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 Albany’s Mayor Nolan to be a city district physician.
It was also at this time he became politically active. Elkins is identified as the Secretary/Treasurer of the Vigilance Committee tasked with raising funds for the Underground Railroad (UGRR). During the Civil War he was appointed by Massachusetts Governor John Andrew as medical examiner for the recruits for the 54th Massachusetts “colored” regiment (you know it from the movie ‘Glory”), and the 55th regiment created to handle the overflow influx of African-American recruits.
Just after the War his mother dies and Elkins moves his residence to 67 Second St. near North Swan St. He also plunged into social and political activities. He attends the New York State Colored Convention in Albany in 1866, becomes the Vice President of the newly formed African American Literary Society (for men only), immerses himself in Republican politics (the 15th amendment granting African American men the right to votes was passed n 1870), and becomes part of a coalition to pressure the Albany Board of Education to integrate the High School. He’s an active member of the County Dental Society.
And he tinkers. Over about a decade he patents 3 inventions; the first was a quilting/ironing table The second invention was the most splendiferous commode you’ve ever seen – a veritable throne. His final patent was for the technology of one of the earliest refrigeration units (patent number 221,222 in 1879).
And over the next two decades his was a life well lived. He continues to practice, participates in the social and activities of the African –American Albany (he’s the first African –American to serve on a federal grand jury in Albany County).
Dr Elkins died in August 1900. His funeral at the Cathedral of All-Saints was thronged, and his pall bearers were the sons of Francis Van Vranken, his closest friend – a barber – who had been a member of the UGRR.
One of the newspaper obituaries makes it quite clear that, but for his race he would have become a licensed physician (although he was treated as if he was by most of Albany, including the police and the courts).
“‘Prejudice alone at his color has prevented him making a competence at his profession, as he is in the opinion of many competent to judge, one of the ablest physicians and dentists of this or any other age, either in this city or elsewhere”
*Wynkoop was related to high society of New York – the Lansings and the Gansevoorts, which probably opened doors for Elkins that would have been otherwise closed.
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.
Recently there’s been a spate of publicity about the new owner and the re-modeling of the Kenmore Hotel on North Pearl St. We think that’s great, helping to revive Albany’s downtown. Most of the reports focus on the terrific musical talent that performed in the Hotel’s legendary Rain-bo Room in the 1920s and 1930s, and Legs Diamond. But we think those reports miss the most important part of the Kenmore Hotel story and its significance in Albany history.
The Kenmore Hotel was the wildly successful dream of Adam Blake, Jr. an African-American, son of Adam Blake Sr., who had been a slave of Stephen Van Rensselaer III, “The Good Patroon”.
Adam Blake, Sr.
Adam Blake Sr. was born about 1773 in an area south of Albany (possibly New York City) and brought to Albany as a slave by a local merchant Jacob Lansing as a young boy to serve the Van Rensselaer estate. (In the NYS 1790 census, there are 15 slaves listed on the estate.) As an adult Blake was manager of the household staff at Van Rensselaer Manor, home of Stephen Van Rensselaer III. In 1803 he married Sarah Richards in the Dutch Reformed Church (now known as the First Reformed Church) on North Pearl St. (Notably, this was the same church attended by Alexander Hamilton while he was in Albany and there is no doubt their paths crossed.)
The relationship between Van Rensselaer and Blake appears to have been quite close. Blake was a trusted confident, yet Van Rensselaer didn’t free Blake until about 1811. (In later years Van Rensselaer confessed deeply regretting his failure to free Blake at an earlier date, but made no explanation.) Nonetheless, when Van Rensselaer died, Adam Blake, Sr. led his funeral procession.
After becoming a free person of color Blake continued in the employ of Van Rensselaer, although his obituary refers to connections with Governor DeWitt Clinton. Blake enjoyed a position of esteem throughout the Albany community, among both Whites and Blacks. He was, by all accounts, a very elegant (he was called the “Beau Brummel of Albany), intelligent and charming man.
The Blakes lived in the 100 block of Third St. between Lark and S. Swan, on land that was previously part of Patroon holdings (probably given to him by Van Rensselaer) and owned several adjacent lots (107, 109 and 111). Blake was a major figure in the Albany African community, including the founding of the first African school in Albany in the early 1800s. He was immersed in abolitionist activities; he was one of the notable speakers during the 1827 Albany celebration of the abolition of slavery in New York State and was a key figure in the National Colored Peoples Convention held in Albany in 1840.
When Adam Sr. died in 1864 at the age of 94 his obituary said, “.. he was in all respects a remarkable man… and ..always commanded respect by that high order of good breeding and courtesy towards all for which he was proverbial”.
Adam Blake, Jr.
Blake’s son, Adam Jr., born in 1830 was adopted – we know nothing of his birth parents or antecedents. He was raised at the Van Rensselaer Manor, where he received his early schooling by the side of the Van Rensselaer children. He would become one of the most successful businessmen and entrepreneurs in the 1800s in Albany of either race.
While in his 20’s he worked his way up to the position of head waiter at the famous Delavan House on Broadway. Blake rapidly built his reputation as a restaurant proprietor with the opening of his own restaurant on Beaver and Green Streets in 1851. Over the next 14 years he opened two more establishments, first on James St. and the next on State St., each one more upscale. His restaurants were favorite haunts of the young swells, NYS legislators, and diverse politicos of all stripes. He catered private parties, assemblies, balls and picnics. Young Blake appears to have been a naturally genial, gracious and discreet host. We have a vision of a man who could cater an elegant reception for Albany’s society women or organize a back room dinner for politicians with equal ease. He was called the “prince of caterers”.
The Congress Hotel
In 1865 Blake secured the lease for the Congress Hall Hotel, adjacent to the Old Capitol on the corner of Park St and Washington Ave. This was a fabled landmark (Lafayette stayed the night during his 1824 Albany visit), but fallen on hard times. He acquired 3 adjacent buildings (Gregory’s Row), combined them with the Hotel, and spent a large sum furnishing it in a sumptuous fashion. The Hall was a lucrative concession – its location was favored by legislators and other politicians for lodgings, meals, receptions and meetings. It boasted French chefs and an array of fine wines. It was the destination of Charles Dickens when he came to Albany in 1868 (hoping to be handsomely “remunerated”) on his second lecture tour in America.
But more importantly the Hall served as a training ground for young African- American men who would become managers and chief stewards in some of the most elegant hotels in America – in Saratoga Springs, Newport, etc – and on grand steamships serving the wealthy and famous crossing the Atlantic. One of his protégées was James Matthews, who took a different path. Matthews would become the first African-American judge elected in the U.S. While he was in Albany Law School, Blake employed him as a bookkeeper.
The Kenmore Hotel
In 1878 the Hall needed to be demolished for the new Capitol building; Blake received $190,000 compensation from New York State. He used the money to open a large hotel on N. Pearl St. that remains today. The hotel was built for Blake by the son of the late Dr. James McNaughton (former president of the Albany Medical Society) on land they owned; it was named the Kenmore after the small village in Scotland in which McNaughton was born. The hotel was designed by the Ogden and Wright, leading Albany architects, and no expense was spared
McNaughton’s willingness to build the Kenmore for Blake to his specifications speaks volumes about the general estimation of Blake’s business acumen and confidence in Blake’s potential for success. While he benefited greatly from his father’s connections and those of the Patroon, he clearly had natural and innate ability.
The Kenmore Hotel opened in 1878. It was Adam Blake’s dream- a marvel of modern technology and comfort; it was called “the most elegant structure on the finest street in Albany”. It was enormously successful, not only for its convenience, but for its level of service. It included hot and cold running water (and new-fangled water closets), an elevator, telephones in rooms and, of course a fine and palatial dining room.
Throughout his life Blake moved easily among both the African and White communities, and was as widely respected as his father had been. After the Civil War he was treasurer of the New York State Equal Rights League (formed in Albany in 1865 in what is now the AME Israel Church). In the 1870s he hosted and promoted an appearance by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a choral group that toured to raise funds for one of the first African American colleges in Tennessee. In the early 1870s he worked diligently in the fight to desegregate Albany’s public schools, along with James Matthews who represented William Dietz, the man suing the Albany Board of Education.
Blake was known as a generous man “who never turned away a stranger or neighbor in need” Local newspapers of the time note financial contributions by Blake to all sorts of worthy causes. Adam Jr.’s activities in the Abolitionist movement are not as well documented as his father’s, but the Blake family houses on Third St. was situated directly behind that of Stephen Myers on Livingston Ave., leading figure in Albany’s Underground Railroad, and at one point Blake lived at 198 Lumber St. (now Livingston Ave ), 2 doors away from the Myers’ house. It is improbable to think that neither father nor son was not involved in the Underground Railroad.
Sadly Blake died in summer 1881, at the age of 51, never getting the opportunity to enjoy the success of his beloved Kenmore. The description of his funeral notes pall bearers of both races, and the presence of people from all walks of life. The Delavan Hotel on Broadway, the chief rival of the Kenmore, lowered its flag to half-mast to honor Blake. His funeral was held in the Hotel; it was attended by 2 of the most well known Black hotel men and restaurateurs in nation – James Wormly from Washington D.C. and George Downing from Newport. There were other attendees from outside of Albany, including Black men known to have been members of the Underground Railroad.
Shortly after his death a memorial stained glass window was installed the AME Church. Upon the dedication of the church window, Dr. William Johnson delivered a speech commemorating Blake in which he said:
“He loved liberty and abhorred slavery. He believed in the equality of all, in the manhood of all and in the common brotherhood of all. He was identified with Frederick Douglass, Stephen Myers, Drs., Smith and Pennington and their compatriots, in untiring efforts tending to the overthrow of slavery…. he took active part in state and national councils of the oppressed and served in honorable official capacity in the Equal Rights League of the state….”.
At the time of his death his private fortune was estimated far in excess of $100,000, an astonishing sum for anyone, let alone the son of a slave with a grade school education.
At the time of Adam’s death Catherine was barely 39 , and had 3 daughters and 1 son, all under the age of 10, to raise. But she was tough. Many people thought she would sell the hotel, take the money and leave. She didn’t despite a number of offers.
Now was her opportunity. She ran the hotel for the next 7 years, still under her husband’s name. The Kenmore thrived. And Catherine became well-known and liked in Albany. It’s clear that she and Adam had been partners in business and in life. Few people knew that the best hotel in the Capital City of the largest state was operated by an African-American woman.
In addition to the Kenmore she went into real estate development (including 2 houses on Spring St.) and bought land and built houses in a couple of areas of Albany. She became one of the richest women in the city of either race. But like her husband she never forgot those who hadn’t fared so well. She was instrumental in the establishment of the Women’s Exchange, a place where talented women (Black and white) with skills , like fine needlework, could sell their items (think an 1880s brick and mortar Etsy).
In 1887 she pulled off one of the smartest business moves ever. A father and son named Rockwell wanted the Kenmore desperately. She turned them down repeatedly. They finally managed to secure a lease on part of Hotel to try to force her out. Not deterred, Catherine went to building owners surrounding the Hotel, including the new YMCA on Steuben. She secured access to top floors and a couple of ground floor businesses. She broke through walls on the top floors to create hotel rooms, moved the office and some other rooms like parlors on the ground floor, AND the main entrance.
The Rockwells were left with a little island in the midst of a Hotel that now covered upper parts of a city block, and almost no access to their island. Clever Mrs. Blake had outwitted the Rockwells. But about a year later Catherine decided to sell. Because she had enlarged hotel it was worth more, and she cut a slick and lucrative deal for hotel furnishing and contents, and of course, the reputation and goodwill of the Kenmore.
Despite her wealth Catherine wasn’t insulated from racial discrimination, which increased even in the North after the Civil War. In an 1884 letter she noted that many white Americans continued to think of Black Americans as “lazy, stupid and thriftless”.
Catherine and her children remained in Albany for a number of years after the sale of the Hotel lease. Jer two daughters attended the prestigious Episcopal St. Agnes School for Girls and her son Carroll Blake the Albany Academy for Boys. The family lived on First St. in an elegant townhouse, between S. Hawk St. and S. Swan St., among other wealthy families of Albany, just above the Ten Broeck Triangle.
Carroll went on to attend Cornell University in the mid-1890s. (There are no records that indicate his race as other than white.) Two daughters married well-to-do white men. By 1900 Catherine Blake had left Albany and was living in Brooklyn with her son Carroll, his new wife Mary (white) and her daughter Jesse. The 1900 census indicates the family is white.
For a brief time Carroll and his family lived in the deep South, where he owned an engineering and construction firm at one point. There is no indication in newspapers of the time the family is other than white. Carroll Blake Jr., his son, followed in his father’s footsteps, attending Cornell and becoming and engineer.
We’re trying to find out what we can about Sgt. Alfred Adams, from Albany, a member of Company C (the Albany Company) of the 369th Regiment (the Harlem Hell Fighters) awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French government in World War I.
By now most of you are very familiar with the story Sgt. Henry Johnson from Albany – posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery in World War I. As the story goes, he enlisted with about a half dozen other Black men from Albany, many of whom worked for the railroad. We’re pretty sure Alfred Adams was one of those men.*
This is what we know: He was born to Jacob and Caroline Sawyer Adams in 1897 in Albany. They appeared to have lived on Orange St., at various addresses, before Alfred enlisted in 1917. His father was a waiter (probably for the D & H Railroad). He had younger brother and sister, Edwin and Pauline. His father was active in community organizations, including the Elim House, for “colored young women” on Orange St. in the early 1900s and the Albany Inter-racial Council in the 1940s.
The story of the Harlem Hell Fighters (the 369th Infantry) is fascinating. It was a Black unit (the U.S. Army wasn’t de-segregated until 1948 by Pres. Truman) formed from the 15th NY National Guard, created to recruit Black men for World War I. It was among the first U.S. units shipped to Europe to help the French – desperate for American aid. General Pershing, commander of the American forces, was caught between a rock and a hard place. White troops didn’t want to fight in combat with black troops, yet Pershing didn’t want American soldiers to take orders from French officers. Finally, Pershing relented, and permitted the 369th to fight under French officers, rather than just serving in a support role, as was the case with most Black American troops.
So the Hell Fighters were among the first American troops to see combat during the War, performing with courage and bravery, that opened the eyes of the Country to what a Black man could do. The 369th spent more time in front line combat than any other American unit. It sustained heavy casualties and the regiment was much reduced in size when it returned home at the War’s end. It appears that as many as 120-150 soldiers from the 369th were awarded the French medal for heroism – the Croix de Guerre. At least two of those men, Sergeants Henry Johnson and Alfred Adams, were from Albany and both lived on Orange St.
And that takes us back to Sgt. Adams. He was working for the Railroad when he enlisted in the Army in May 1917 when he was 20. By August he was promoted to Corporal. We think it was his actions in the summer of 1918, during the Champagne offensive in the Battle of the Marne, for which Sgt. Adams was awarded the Croix de Guerre. In late August 1918 he was promoted to Sergeant. But his war wasn’t over. In September 1918 he was severely wounded – his name appears in an Albany newspaper casualty list almost a month later on October 8.
Unlike Sgt. Johnson, Sgt. Adams returns to more normal life in Albany. He’s discharged from the Army in February 1919, and marries Beatrice Van Houten in 1920 – they don’t appear to have had children. He goes to work as a Red Cap (railroad porter) at Union Station in Albany. We lose track of the Sgt. until 1948, when a reference to him emerges in an interview by “The Knickerbocker News” with Frank Noble, head Red Cap. (Adams has continued to work as a Red Cap and he and Noble are best friends; they own a camp on Lake Champlain. It’s in that interview that Noble mentions that Adams was a member of the 369th and awarded the Croix de Guerre – that set us off on our search).
Finally in 1955 we find Sgt. Adams and his wife living in West Hill, at 123 North Lake Ave. (between Elk St. and Clinton Ave.). Then we lose track. We believe Sgt. Adams died in 1974.
So tell us anything you may know about Sgt. Adams or any of the Black men identified below. Please message us with any pieces of information so we can tell more of the stories of Sgt. Adams and other men from Albany who served with the legendary Harlem Hell Fighters.
*This is a list (probably not complete) of the men from Albany who served with the 369th (all served in Company C): Pvt. Cornelius Banks Pvt. Harold Caesar Pvt. Walter Cobbs Corp. Robert Blackwell Corp. Robert DeGraw Corp. William Freeman Pvt. William Hallicons Corp. Charles Jackson Pvt. George Jackson Albert Johnson (rank unknown) James Johnson (rank unknown) Pvt Charles jones Pvt. Robert Lodge Sgt. George McNamara Corp. Foster Molson Corp. Merritt Molson (may also have received the Croix de Guerre) George Morgan (rank unknown) Pvt. William Randall Pvt. Clarence Sickles Sgt. William Thomas Pvt. John Wallace
In 2016, I came across a burial index card for a woman identified as “Libbie,” a servant of the Schuyler family. At first glance, it seemed this might be the same Libby who is recorded as being a slave at the Schuyler Manison (The Pastures) in Albany as well as the family’s farm at Saratoga. The search for her headstone at Albany Rural Cemetery uncovered a different story.
In recent years, there has been much attention given to the slaves of the Schuyler family at The Flatts. In 2005, excavations at a commercial site across Broadway (Route 32) from the Schuyler Flatts Park uncovered the bones of slaves buried in a plot separate from the Schuyler family’s own burial ground.
A Chronology of The Flatts History After a period of examination by experts at the New York State Museum, these remains were reburied in a special public ceremony at the historic Saint Agnes Roman Catholic Cemetery near their original resting place. The reburial took place on June 17, 2016. The names of those slaves are unknown, their stories pieced together as much as possible from their bones and the circumstances of their original burial.
Just across the fence dividing Saint Agnes from the neighboring Albany Rural Cemetery, however, is the long-forgotten grave of a woman who was the last known slave of the Schuylers at The Flatts.
Located on the North Ridge at Albany Rural, the tilting headstone is small and almost completely illegible. The white marble has eroded to the point where its inscription is only visible through rubbings. A flag and Grand Army of The Republic marker misplaced from some other grave might give the impression that it is the burial place of a Civil War soldier; there are several Union veterans and one Confederate buried in the same section and it’s probably the metal G.A.R. marker was accidentally moved from one of the former.
Inside the Rural Cemetery’s office, the Single Grave Book identifies the grave as that of “Libbie” Schuyler. (Colored). Widow Schuyler’s servant. The entry is handwritten, the name “Libbie” is traced over in red ink.
A stamp on the page notes that “this record was made from the lot,” meaning it was transcribed from the headstone. However, when it was transcribed, a small, but significant mistake was made.
The front of the headstone reads, A Faithful Servant of The Schuyler Family Died Nov 24 1862. The curved top edge is carved with the name, LIBBIE.
Significantly, what appears to be an “L” is, in fact, an “S.”
The woman buried here is Sibbie (also known as Sibina or Sibby), the last documented slave at The Flatts.
The following obituary appeared in the West Troy Advocate in November, 1862.
“DEATH OF AN AGED COLORED WOMAN – Many of our citizens may have seen or heard of the infirm and decrepit colored woman living at the residence of Mrs. SCHUYLER – at the SCHUYLER homestead in Watervliet. She is now no more, death having closed her existence on Sunday night last. Her history is somewhat peculiar. She is supposed to have been born as a slave in Tarrytown Westchester Co. – her first “massa” being a man named Storms, by whom she was held for several years when she was sold to a family name VANDENBURGH then residing in Schaghticoke, Rensselaer Co. She lived here several years, when, about 60 years since, she became the property of the late Philip S. SCHUYLER, and was brought to this town where she has ever since resided. When the act abolishing slavery in this State took effect, she, of course, became free but she preferred to remain with her former master. SABINA – ‘SIBBY’ as she was called was thought highly of by the descendants of her former master, and by them for the past 12 years (during which time she has been almost entirely helpless) she has been tenderly cared for. Her age was not positively known but could have been very little, if any, short of 90 years. Her funeral took place yesterday afternoon and was quite largely attended. Her remains were interred in the cemetery.”
A search of census records from Westchester County shows several individuals named Storm or Storms who were slaveowners, including a Thomas Storm who had three slaves according to the 1790 census and one in the 1800 census. Another Storm is recorded as living in the Schaghticoke area, too. There is probably a familial connection which might have facilitated Sibina’s sale to the Vandenburghs. The possible buyer of Sibbie might have been one Lavinus (Livinus) Vandenburgh who is identified in census records as owning two slaves in 1790, but none after 1800. Another family connection may have played a role in her sale to the Schuylers; Philip S. Schuyler who purchased her was married to one Rachael Vandenburgh.
The Philip S. Schuyler who purchased Sibbie and brought her to The Flatts in Watervliet is not to be confused with his more famous cousin, General Philip Schuyler of Albany. Philip S. Schuyler was the son of Stephanus Schuyler and Engeltie Van Vechten. In 1810, Philip S. Schuyler is listed as owning four slaves there. One of those four slaves would have been Sibbie.
When the gradual abolition of slavery in New York State took full effect in 1827, Sibbie would have been emancipated. She remained with the Schuylers at The Flatts. By this time, she would have been between fifty-five and sixty-five years old. Perhaps starting a new live as a free woman of color would have been too great a challenge for her.
It appears that Sibbie stayed on as a servant to the “Widow Schuyler” listed in the Cemetery’s Single Grave Book. This “Widow Schuyler” is most likely Angelica Lansing, widow of Philip S. Schuyler’s son, Lucas. Lucas Van Vechtan Schuyler died in 1852 and Angelica lived with the extended Schuyler family at The Flatts as a widow until her own death in 1874. The name “Angelica Schuyler” appears frequently in city directories and other records from this period, but because of the tendency for some of Albany’s older prominent families to repeat names quite frequently (even withing the same generation), it’s difficult to say if any of these Angelicas are the same as the Angelica Lansing Schuyler at The Flatts.
By 1850, Sibbie’s health had begun to fail. The death notice stated that she had become “helpless” in her advanced age and that the Schuyler family cared for her “tenderly” for her final twelve years. The 1850 state census mentions her as one “Sylva Sabina” in the Schuyler household and gives her age as seventy-five. The 1860 federal census lists her as “Sibina Jackson,” colored, and gives her age as eighty. The origin of the surname Jackson is unknown at this time. It is the only instance where she is known by a last name and it is not known if she ever married. Also, it is not known if she was indeed eighty years old or this was an estimate of her age with her actual birth year being unknown. Her cause of death is also unknown, but it can be safely attributed to her advanced age.
By the time Sibbie died in 1862, the old slave burial grounds were not in use. The site where slaves had been buried was no longer part of The Flatts; it had been sold and redeveloped.
The Schuylers had a very old burial ground for the family close to their house, but by the 1860s, it was used infrequently. Lucas and Angelica were probably among the last buried there. In 1874, the same year Angelica Lansing Schuyler was buried there, publisher and historian Joel Munsell wrote that the old Flatts cemetery was in a neglected condition and that “the approach of streets and dwellings indicates an invasion at no distant day of this enclosure, and the removal of these bones and monuments to the cemetery over the way.” Some Schuylers, including Philip S. and Rachael, Lucas, and Angelica, were removed to new family plots at Albany Rural in the 1870s. In the 1920s, the remaining graves at The Flatts were indeed removed to Albany Rural and arranged behind the monument to General Schuyler in Lot 2, Section 29. Stephanus Schuyler and his wife, Engletie, are among those in Section 29
The original Schuyler Flatts burial ground So, Sibbie, the last documented slave at The Flatts, was buried not buried at The Flatts which had been her home for six decades, but at the Albany Rural Cemetery. She was interred in Grave #1, Tier #1, Section 98 on the North Ridge.
Sibbie’s simple headstone was most likely purchased by the Schuyler family, perhaps by the Widow Schuyler. Over the years, the elements eroded the soft white marble so, when the inscription was transcribed to the Single Grave Book, her name was recorded as “Libbie.” With the misplacement of a G.A.R. marker, her grave became easily mistaken for a soldier’s and the grave of this former slave easily forgotten.
Today is the first annual Sgt.Henry Johnson Day in Albany, celebrating the life of this distinguished war hero.
He was born William Henry Johnson in Winston Salem, North Carolina. In his teens he moved to Albany, and worked various jobs – as a chauffeur, soda mixer, laborer in a coal yard, and a Redcap porter at Albany’s Union Station.
Johnson enlisted in the U.S. Army, June 5, 1917, and was assigned to Company C, 15th New York (Colored) Infantry Regiment – an all-black National Guard unit that would later become the 369th Infantry Regiment, known as the “Harlem Hellfighters”.
The 369th Infantry Regiment was ordered into battle in 1918, and Johnson and his unit were brigaded with a French army colonial unit in front-line combat. It was during this service that Johnson came to be a hero. He fought off a German raid in hand-to-hand combat, killing multiple German soldiers and rescuing a fellow soldier while experiencing 21 wounds.
For his battlefield valor, Johnson became one of the first Americans to be awarded the French Croix de Guerre avec Palme, France’s highest award for valor. Upon his discharge, the Army used Johnson’s image to recruit new soldiers (Sgt. Johnson’s heroics were also used as a recruitment tool in World War II) and to sell Victory War Stamps. (“Henry Johnson licked a dozen Germans. How many stamps have you licked?”) Former President Theodore Roosevelt called Johnson one of the “five bravest Americans” to serve in World War I.
Johnson returned home from his tour and was unable to return to his pre-war position as a railroad porter, due to the severity of his combat injuries. Johnson’s inability to hold down a job led him to drink. It didn’t take long for his wife and three children to leave. Veterans Bureau records show that a “permanent and total disability” rating was granted to Johnson on September 16, 1927 as a result of tuberculosis. Additional Veterans Bureau records refer to Johnson receiving monthly compensation and regular visits by Veterans Bureau medical personnel until his death.
He died of myocarditis, destitute, in 1929 at age 32 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Johnson was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart in 1996 and the Distinguished Service Cross in 2002; President Obama awarded the Medal of Honor in 2015. Sgt. Johnson’s Medal of Honor Citation is found below.