William Henry Johnson; Albany’s Forgotten Black Civil War Soldier

If you research Black soldiers from the North in the Civil War you will mostly find references to what were known as the “Colored Troop” (CT) regiments formed in 1864. (Black men weren’t permitted to serve in the Union Army until late 1863. ) The most well-known of these regiments is the 54th Massachusetts memorialized in the movie “Glory”. In New York State 3 CT regiments were raised. About 100 men from Albany served in 54th Massachusetts and the New York colored regiments

If you dig deeper you will find stories of Black men who served in white units, like William Lattimore, born in Albany in 1844, who enlisted with the 78th NY (known as the “Saratoga Regiment”) in late summer 1861. He was severely wounded at the battle of Fort Stevens defending Washington D.C., but served until the War was over. Today the number of men who were allowed into these white regiments (for a variety of reasons) is estimated to be between 5,000 – 6,000, but new stories are found all the time, and it’s quite possible there were many more.

Finally, there are men who served in an extraordinary capacity. One of those was William Henry Johnson. Johnson was born in Alexandria, Va. In 1833, but raised in Philadelphia. In 1850/51 he came to Albany; it appears that he quickly became associated with Stephen Myers, who was by then the supervising agent for Albany’s Underground Railroad (UGRR) helping enslaved Blacks from the south find freedom.

In 1852 he married Sarah Stewart.

Her father, John G. Stewart, had been born a free man in Albany, and became a barber. He was active in the Black community and in anti-slavery activities. In 1831 he started publication of “The African Sentinel”, the second Black newspaper in the U.S. He went on to attend some of the first National Colored Conventions (the only forum for free Black men to discuss political issues of the day- since most of them were denied the right to vote, even in the North). Stewart is linked to Stephen Myers and the UGRR as early as 1831 – it seems quite possible that Stewart’s wife Leah was related to Myers’ wife Harriet.

But in 1855 the couple left Albany and re-located to Philadelphia. There Johnson continued to be active in UGRR activities, and assumed a large and outspoken role in the Black community. He was part of a group of known as “The Leaders” who formed the “Frank Johnson Guard”, a militia organization associated with the Black members of the UGRR. (There were similar militias in Harrisburg, Cincinnati, New York City and Binghamton.) Local white militias would not permit Black men to join, and the Black militias were left mostly not bothered by the white community, because it thought Black men would not fight, couldn’t fight and it was all show.

In August 1859, on the eve of a parade by the Guards, who should appear but John Brown, in the company of Frederick Douglass.

Brown urged the Guard members to tone it down at the parade, to not us use intemperate language, for fear they would rouse suspicions about the Harper’s Ferry Raid, planned for later in the year. Johnson, who had been prepared to deliver a thundering incendiary speech, agreed. In October Brown returned to Philadelphia in an effort to recruit Black men to serve with him. Since Johnson was expecting his first child Brown refused to let him volunteer.

In December 1859 after the failed raid Douglass and some members of the Guard in Philadelphia scrambled. Douglass, who had been discussing plans with Brown and helping him raise money for several years, wired his son in Rochester to destroy documents and fled to New York City. We think the Johnsons returned to Albany.

In April, 1861 shots were fired at Fort Sumter and the War began. Initially Johnson applied to the local Albany militia, but was refused the opportunity to enlist. So, Johnson and other Black men made their way to Connecticut, and associated themselves with the 2nd Connecticut Volunteer Infantry formed in May 1861. Their status is not clear; there are sparse military records for these men during the first years of the War, when Black men were prohibited from fighting. They existed in a sort of limbo, although Johnson does refer to his “enlistment”.

But Johnson sent dispatches from the War front to the Boston newspaper “ The Pine and Palm” (published by James Redpath*, who would become John Brown’s first biographer.)In the dispatches it appears the Johnson and the others MAY have been allowed to participate in all activities of the the Regiment, but he refers to himself as an “independent.” They traveled with the Regiment to bivouac at Camp Mansfield in Washington D.C., and were part of the encampment. Johnson and the other fought in the bloody first Battle of Bull Run in July 1861 (a huge Union loss).

After the 2nd infantry was disbanded ( there was 3 month enlistment duration because the Union was confident it would lick Johnny Reb in no time), Johnson and his group attached themselves to the 8th Connecticut Regiment, calling themselves the “8th Colored Volunteers”. While with this regiment he fought at the Battle of Roanoke Island in North Carolina under General Burnside in February 1862. Johnson became ill and returned to Albany, but military records appear to indicate that some of the other Black men with whom he volunteered remained in military service until the end of the War**

Johnson was in Albany when the prohibition against Black soldiers in the Union Army was lifted. He then became the chief recruiting officer in the Albany area for the 54th Massachusetts Regiment and the NYS Colored Troop Regiments.

1864

After the War Johnson went back to barbering (his shop was on Maiden Lane), and established himself as a major force in Black politics in the Albany and New York State. He’s credited with being a prime mover behind the first New York State equal rights legislation, enacted in 1873 and the successful effort to de-segregate Albany public schools in 1873.

He became so well known that in August 1875 the now famous Black sculptor Edmonia Lewis (from East Greenbush and Albany) presented him with a bust of Charles Sumner at the A.M. E. Church on Hamilton St.

Throughout the late 1800s Johnson continued to work on behalf of equal rights for the African American community, culminating in the Elsberg Bill, signed by Governor Theodore Roosevelt, that officially de-segregated New York State Public Schools.

Circa 1900

Sadly, Johnson died almost a pauper at the Little Sisters of the Poor on Central Ave., six months after his beloved Sarah, in October, 1918. They are buried at Albany Rural Cemetery in unmarked graves. (We only know because Paula Lemire, Cemetery historian, has found plot maps.)

*Redpath is credited as being one of the group of Blacks and whites who created the first Memorial Day in Charleston in 1865, by honoring the graves of Union soldiers who died in a Confederate POW camp.

**More research needs to be done on the role Johnson and other Black men played in military combat in the early days of the War. Juanita Patience Moss in Forgotten Black Soldiers Who Served in White Regiments During the Civil War makes a good start. Johnson’s autobiography includes tantalizing references – the Black men may have trained together, rather than with the main regiment, but he also refers to a large number of Black men in the 8th Connecticut camp. About 30 years later a local newspaper makes a point that it’s a shame that Johnson is not eligible to collect a pension.

Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor

Albany’s Remarkable William Topp

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.
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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.)
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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.

Copyright 2021  Julie O’Connor

Frederick Douglass on the Albany of 1847

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The remarkable and legendary Abolitionist was a frequent visitor to Albany. In 1845 he placed his oldest daughter, Rosetta, with 2 Quaker sisters, Abigail and Lydia Mott, who lived on Maiden Lane near Broadway; she lived quite comfortably for about 5 years under their care and tutelage. (They were cousins of Lucretia Mott, the women’s rights activist and abolitionist; they too were politically active and were conductors in Albany’s Underground Railroad.)

In 1847 Douglass wrote a description of Albany to a friend. (In 1845 he had become world famous after publication of his memoir about his life as a slave and flight to freedom in 1838.)

By way of background: at the time he wrote the letter Albany was the 10th largest city in the U.S., with a population of about 50,000. In the period between 1820 and 1850 the population of Albany exploded. Between 1820 and 1830, it doubled, due to the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825. Between 1830 and 1850 the population doubled again.

There were signs of growing pains all over the City that was bursting at the seams in 1847.

The staid Old Dutch village has been overrun by businessman and politicians. Its geography worked for and against it. The Canal had been the catalyst for a manufacturing hub in the midst of the Industrial Revolution. The last slaves in New York State had been freed 20 years before; Albany has been the largest slave holding county in the State for at least 100 years previous. There were many free persons of color struggling to get a foothold in the middle class, while simultaneously advancing the cause of Abolition elsewhere in the country and providing a path to freedom in Canada for those poor souls in slave states. Immigrant populations (mostly German and Jewish) had begun pouring into country through the harbors of New York and Boston. Many made their way to Albany, as a gateway to the vast lands of the west; some stayed here. Like any Boomtown, It became a mecca for hucksters, grifters and speculators.

In the fall of 1847 Douglass had traveled to Albany (and Troy) for a series of meetings and speeches. And while Douglass found a few things here to praise — it’s fair to say he came away rather unimpressed by the city of Albany, which at the time was a key center for politics and transportation.

From a letter Douglass wrote to the abolitionist Sydney Gay in October of that year after leaving the city:

“Situated on the banks of the noble Hudson, near the head of navigation, Albany is the grand junction of eastern and western travel. Its people have a restless, unstable, and irresponsible appearance, altogether unfavourable to reform. A flood of immorality and disgusting brutality is poured into the city through the great Erie Canal, and the very cheap travel on the Hudson facilitates the egress of a swarm of loafers and rum-suckers from New York. I have received more of insult, and encountered more of low black-guardism in the streets of this city in one day than I should meet with in Boston during a whole month.”

Douglass touches on the history of slavery in Albany and the city’s apparent inertia in the face of reform.

“Like most other metropolitan towns and cities, Albany is by no means remarkable for either the depth or intensity of its interest in reform. No great cause was ever much indebted to Albany for assistance. Many reasons might be given, accounting for the tardiness of its people in matters of reform in general, and Anti-Slavery reform in particular. I believe that many of its wealthiest and most influential families have either been slaveholders, or are connected with slaveholders by family ties, and it is not too much to presume that they have not been entirely purified and cleansed of the old leaven. Their influence is yet visible on the face of this community.”

“The evil that men do lives after them.” Thirty years ago, and slaves were held, bought and sold, in this same goodly city; and in the darkness of midnight, the panting fugitive, running from steeples and [d]omes, swam the cold waters of the Hudson, and sought a refuge from Albany man-hunters, in the old Bay State. The beautiful Hudson as then to the slaves of this State, what the Ohio is to slaves in Virginia and Kentucky. The foul upas has been cut down for nearly thirty years, and yet its roots of poison and bitterness may be felt in the moral soil of this community, obstructing the plough of reform, and disheartening the humble labourer. Many efforts have been made to awaken the sympathies, quicken the moral sense, and rouse the energies of this community in the Anti-Slavery cause — but to very little purpose. many of the best and ablest advocates of the slave, including George Thompson, of London, have wrought here, but apparently in vain. So hard and so dead are its community considered to be, our lecturers pass through it from year to year without dreaming of the utility of holding a meeting in it; all are disposed to think Slavery may be abolished in the United States without aid of Albany. Like Webster, of New Hampshire, they think this a good place to emigrate from.”.

Excerpted in part from a February 2, 2016 post in All Over Albany.com

Lydia Mott is probably the most important woman who ever lived in Albany and you probably never heard of her

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Lydia was born into a a large Quaker family  in 1807,  The family alternated between Long Island and Albany. In the 1820s, some of the family settled permanently in Albany, where the brothers and several of the sisters taught school (first on Broadway and then at the corner of State and Lodge). In the 1830s Lydia went to teach at a Quaker boarding school in Philadelphia where she met Susan B. Anthony. They would remain best friends for 40 years.*

Upon her return to Albany Lydia became a shop keeper, selling men’s furnishings (shirts, gloves, scarves, etc.) Her first store was on Broadway, while the family lived on Chapel St. Her brothers died relatively young, and Lydia would maintain the business with the help of her sisters, Abigail (who passed away in 1851) and Jane (who outlived Lydia). The business moved to several locations including Maiden Lane, over a period of 15 years, until she started acquire property in Albany and operated a boarding house at 716 Broadway in the late 1850s until about 1870. This alone would have been amazing accomplishment for a single woman in the mid-19th century, but it was her extracurricular activities that are truly remarkable.

By the late 1830s, when she about 30, Lydia began to translate her interest in women’s rights and abolition into action. Several years before Susan B. Anthony became associated with women’s suffrage, Lydia was working in the trenches with feminist movement pioneers like Ernestine Rose, the Grimke Sisters, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott (whose husband was Lydia’s cousin and part of the vast Quaker reform activist movement.) Most of these women were also knee deep in anti-slavery activities. (Lucretia Mott and Stanton first met at an ant-slavery convention in London in 1840 to which they were not admitted because they were women.) Lydia Mott hosted lobbying activities and monitored legislative action from her home near the Capitol that were critical to the passage of The NYS Married Women’s Property Law in April, 1848 (which a gave women right to own property independent of their husbands).

The Seneca Falls “Declaration of Sentiments” 3 months later in July, 1848 focused attention on the women’s rights movement, and over the next 30 years Lydia was at the center of the activities in the critical state of New York. It was here in Albany in 1852, when Susan B. Anthony, spurred on by Lydia, decided to focus her enormous energy on this issue of women’s rights. (They both had been denied admittance to a Temperance convention because they were women.). Lydia organized the conventions (ever the businesswoman, she was adamant that an admission fee be charged and speakers paid), coordinated lobbying, and corresponded with other states and key leaders. Her home was the gathering place when anyone came to Albany to discuss women’s rights. In 1873 when Susan B. Anthony was indicted by a federal grand jury in Albany’s old City Hall on Eagle St., she stayed with Lydia at her home, now on Columbia St.

But that wasn’t enough for Lydia. At the same time she had her awakening about women’s rights she became passionately involved in anti-slavery activities. Initially her involvement was local. She was the only White female member of the Albany Vigilance committee. She served as a conductor on the city’s Underground Railroad for fugitive slaves. In the 1840s Rosetta, eldest daughter of Frederick Douglass, was placed in the care of the Mott sisters for 5 years (Abigail taught Frederick Douglass how to read and write.) She coordinated the conventions, organized the correspondence and lobbying and scheduled speakers. Again the Mott home became the home away from home for William Lloyd Garrison, Gerrit Smith, Wendell Philips and other leading lights of the anti-slavery movement when they were in Albany.

As the movement picked up intensity in the 1850s, Lydia made her way to the national stage. By 1858 she was a vice president of the American Anti-slavery Society.

Lydia Mott was at the intersection of and played a key role in two of the most important social and political reforms of this country. There are few if any histories of the anti-slavery or women’s rights movements that don’t mention her or don’t include her correspondence with national leaders of the movements. During her life time she was nationally known; she was often referred to in the newspapers the same way as they referred to Susan B, Anthony, William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Yet in this country and in even in her own city she is mostly forgotten. How does that happen? How does a woman so critical to our history simply disappear?

*Lydia was so important to Susan B. Anthony, that as Lydia was nearing the end of her life in 1875 , Susan cast aside her fast paced and often frenetic women’s rights travels and speaking engagements to spend the last month of Lydia’s life with her on Columbia St.

Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor