The Beginning of Albany’s Underground Railroad (UGRR)

New York State didn’t abolish slavery until July 1827, so most enslaved persons seeking freedom before that made their way through the New England states where slavery was illegal, although a number made their way to New York City and lost themselves in the crowd.

But after 1827 it was game on in Albany

In 1828 and 1829 the Albany African Association, lead by the Rev. Nathaniel Paul and Ben Lattimore, Jr., Black men, began to intervene in court cases involving people alleged to be enslaved.

It was difficult finding white allies because at that time most white abolitionists believed that American Africans, once freed, should be re-settled outside the U.S. (called “colonization”). This wasn’t out of meanness. They thought it was impossible for African Americans to achieve equal rights and racial justice in the U.S.

By the early 1830s most white abolitionists understood the position of most Blacks- they were born here, they had built the country, and weren’t going anywhere. Some had fathers or grandfathers who had fought on the Patriot side in the Revolution (like Paul and Lattimore, Jr.) End of discussion.

So, by 1833 William Lloyd Garrison and Black and white men (and a few women) formed the American Anti-Slavery Society, bringing together abolitionists across the north. Although the first Vigilance Committee wasn;t formed in New York City until 1835, we suspect that efforts were well underway to help freedom seekers in the City and villages and towns along the Hudson and in the Southern Tier and around the Great Lakes. The Vigilance Committee was the face of the Underground Railroad (UGRR). It included many white abolitionists who could raise money, go to court, and fend off police.

Although the first official Vigilance Committee” wasn’t formed in New York City until 1835, we suspect that efforts were well underway to help freedom seekers in the City and villages and towns along the Hudson and in the Southern Tier and around the Great Lakes. The Vigilance Committee was the face of the UGRR. It included many white abolitionists who could raise money, go to court, and fend off police.

The police were a real problem. Some who attempted to thwart freedom seekers may have thought they were doing the right thing. Enslaved people were property, and they were merely returning property to rightful owners. People helping those attempting to reach freedom were breaking the law; committing an illegal act.

But many others were simply corrupt. They were paid off by the “Slave Catchers” from the South who came North to retrieve “property”.

But we do know that by the first part of 1834 Albany Blacks, under the African Association and the Albany African Clarkson Society (established in 1829) were already rocking and rolling. In April of 1834 at least 100 Black men broke a “runaway” out of the City Jail. (This is one of the earliest documented instances of this sort of collective and very well-organized action by Blacks in the U.S. )

1834
Before it was the city hospital the jail was in this building at the corner of Eagle and Howard Streets.

It’s not quite clear when the official Albany Vigilance Committee was formed. Some members like the white Quaker sisters Lydia and Abigail (who would become besties with Frederick Douglass) actually hid escapees and arranged to get them to freedom as well as raising money. Ben Lattimore Jr was probably the wealthiest Black man in Albany; he moved easily among the Black and white communities, and was probably a fund raiser. But he also owned a grocery store, owned a number of properties in Albany, so he was well-placed to secret freedom seekers.

Popular local barbers like Michael Douge and John Stewart could reasonably be expected to get lots of foot traffic of both races to their shops. Richard Wright was a shoemaker. (Wright would become president of the Vigilance Committee in 1844.) Stephen Myers would become supervising agent of the UGRR in later year, was first a grocer and then a waiter. Think of the Vigilance Committee as the Board of Directors and bankers of the UGRR operations.

1854

Within a decade Albany (and Troy) were doing a land office business in help freedom seekers on their way. They came here by all means and from all places.

Basil Dorsey and his brothers escaped from slavery in Maryland in 1837 and made it to Pennsylvania. In 1838 he was re-captured, but escaped to New York where he joined his free wife and two children. He was sent to Albany and then to on to a farm in Charlemont Mass. (Dorsey’s son Charles would marry Emma, the daughter of Ben Lattimore Jr. 30 years later.)

Others went west to Canada through Buffalo and Niagara; some went north directly Canada over the Champlain Canal and still others went northeast through Vermont into Canada. The same man, David Ruggles, who helped Basil Dorsey get to Albany in 1838 helped Frederick Douglass make his way from NYC to New Bedford, Mass. the same year.

There was no single route to freedom. It was a spider web. Options available in the early 1830s changed over time. Some found a place in surrounding communities or even in Albany itself.

By 1842 there were at least 350 men, women and children pouring into the city every year, according to the Rev. Abel Brown, a young white radical abolitionist. Brown was in your face kind of guy, and actually taunted southern slave owners by name once their property was safe in the Albany newspaper the “Tocsin of Liberty”.

His biography, written after his death by his wife, graphically depicts the role of the Albany police. They would obtain a search warrant for one house, and then ignoring the limits of the warrant, conduct illegal searches going from house to house, terrorizing the women and children who were home while the men in family were at work.

According to Brown the Police weren’t just looking for freedom seekers. They would seek free persons of color hoping to sell them into slavery.

From Abel Brown’s Biography
From Abel Brown’s Biography

No one knows how many thousands of lives were changed as they passed through our City and elsewhere in the North. We know the history of Frederick Douglass, but what became of others is mostly shrouded in the mists of time, although William Still in his 1872 book about the Underground Railroad does include some histories of men and women who went through Albany.

Julie O’Connor

Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor

John G. Stewart – Albany’s First Black Newspaper Publisher

John G. Stewart is cited in hundreds of books and websites that describe that fight for the eradication of slavery and for equal rights and social justice. We suspect you have never heard of him; frankly neither had we until a couple of years ago. Stewart was the second publisher of a Black newspaper in the U.S.

The first Black newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, published in New York City, closed in 1829 after two years. In 1831 Stewart started The African Sentinel and the Journal of Liberty. Its publication was brief… maybe 8 to 10 months. but it had a critical impact on the fight to end slavery and the battle for equal rights for African Americans.

History books reference the newspaper and then move on; not because writers are ignoring Stewart, but because so little is known about him. So we thought we would try to find out what we could, and how he fits into our history.

Stewart was probably born a free man in Albany about 1800. He first appears in the city directory in 1824 as a barber at 37 North Pearl St. We have no idea where he was educated, probably in the African School in Albany established in 1811 by a handful of free Black men in the city. (Albany was among no more than half a dozen cities with a school for Black children at the time.)

Sometime in the 1820s he married Leah Profitt, daughter of a free woman in the city.

There’s very little evidence of Stewart’s daily life in Albany. We know he was a barber. In the 1831-32 city directory there’s an ad for Stewart’s barber shop on the corner of State and Pearl streets. It’s the first we’ve ever seen by the owner of Black business in a general publication at that early date. It leads us to believe he was fairly well-known and respected in both Black and white Albany (and probably a very good barber).

He was a member of the First African Baptist Church, a gathering place for black activists beginning in 1821. It was in this church in 1827 that the Albany African-American community celebrated the abolition of slavery in New York State on July 5th 1827, and its pastor, the Rev. Nathaniel Paul, gave a sermon on abolition that was re-printed and shared across the country.

It was one of about a dozen black churches in the U.S. where Black liberation theology – not only freedom for those still enslaved, but also the need for equal rights and racial justice for all African Americans in the entire country, took hold.

The Rev. Paul and some of his congregation are mentioned in newspaper reports of the first case in Albany involving an alleged fugitive slave in 1829.

In January 1831 the forthcoming publication of The African Sentinel was announced in The Liberator newspaper, published by William Lloyd Garrison in Boston. The Liberator would become the most widely read anti-slavery newspaper in the U.S. and Garrison would become president of the American Anti-slavery Society. Stewart would serve as its agent in  Albany in the early years of its publication. This demonstrates that there were already strong linkages among network of Black and white abolitionists and proponents of equal rights across the Northeast, including Albany. These would strengthen and grow.

In his newspaper proposal Stewart makes it clear that there should be, “.. .at least one public journal conducted by a colored man and devoted to the interests of the colored population throughout this country..”

He then lays down the gauntlet.

 “Descendants of Africa! Will you not arise with the dignity of MAN and each proclaim am I not a MAN and a BROTHER?

In Spring 1831 Stewart published the first issue of his paper. Its motto was “I tremble for my country when I think that God is just and that his justice cannot sleep forever (T. Jefferson)”. Clearly it was meant to be a challenge.

Stewart’s newspaper lasted maybe 8 months and there are few extant issues. (Because of its rarity and importance, a single issue sold at auction for $27,000 5 years ago.)

Most of what we do know about The African Sentinel comes from reprints of article in copies of other newspapers that survived. Stewart reported the general news of the day, usually interpreting the impact it would have on the Black community. He also reported news of particular interest, like the progress of the Wilberforce Colony recently established for African-Americans in Canada – both Rev. Nathaniel Paul and his brother Rev. Benjamin Paul were deeply involved.

But he was also fierce. In no uncertain terms he opposed the settlement of Black Americans in Africa, an idea that was quite popular in the time. Stewart made it clear the U.S. was the home and country of Black Americans and they weren’t going anywhere.

The death knell of the newspaper may have been its response to the deadly and violent slave rebellion in Virginia lead by Nat Turner in August 1831. In a letter to the editor of the Albany Argus in October 1831, Stewart gave no quarter. He excoriated Northerners who would support Southern slave-holders, and he only condemned part of the violence. What he published was incendiary. It was the equivalent of throwing a hand grenade.

The slaves have a perfect right derived from God Almighty to their freedom. They have done vastly wrong in the late insurrection, in the killing of women and children; but still it is not to be wondered at. Their struggle is the same principle as the struggle of our fathers in ’76. I hope they may achieve their liberty eventually by fair and heroic means, in a brave and manly conflict with their masters.”

We suspect that sentiment, supporting armed rebellion by enslaved populations, was a bridge too far for most subscribers. The African Sentinel folded shortly thereafter.

But Stewart did not stop his activism. He remained adamantly opposed to colonization, and was part of a a local Albany group in opposition. In 1833 he first attended the National Convention of Free Men of Color in Philadelphia, and served on several committees.  He would attend the 1834 Convention in New York along with another barber and fellow parishioner Charles Morton. Morton would be the agent for The Liberator in Albany for almost a decade.

Older members of the Albany African Baptist Church has attended earlier conventions, and began to create linkages between the men, Black and white, who would form the basis of the anti-slavery movement (and much of the Underground Railroad -UGRR ) in this country for the next three decades. John G. Stewart and Charles S. Morton followed in their footsteps.

Although not identified specifically as a member of the Albany’s UGRR Stewart is associated as early as 1831 with Stephen Myers. Myers would become the manager of Albany’s UGRR. In 1842 Stewart (and we believe Morton as well) teamed up to edit the newspaper Stephen Myers published The Northern Star and Freeman’s Advocate.

Sadly, John G. Stewart disappeared from the city director in 1845 and in 1852 Leah is listed as a widow. Charles Morton passed away at about the same time.

After the deaths of Stewart and Morton the publication of The Northern Star became infrequent and sporadic.

Stewart’s daughter Sarah married William H. Johnson in 1852. Johnson came to Albany around 1850, and worked in the UGRR, served briefly in the Civil War, became the most prominent Black politician and activist in post-War Albany. He’s credited with writing New York State’s first equal rights law in 1873.

Julie O’Connor

Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor