James Gardner was born in 1864 just before the end of the Civil War to William and Elizabeth Gardiner.
His father William was a barber. By the early 1850s he been active for some time in Albany African equal rights politics, and attended several New York State Colored Conventions.
In the 1850s he was the Vice President of the Albany Vigilance Committee, tasked with financing Albany’s Underground Railroad (UGRR) to help fugitive slaves escape from South.
After the Civil War he was very active in the Republican Party, and a member of the group of men who lobbied the Albany Board of Public Instruction to desegregate Albany Schools. Elizabeth was active in Albany’s African American female charitable organizations – the Female Lundy Society and the Female Lovejoy Society. Mr. Gardiner was trustee of the African Baptist church.
The family lived for several decades on Second St. (first at #49 and then #67) in Arbor Hill in the close knit community bounded by Hall Place, Third St., Lark St. and Livingston Ave.
William Gardiner was fast friends and a business partner of Dr. Thomas Elkins. They were both officers of the Vigilance Committee, and involved in other political and community affairs. Elkins was the only black druggist in Albany in the 1800s, and during James’ childhood Elkins lived with the family. We think that it was the influence of Elkins that led Gardner to attend the Pharmacy College.
Gardner graduated from the Albany College of Pharmacy in 1888 when it was co-located with Albany Medical College on Eagle St. between Lancaster and Jay Streets. He was vice president of his class and won a cash prize of $20 from the Alumni Association for the best graduation thesis on “Percolation”.
The same year he married Caroline Deyo from Jefferson St.; after their marriage they lived with his parents. His best friend, Robert Douge, served as his best man. In 1890 Douge would be only the second African American graduate of Albany Law School. In the late 1890s the couple moved to Livingston Ave.
After graduation Gardner worked for the drugstore owned by Clement & Rice at the corner of Broadway and Clinton Ave., Huested’s Pharmacy at the corner of State and Eagle Streets, and for Thomas Pennington at his drugstore in Saratoga Springs (he was the only black druggist in the city at the time).*
It appears Gardner also had a love of music, spent some time working for a music store at 46 North Pearl St., and listed himself in several city directories as a music teacher But it’s also quite possible that it was difficult for Gardner to find employment as a druggist because of his race. (Thomas Pennington recounted the serious problems he encountered in Saratoga Springs because of racial prejudice.)
Sadly James died in late 1901 at the age of 37. He was found drowned in the river off New York City. We have been unable to discover the details. Why was he in New York City? How did he drown?
Caroline outlived James by another 18 years; never re-marrying and working at various jobs, including seamstress.
*Thomas Pennington apprenticed with Dr. Elkins in the mid-1850s, and they remained lifelong friends. The presence of Pennington in Albany speaks to the relationships in Albany and the larger world ante-bellum world of African American activism against slavery and for equal rights. Pennington’s father, the Rev. James Pennington was the president of the National Colored Convention in Rochester in 1853, attended by two Albany men – Stephen Myers who ran the Albany UGRR and William Topp, a member of the UGRR and of its Vigilance Committee. Pennington’s association with Elkins again demonstrates the outsize role and political importance of Albany, in both African American politics and the anti-slavery movement in the ante-bellum period.
Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor