Recently there was an amazing find at Albany Rural Cemetery by Paula Lemire, Cemetery Historian – the discovery of the gravestone of the Rev. Nathaniel Paul. It’s been restored by Christopher White.
So we thought we would take the opportunity to tell you why the discovery and restoration are so important.
The Rev. Nathaniel Paul was part of an African American family that had a major impact on the Black community not only in Albany, but in this country, in the early 1800s. Their work was foundational- it echoes into the present day. The Paul brothers were among a small number of Black men who, very early in the 19th century, saw their role as helping African Americans transition into a society of empowered and independent men and women, no longer bound by slavery.
These men and women deserved equal rights, but in this temporal world they would have to advocate for themselves. It was also the mission of the Paul brothers to those who had been freed understand that it was their responsibility to ensure that others gain their freedom. The ministers in the newly created safe spaces of the Black churches were preaching what we would call today “Liberation Theology”. Theirs was a potentially dangerous game – the ideas that slavery should be abolished in the U.S. , and African Americans were worthy of equal rights were incendiary and terrifying to many – to powerful whites and especially those whites without power.
Rev. Paul was born about 1795 in New Hampshire. We know his father had been enslaved, but appears to have gained his freedom through service in the Revolutionary War. Four sons became Baptist ministers: Thomas (the eldest), Nathaniel, Benjamin and Shadrach. Shadrach remained in New Hampshire while Thomas, Nathaniel and Benjamin found their way to congregations in Boston, Albany and New York City.
The three brothers would create a network that spanned the population centers of the Northeast, align themselves with other Black men, and find white men and women as allies. Thomas became the pastor of the Boston’s African Meeting House (later known as the Joy Street Baptist church) in 1805. In 1808 he also would be one of the founders of the historic Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City.
Historians think Nathaniel may have joined Thomas as some point in Boston, where he married, but then moved on to Northampton Mass. Nathaniel came to Albany with his wife about 1820 at the invitation of the minister of the local Baptist Church. By 1821 many of the Black congregants left that church and established the Albany African Baptist Society, which would become the African Baptist Church (a/k/a the Hamilton Street Church). Soon his brother Benjamin joined him in the city., and he helped to establish a school for African children attached to the church.
Over the next decade Nathaniel Paul became well known not only in Albany (he was appointed one of the chaplains of the NYS Legislature), but in the entire Northeast. He, along with his brother Thomas in Boston, preached about the evils of slavery and the need for abolition. Keep in mind at that this time there were still people enslaved in New York (including Albany) waiting for the general statewide abolition scheduled for 1827.
And when Abolition arrived there was a major celebration in Albany among the Black population. Hundreds of African Americans thronged the streets in a dignified and stately procession. The culmination of the event was an oration by Nathaniel on the Abolition of Slavery in the Hamilton St. Church. It was re-printed in a number of newspapers, and copies sold in bookstores in Albany and other cities. Meanwhile Nathaniel Paul was a busy man. He was an agent for Freedom’s Journal, the first newspaper in U.S. published by an African American (so was his brother Thomas in Boston). He was also a key player in an early court case in Albany, along with several of his congregants, that resulted in the freedom of Elizabeth Cummings, an African American woman who had been snatched off the Baltimore streets, and was in the process of being sold into slavery.
His brother Benjamin left Albany in 1824 to become the pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City, and there was a synergy between the Black communities in the three cities (Albany, Boston and New York) with the three Paul brothers in the pulpits of the major churches. Freedom’s Journal said of Nathaniel Paul that he had been successful in “…improving the moral and class of the community which has been too long neglected”. “To prepare men for liberty their minds must be enlightened to their own rights and duties which they owe to the community.”
The next act of Nathaniel’s life would come about as a result of his brother Benjamin. Benjamin became one of the Board of Managers of the Wilberforce Colony in Ontario Canada. The colony was established as a refuge for African Americans in Ohio who were increasingly subjected to harsh and discriminatory laws. It was named after William Wilberforce, a British MP who succeeded in abolishing the slave trade (and whom Nathaniel’s brother Thomas had met on a trip to England in 1815). Benjamin settled in the e Colony and Nathaniel followed; it was time for him to move on. He had done good work in Albany, but his wife had died about a year before, and the Colony was a place where he could continue that work. He settled there and quickly established an African Baptist Church.
The colony wasn’t self-sustaining and financial support was necessary. The managers decided to send Nathaniel Paul to Great Britain to fund raise. He would spend the years from about 1832 to 1835 traveling through England and Scotland. It was a revelation; he didn’t experience the racism and discrimination he’d encountered America, and was treated with dignity and respect. He re-married a white woman, Ann Adey from Gloucestershire. Soon he was joined by William Lloyd Garrison on much of his lecture tour. Garrison had been a friend of his brother Thomas in Boston, was the publisher of the anti-slavery newspaper “The Liberator”, and was emerging as the leading white abolitionist in the United States.
But the trip to Great Britain was a financial failure and Paul returned to America. His brother Benjamin died in Canada in in 1836, and Nathaniel’s relationship with the Colony was over. Nathaniel came back to Albany in 1837 to the African Baptist Church. Sadly, Nathaniel died in 1839. The members of the Church provided a simple yet moving headstone, with the following epitaph:
SACRED To the memory of REV. NATH.L PAUL.
First Pastor of the Hamilton StreetBaptist CHURCH in this City
Born in Exeter N.H. Jan. 7th 1795
Died in the Faith & triumph of the Gospel July 16th 1839
Having experienced Religion in the morning of life.
He was early employed in the Vineyard of his Divine Master & continued until his decease a Laborious, Faithful, & Efficient Minister of the CROSS.
Emulating the spirit & example of the Saviour like him.
He also partook in degree a similar recompense!
For The Servant is not greater than his LORD.A Distinguished Minister & Philanthropist: A Martyr to his indefatigable exertions in the Cause of Truth & suffering Humanity.
Removed in the midst of his days & usefulness his cherished Memory will remain enshrined in the hearts of His sorrowing Widow, attached People, the Churches and Ministers of Christ With a Large circle of Friends.
“Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord, From Henceforth, yea saith the Spirit, that they may Rest from their Labours: and their works do Follow them.
Rev. XIV. 13. They mourn the dead who live as they desired.
On his death “The Liberator” published the following:
“DEATH OF REV. NATHANIEL PAUL. The decease of this estimable and eloquent colored brother, who was pastor of the Hamilton-street Baptist church in Albany, is announced in the daily papers of that city. Mr. Paul was in almost constant companionship during our sojourn in London, a few years since, and to his active and efficient co-operation were we greatly indebted for the triumphant success. “
His widow Ann remained in Albany until at least 1841 (living on Madison Ave, below Swan St.) while she assembled a collection of her husband’s writings, with a view to publication by Garrison, but nothing came of the effort. (The Rev. Nathaniel Paul’s legacy is the sermon he delivered On July 5, 1827 on the need for abolition which is still read today.) By 1850 she had moved to Northampton where she died in 1853.
But that was not the end of the Paul family in Albany. In 1840 the city would agree to open a public school for “colored” children. The first principal of this new Wilberforce School in 1841 would be Thomas Paul Jr. son of Nathaniel’s brother Thomas. Thomas was one of the first the first Black graduates of Dartmouth College, and had worked as a printer’s apprentice for William Lloyd Garrison. He remained in Albany for a number of years; there was a disagreement with the school supervisors and he was terminated. He went to teach Boston, but about 3 decades later he would return briefly to Albany’s Wilberforce School.
While in Albany he would live with some of his uncle Benjamin’s family. Two of Benjamin’s sons, Benjamin Jr. and Shipherd (also known as Samuel) made their home in Albany, and were deeply involved in the fight for abolition and equal rights for African Americans, including participation in the Underground Railroad.
Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor