While cruising through old copies of “The Liberator”, the most prominent anti-slavery newspaper in America in the 19th century, I came across a small article from May 3, 1834 that sheds new light on Albany’s Black activism in the early part of the 19th century.
We know a lot about what happened several decades later, but very little about the formative years. In 1827 New York State abolished slavery. ( New Yorkj State was late to the party.)
By 1831 Albany’ had become a hotbed of Black agitation for abolition of slavery in the South and equal rights in the Black community – very much earlier than white abolitionists in the city. While most historians focus on Black activism in Philadelphia, New York City and Boston at that time, Albany was the 9th largest city in America in 1830, and had a Black population of between 700-800. African Americans in Albany were mad as hell about slavery in the South and NYS failure to provide them an opportunity to vote with the same rights as white men.
Members of the Black community had already successfully intervened in court cases that were attempting to send several people (a woman and 2 children) back to the South to be sold in the slave markets in 1828 and 1829.
And then in April 1834 they made their next public move. A “runaway” from a slave state was captured and held in jail (it was at the corner of Howard St. and Eagle St.).According to the article 100 “Negroes” stormed the jail, thronged the jail guards and constables, and rescued the “runaway” and got him away. It appears the guards whomped on the liberators and they didn’t punch back (very smart). Wow.. just wow. . I reached out to a number of historians and they’ve never heard of this.
The men who stormed the jail probably represented at least 1/3 of adult Black men in the City. The article indicates the action was so well-coordinated and timed, it had to have been a planned, not spontaneous (as other such later actions were other cities). And the date of 1834 makes this the earliest incident of this kind that has been described. in the country. Most “liberations” went down in the late 1840s and 1850s.
There are no names identified in the article, but we know who some of the likely suspects are. John Stewart and Michael Douge were fiery 30 something activist barbers.
Stewart had briefly published an incendiary newspaper “The African Sentinel” in 1831 that supported direct action against slavery and slave owners.
His best friend was Charles Morton. Both were agents of The Liberator.
Ben Lattimore, Jr. was the son of the man who had been the leading Black activist in Albany for 20 years, and had stepped into his father’s shoes. The family was probably the wealthiest Black family in the city at the time (they owned a lot of property and ran a thriving grocery store).
In 1834 Ben had recently married a woman born enslaved in Pittstown, Rensselaer County in 1812. Lattimore is identified as a member of the Albany Underground Rairoad (UGRR) , and 1 of 2 Black officers of the Eastern NY Anti-Slavery Society. In 1847 he bought a large farm in south of Glens Falls in Moreau for $3,000 and set up his own UGRR operation with Black and white men in the area.
Other men probably included Stephen Myers, a waiter who would become the supervising agent of the Albany UGRR in the 1850s and William Topp who would have been barely 19.
Topp would later become a wealthy tailor, member of the UGRR, and friend of the white abolitionists Susan B. Anthony, William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips and Frederick Douglass. The group probably included Richard Thompson, who owned an eating house and fruit store (who would become the supervising agent of the Underground Railroad in Albany in the 1840s; Benjamin and Shiperd Paul whose uncle Rev. Nathaniel Paul founded the first Black Church in Albany in the 1820s; John Chambers -another barber, and John Briggs whose son William who would be killed in action while serving with the 54th Massachusetts, the famous “colored” regiment that stormed Ft. Wagner in the Civil War.
Copyright Julie O’Connor 2021