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
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.
Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor