitutional Convention in 1894 did not propose a change to the state constitution that permitted women to vote. The Anti’s were mostly rich women who ruled Albany society, and were supported by the Episcopal Bishop of Albany, William Crosswell Doane who wielded enormous influence.. They were loud, well-financed and married to men with enormous political clout. They often met in the building on State St. housing the Albany Historical and Art Society (now the Albany Institute of History and Art) , which it appears, from newspaper accounts, they considered their private club house.
The Anti’s were successful. There would be no proposed constitutional amendment to permit NYS women to vote until 1915. But, in a bit of delicious irony Mrs. Katherine Gavit was the grand marshal of the Albany Suffragette parade in 1914. Her mother-in-law Fanny was one of the most influential members of the Anti’s, and an officer in the New York statewide anti-suffrage association. (Tense Thanksgiving dinners we suspect.)
But the Albany suffragists carruied on. They re-formed in 1900 under the Political Equality Club banner. The new group included at least five of the original Suffrage Society members – Mary Howell, Kate Stoneman, Joan Cole, and Adeline and Julia Coley.
Who Were the Woman?
Agnes Anable was 31, daughter of a wealthy local business man. She lived at 162 Hamilton St. with her 4 children and her husband Henry, who owned an insurance concern. Agnes voted 1880.
Mrs. Emily Weed Barnes was 52, daughter of Thurlow Weed. She was married to William Barnes, a wealthy and prominent attorney; they had 5 children. The “National Citizen and Ballot Box” – newspaper of the women’s suffrage movement, published by Matilda Jocelyn Gage, described her as a political powerhouse as she lobbied the NYS Legislature for women’s rights.
Anna Belle was African American, age 67, a laundress who lived in the household of her sister Diana Williams at 169 Second St. with her adult son Charles. She voted 1880.
Matilda Wilkie Blair was 61, twice a widow, with several children living at 8 Delaware Ave., near Lark St. Matilda voted in 1880 and registered in the 16th ward in 1882.
Martha Bradt was 42, married to a druggist who owned his own business. They lived at 43 Chestnut St. where she kept house and had 2 children. She voted in 1880.
Ella Brown, 23, was married to a proof reader; they lived with her parents at 27 Hawk St. Her mother, Mary Melius voted with her in 1882. Mary’s husband worked for the county clerk and is listed in in the 1880 city directory as “supervisor of the 14th ward’, which may explain why many of the women were successful in voting in that Ward.
Mary Brown voted in 1885 (We have no additional information.)
Josephine Burlingame, age 54, lived at 322 Hudson Ave, with her husband, a lawyer, her children and her siste-in law Imogene Burlingame, a school teacher who registered in the 16th ward in 1882.
Harriet V. Chapin, was 49, with one daughter. She was married to the assistant superintendent of the Boston and Albany Railroad (he was the son of the president of the company). They lived at 35 Chestnut St., (just down the block from Martha Bradt). Harriet was Vice President of the Society in 1885, but also a member of the Political Equality Club.
Joan Cole was 35, with 2 children, married to Charles Cole, Albany’s school superintendent. They lived at 192 Elm St. Joan was active in the Society for at least 5 years, and was president in 1885.
Adeline, Jane and Julia Coley were unmarried sisters who ran a private school at 23 Dove St. on the corner of State St. (The building is still there; most recently housing Bongiorno’s Restaurant.) Prior to opening their private school they had all taught in public school. Julia had been one of the first teachers at the Wilberforce School for African children. Jane was 60, Julia aged 50 and Adeline 48. All three sisters graduated from the NYS Normal School in Albany in the 1840s and 1850s. They were lifelong staunch supports of women’s rights and members of the Albany Women’s Suffrage Association, and Adeline served as an officer in various capacities over the years, and in its successor the Albany Political Equality Club.
Catherine Cook was 50 with 1 child living at home at 235 Elm St.; her husband was a school teacher. The newspapers reported she registered in the 16th ward in 1882 and 1885. She became a member of the Political Equality Club.
Teresa Corr, 37, was born in Ireland, the wife of a stone cutter working on the new Capitol. They lived at 361 Myrtle Ave. with their 6 children. Theresa voted 1880.
Mary Dare was 40, lived at 48 Howard St., single and a naturalized citizen (born in England). She was the assistant matron of the House of Shelter, a refuge for destitute and fallen women. She was refused the right to register to vote in 1880.
Adelia Dexter lived on Spring St., near Cortland Place. She was 48, married to a teamster (but also an owner of several pieces of property) and the mother of 4 children. Adelia voted 1880.
Frances Dorsey was African-American, 39 and lived at 159 Third St. Her husband Sylvester served with a regiment of “Colored Troops” raised in Ithaca NY in the Civil War, and was the armorer of the National Guard unit in Albany in 1880. She was president of the Lovejoy Society, an African American women’s charitable organization. Frances voted 1880 and registered in 1882.
Susan Douge was African-American, 74 and lived at 25 Lark St. (near the corner of Livingston Ave.) Susan was a person of great importance in the African-American community in Albany. In the 1830s she was a founder of the Female Lundy Society, the first African-American charitable organization in Albany. Her husband Michael, a barber, worked tirelessly in the Albany community for decades – founding the M.E. Church, working for equal education for children, working constantly in the context of the “colored conventions” for political equality. Susan’s work is less documented. Susan voted 1880 and registered in 1882. Her daughter Mary Williams was the first Vice-President of the Society.
Mary Dubois, M.D. was 38, the first Female physician admitted to the Albany County Medical Society. She was single and lived with her sister Sarah at 194 Hamilton St. She registered in 1880.
Matilda Fiedler, age 40, was born in Germany, and lived with her husband, a brewery clerk, at 212 Livingston Ave. She registered in 1882 in the 11th Ward.
Hannah E. Flansburgh, 48, lived at 80 Jay St., with 1 son at home. She was the wife of a printing press manufacturer. She voted 1880, 1882 and 1883.
Isabella Frank registered in 1880. No further information.
Sarah Fry, 52, was a widow, acting as a housekeeper for her retired brother. They lived at 231 Livingston Ave. She registered in 1882 in the 11th Ward.
Catharine Goewey, MD was 60, lived at 286 Hudson Ave. She specialized in pediatric and woman’s homeopathic medicine. She registered in 1880.
Jennie Green registered in the 17th Ward in 1882. (We have no additional information.)
Mary Hall was 31, and a widow, with 2 young sons, living at 159 First St. with her mother. She registered to vote in the 17th ward in 1882.
Jane and Elizabeth Hoxsie: Jane was 60 and Elizabeth, 30, was her widowed daughter-in-law. Jane’s husband was a foreman on the construction of the State Capitol. They lived at 198 Hudson Ave, with Elizabeth’s son. Jane was the last of the old guard of women’s rights activists; she’d been involved with Lydia Mott and Anthony in the preceding decades. (In 1873 when Anthony was indicted in 1873 in federal court in Albany’s City Hall for voted in a Congressional election in Rochester local newspapers noted that Jane was in the gallery, sitting next to Lydia. ) Jane and Elisabeth voted in 1880.
Mrs. Martin Johnson was 56, a widow with 3 children who lived at 230 Livingston Ave, She registered in 1882 in the 11th Ward.
Elizabeth Jones, 42 was a widow and the Matron of House of Shelter. She shared lodgings with Mary Dare at 48 Howard St. Elizabeth was denied the right to enroll in 1880.
Helen Knapp lived at 448 Washington Ave., near the corner of N Lake Ave (we think she was a school teacher). She voted in 1880.
Helen Knight, 43, lived at 60 Howard St., near Mary Dare and Elizabeth Jones. Her husband John was the foreman in charge of gas lighting at the new Capitol. She was denied the right to register to vote in 1880 Newspapers referred to her home as the headquarters of the Society in its earliest months in the 1880s.
Sarah Le Bouef was the Vice President of the Society in 1885. She was a graduate of the State Normal School who married Peter Le Bouef, part owner of a collar factory in Troy. They lived at 299 Washington Ave. with their 3 children. Her daughters Emma and Mary would be active members of the suffrage movement into the 20th century.
Matilda Leggett was African-American, 29 and single. She lived at 158 Third St (across the street from Frances Dorsey) in Arbor Hill with her father Henry. He had been employed by the Delavan House Hotel, along with Stephen Myers, who was the head of the Underground Railroad in Albany. Matilda voted in 1880 and registered in the 11th Ward in 1882.
Rachel Martin was a physician, age 60 and a widow. Her homeopathic practice was located on Canal St., (Sheridan Ave. today) and largely devoted to hydrotherapy and undergarment dress reform. She was on the Society’s executive committee in 1880.
Mary McClelland was in her mid-30s, single and a teacher at the NYS Normal School, living at 321 Hamilton St. She was an officer in the Society from about 1883 to 1885. Marty worked for the State Normal School in almost 50 years – retiring in 1917 as an history teacher and the librarian of the School.
Phebe and Susie Milbank were twins, age 50, who were dressmakers living at 270 First St. They registered in 1882 in the 17th ward.
Experience Miller 60, a widow, living at 122 Washington Ave, just west of Lark St. She would be active in the Albany Women’s Suffrage Association until her death in the late 1880s. She voted 1880, 1882. 1883 and 1885.
Ella Moore was 35, single, a naturalized citizen (born in Ireland) and lived alone at 188 Spruce St. She was on the executive committee of the Society in 1885.
Elmina Mount, age 64, lived with her husband, a grocer at 30 Dove St., across the street from the Coley sisters. She voted in 1883.
Amelia Morgan was 65, a widow living at 30 Lexington Ave with her daughter, May Dayton (34) and her husband, a railroad conductor and their 6 children. Both women registered to vote in the 1th Ward in 1882.
Mary Mull was a vice president of the Society in 1883. She was in her mid-thirties, wife of a carriage maker, living at 387 Hudson Ave. with 4 children.
Julia Myers was African American, 35, had 2 children and lived at 169 Third St. (very close to Frances Dorsey and Matilda Leggett). She was the wife of Stephen Myers, son of Stephen and Harriet Myers who ran Albany’s Underground Railroad. Julia voted in 1880.
Jane O’Connor, 38 was born in Ireland, and a widow with 5 children, livings at 107 Green St. between Bleecker and Herkimer Streets in the Pastures. She voted 1880.
Anna Parks was a public school teacher who lived at 129 ½ Clinton Ave; she was member of the Society in 1886.
Harriet Perry was 40, the widow of the former U.S Consul in Panama, with 3 children at home. She lived at 372 Hamilton St. She voted in 1880.
Mary Garrison Pomeroy, 57, was a single, self-styled homeopathic physician who lived across the street from Jane Hoxsie at 197 Hudson Ave. She voted in 1880.
Martha Ann Pulz was in her mid-30s, lived at 336 Lark St. (near Dana Ave.), and was a teacher in school 2 (with Mary McClelland). She registered to vote in the 16th Ward in 1882.
Elizabeth Reese was one the youngest members of the Society in 1885. She was 21 and lived at 357 Hamilton St with her family; her father was a carpenter.
Maria Reston was a widow who lived at 221 ½ Hamilton St in her mid-50s. She was an active member of the Society in 1885.
Anne Shelve was African American, aged 43, living at 49 Lark St. (close to Susan Douge and her daughter Catherine Williams) with her husband Dyer, a hotel waiter and their 3 children. She and her husband were relatively recent transplants from the District of Columbia. Her hudband was active in Republican politics for many years after the 15th amendments was enacted. Anne voted in 1880.
Lucy Smith was 35, with 4 children, the wife of a druggist who lived 246 Washington Ave. She was on the executive committee of the Society and successfully voted in 1880.
Sarah Smith was African American, aged 58 living at 410 Madison Ave. just below Lark St. It’s quite possible Sarah’s husband, Joseph A. Smith, is the same J.A. Smith listed on a broadside advertising an event in Albany in 1863 to celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation. Sarah voted in 1880.
Lillian Taylor, age 30 lived at 26 Chestnut St, and the wife of a printer. She voted in 1883.
Eliza Theis was a widow of about 70, born in Ireland, who lived at 44 Chapel St. In 1885 she attempted to register in the 6th Ward, but was denied.
Jemima Watkins, 51 was born in England. She lived at 90 Beaver St. with her 4 children and her husband James, a piano maker. Jemima was Vice president of the Society in 1885-1886.
Emma Werner was only in her mid-20s, but in charge of membership (as part of the executive committee in 1880) when the Society was first formed. She lived at 56 Eagle St with her husband Charles who was clerk in a railroad office.
Lavina Willard shared rooms with Kate Stoneman at 154 Swan St. We think she may also have been a teacher at the Normal School. She voted in 1883.
Elizabeth Winhold was 26, and living with her husband, Louis, a cigar manufacturer and seller, at 297 Hudson Ave. Her husband was very active in Republican politics. She voted in 1883.
Diana Williams, African American, was 60 and lived at 169 Second St. with her husband John. It is impossible to underestimate the role of her husband in the African American community in Albany. He had been a close associate of Stephen Myers, and we believe he was active in the UGRR, He was very politically active after the Civil War. Diana voted in 1880.
Margaret Williams, 63, was the wife of a jeweler with business on Broadway. They lived at 203 North Pearl St.
Margaret Wiltsie, 42 was the wife of retired coal merchant who lived at 486 Madison Ave. We think she was related by marriage to the Coley sisters. Margaret voted in 1882.
Martha Van Vechten was about 80, a widow living at 4 Lodge St., with her 2 adult children when she and 6 other women attempted to register to vote at City Hall in 1880, but was refused that right.
Some of you may know of William Topp – he was an African-American member of the Vigilance Committee of Albany’s Underground Railroad. (UGRR). He and his wife Eliza were actively involved in smuggling fugitive slaves to freedom, using their home as a safe house.
We decided we wanted to know more about him; we discovered a man of extraordinary talents.
Topp was born free in Albany to Lewis and Phillis Topp in 1813. It appears they were people of little means, but Lewis was active in, and well–respected by, the African-American Community. We know nothing about William until he first appears in his late 20’s as a political leader, among men twice his age, in the abolitionist community in Albany in 1841. By then he’s co-owner of a men’s tailoring shop and clothing store.
In 1842 when he was 28 he married Eliza Vogelsang, from
NYC. Through this marriage Topp cements his place in both the African
American and White political world of anti-slavery activism. Eliza was
the daughter of Peter Vogelsang and Maria Miller. Vogelsang was one of
the founders of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in New York. Thomas
Miller, Eliza’s grandfather, was one of the founding members of the A.M.
Zion Church in NYC, known as “Mother Zion”. Both men were founders of
New York African Mutual Relief Society. By 1840 the Miller and
Vogelsang families were part of African-American political and social
aristocracy of the City.
The importance of this marriage can’t
be under-estimated. It’s unlikely that Peter Vogelsang would have
sanctioned a marriage to just anyone. Jane, Eliza’s older sister,
married James Forten, Jr. in 1838. James Forten, Sr. had served in the
Revolution, and came to be one of the wealthiest men in Philadelphia
of either race. He’s befriended William Lloyd Garrison, funded the
publication of Garrison’s “The Liberator”, and was one of the founders
of the American Anti-Slavery Society, the dominant abolitionist
organization in the North.
Over the next 15 years William Topp
became the wealthiest African-American in Albany. In 1845 he opened his
own business as a merchant tailor and was enormously successful.
Business reports over a decade say: “without means, he had made money,
retains all his customers”, “does the most fashionable business in the
city”, “industrious, attentive”, “frugal habits” and “very
aristocratic”. His wife’s younger brother Thomas comes to work in the
shop, and he hires a NYC tailor, Bisset Barquet.
He continues to be an important part of the Albany Colored Citizens Committee, and a trustee of the Albany’s African Baptist Church. But his activity transcends the city and he begins an almost meteoric political career. He serves on important committees of the annual national and state “colored” and anti-slavery conventions in Philadelphia, Boston and Ohio, and serves as president of several New York conventions.
He becomes good friends with Gerritt Smith, the wealthy abolitionist politician and philanthropist, a leader in the New York Anti-slavery Society and founder of the Liberty Party, the only political party in the country devoted solely to the elimination of slavery.
He is close to Lydia and Abigail Mott, Quaker sisters who were part of Albany’s UGG and dear friends of Frederick Douglass. After Abigail’s death in 1850 the Topp family embraces Lydia, and through Lydia he comes to know her best friend, Susan B Anthony. Topp becomes one of the few African-American men, along with Frederick Douglass, to take up the issue of women’s suffrage.
The Library of Congress (LOC)
contains an amazing artifact – an inscribed copy of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”
given to Lydia Mott by Topp in 1853. Lydia, 20 years later – just
before her death, gave her treasured copy to Susan B. Anthony. When
Anthony donated the book to the LOC, she writes a note in which she
calls William Topp “a splendid man”
Then the world started to
come crashing down on the Topps. Eliza’s sister Jane and her husband
James Forten had come to live in Albany and their daughter Maria died in
the late 1840s, Jane passes in 1852 and William’s mother Phillis in
1853. . Within 2 months in 1854 William and Eliza’s son Alfred
and and Tom’s wife died Rebecca . (Eliza’s brother Tom had married
Rebecca Bishop, a young women from one of the wealthiest and most
respected African-American families in Annapolis Maryland). By 1855 Tom
was a widower with 3 small girls living in the same house with his
widowed brother in law. The misery must have been palpable. Unable to
cope by himself, Tom’s Aunt Gennet Miller, comes to live with them and
tend to the children, one of whom, Charity, was deaf and mute. (She
would later be placed in an institution in NYC for similarly challenged
children and adults.) . And in late 1857 William Topp’s brief
but remarkable life ended. For many months he had been suffering from
tuberculosis; he died at the age of 44.
Aaron Powell, a Quaker
abolitionist from Ghent, Columbia Co., wrote the notice of Topp’s death
that appeared in “The Liberator”.
“Few there are whose lives
have been more uniformly and so religiously consecrated to labor for the
promotion of the best interests and well-being of their fellow man”.
About a month later there was an announcement in “The Liberator” of the $100 Topp had bequeathed to the newspaper. B
William Topp and his wife and children are buried in Lot 25, section 12
of the Albany Rural Cemetery. In the same plot are his sisters-in-law
Jane Vogelsang Forten and Rebecca Bishop Vogelsang, as well as his
sister Mary, who married Bisset Barquet.
And in one of the quirks of fate, Barquet’s brother Joseph served in the Civil War in the 54th Massachusetts Colored Regiment (portrayed in the movie “Glory” )as a sergeant alongside Eliza Topp’s oldest brother Peter Vogelsang, Jr, who was a lieutenant.