Eight short stories recalling the lives of African Americans buried in the Albany Rural Cemetery

 

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Mention the Albany Rural Cemetery and the most common response is, “Oh, that’s where President Arthur is buried!”

Its 467 acres contain the graves of governors, mayors, soldiers, actors, bankers, and poets, as well as works of monumental art by Erastus Dow Palmer, Robert Launitz, and Charles Calverley.

Buried here, too, are dozens of prominent figures in Albany’s African-American history — from slaves to doctors.

Here are the stories of some of those Albany residents…

Born Before The Revolution

An Albany Daily Evening Times article from 1873 reported on the death and funeral of a woman named Diana Mingo who, at 106 years (or, according to some sources, 105 years and 6 months), was said to be the oldest person buried in The Rural to date. Born in Schodack as the slave of Matthew Beekman, she was reportedly freed before New York State’s gradual emancipation began in 1799. For a time, she worked as a cook for the Van Rensselaer family at their manor house in Albany.

Mingo was well known among her friends and neighbors for her vivid recollections of the Revolution and Lafayette’s celebrated visit to Albany in 1825. She died on July 25, 1872 and her funeral was held at the African Methodist Episcopal Church on Hamilton Street. Attendance was so great that mourners overflowed the pews and sat on the pulpit steps. She was buried on the cemetery’s North Ridge in a lot owned by her niece, Mary G. Jackson. Her grave is not marked. (Lot 8, Section 99).

Soldier of the Revolution

Benjamin Lattimore, a leading member of Albany’s post-Revolution African-American community and founder of the A.M.E. Church, was born a free man in Weathersfield, Connecticut in 1761. He was living in Ulster County, New York at the beginning of the Revolution and helped his family operate a ferry there. The fifteen-year old Lattimore enlisted in the Ulster County militia in September 1776. He took part in the battle for Manhattan and, a year later, was captured by the British at Fort Montgomery near West Point. Relegated to the role of a servant by British officers, Lattimore was recovered by the Americans in Westchester County and returned to service in the Continental Army. In 1779, he visited Albany for the first time when his regiment, en route to the Schoharie and Mohawk Valleys, was forced by ice to remain in the city for two weeks.

In 1794, Lattimore settled in Albany and found employment as a licensed cartman. Within five years, he had purchased several lots in the area of South Pearl Street, as well as a two-story brick home at 9 Plain Street (an area now covered by the Times Union Center). Described as a man of “irreproachable character for integrity and uprightness,” Lattimore became a pillar of early Albany’s middle class black community; he was a founding member of the Albany African Temperance Society, the first black school. This veteran of the Revolution died in April 1838 and was buried at the State Street Burying Grounds. His remains were moved to the Church Grounds section of the Rural Cemetery during the mass disinterment of the Burying Grounds in 1868. His headstone, and that of his wife are now missing. (Lot 14, Section 49)

The Two Adam Blakes

Beginning in slavery, the first Adam Blake’s life spanned from the Revolutionary War to the middle of the Civil War. Born in New York City around 1773, he was brought to Albany while still young, where he was a servant to Stephen Van Rensselaer III. As an adult, he would become manager of the household staff at the Van Rensselaer Manor. Until it was abolished by the city in 1811, he presided as the master of ceremonies of the popular Pinkster celebrations held by Albany’s black community each spring on what is now Capitol Hill. He also took part in the grand ceremonies welcoming Lafayette on his return visit to Albany in 1824, shielding the elderly French patriot from the sun with an umbrella at all times during the procession through the city. He was also one of the first depositors on record with the Albany Savings Bank after its founding in 1820. Adam Blake married Sarah Richards in 1803.

When Blake died at the age of 94 in 1864, the first Adam Blake was remembered as a “remarkable man” who “commanded respect by that high order of good breeding and courtesy to all, for which he was proverbial.” Stephen Van Rensselaer IV sent a message to his funeral at the Old Dutch Church to express regret that his own ill health preventing him from paying his respects in public.

kenmore hotel ad appletons guide 1893
The younger Adam Blake would found the Kenmore Hotel on Pearl Street in 1880.

According to his obituary, the younger Adam Blake was an adopted son. Raised at the Van Rensselaer Manor, where he received his early schooling alongside the Van Rensselaer children, he would later be regarded as one of the most successful black businessmen of his era. Described as “a born hotel owner” who took to the profession as instinctively “as a fish takes to water,” he first went to work as a porter in the famous Delavan House and was eventually promoted to head-waiter there. He rapidly built his reputation as a restaurant proprietor with the opening of his own establishment on Beaver Street in 1851. Well-known as “a first-class caterer for the public,” he became the owner of Congress Hall, a notable Albany hotel heavily used for lodgings, meals, and meetings by countless politicians during the state’s legislative sessions. Congress Hall, which stood at the corner of Washington Avenue and Park Street near both the old State Capitol and City Hall, ranked with the Delavan House as one of the leading Albany hotels of its era.

In 1878, Congress Hall was demolished by the state to make way for the construction of the new State Capitol. With the money he received in compensation for the building, Blake established the Kenmore Hotel at the corner of North Pearl and Columbia Streets. Designed by architect Edward Ogden, Blake’s new hotel would be described as “the most elegant structure on the finest street in Albany.” He managed the hotel until his death in 1881. Known as a generous man “who never turned away a stranger or neighbor in need, he left an estate valued at $100,000 when he died. And his widow, Catherine, successfully managed the Kenmore herself until 1887. Adam Blake II was buried in his family lot at the Rural Cemetery and memorialized with a stained glass window at the Israel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Hamilton Street. (Lot 22, Section 42)

The Riverboat Captain

Albany Rural Samuel Schuyler marker

A towering marble monument on the Middle Ridge overlooking the Cemetery chapel is carved with large anchors which, in this instance, symbolize both faith and the deceased’s profession — Samuel Schuyler was a successful riverboat captain. He was born in 1781, but little is known of his origins or of his connection (if any) to the family of General Philip Schuyler.

Samuel Schuyler worked as a laborer along the city’s riverfront before operating his own towboat on the Hudson. Widely respected as a captain on the river, he also invested well in real estate in what is now Albany’s South End, eventually owning much of a two-block parcel between South Pearl Street and the Hudson River. With his sons he established a hay and feed business, Samuel Schuyler & Company at Franklin and Bassett Streets, as well as a coal yard.

Captain Schuyler died in 1842. His sons would continue doing business on the river with the founding of the Schuyler Towboat Company. (Lot 66, Section 59)

A Physician and Inventor

zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz20139808_1375260859188839_4575257260972589733_nThomas Elkins, born in 1819, was one of the few black doctors in Albany during the 19th century. According to an 1897 edition of The Druggists’ Circular and Chemists’ Gazette, Elkins received his early apothecary training under one Dr. Wynkoop, “a physician and druggist of the old school,” before studying dentistry and surgery. He operated a pharmacy on 84 North Swan Street and, later, at Broadway and Livingston Avenue.

During the years prior to the Civil War, Elkins — who lived at 186 Lumber Street Avenue (now Livingston Avenue) — was active with the Underground Railroad in Albany as member of its Vigilance Committee. At the time, the home of Stephen and Harriet Myers, just a half dozen houses away at 198 Lumber Street, was a center for Underground Railroad and abolitionist activity in Albany.

According to the Bicentennial History of Albany, Dr. Elkins served as a medical examiner attached to the 54th Massachusetts regiment during the Civil War. He also traveled to Liberia, bringing home a collection of minerals, shells, and other artifacts. The location of those relics is now, unfortunately, unknown.

 

An inventor as well as a doctor, Elkins patented a special refrigerator for the cold storage of corpses, as well as a large piece of furniture which combined a toilet or commode with a washstand, bureau, mirror, chair, bookshelf, and table. In a similar vein, he also patented a combined quilting frame, ironing table, and dining table. Elkins received a “certificate of highest merit” from the New York Agricultural Society for the refrigerator and a “certificate of merit” for the combination table. He was also one of only two African-Americans to be pictured in Albany’s Centennial Historic Album and served as vice-president of the Albany Literary Association.

Dr. Thomas Elkins died in 1900 and his funeral, presided over by the canon of the Cathedral of All Saints, was attended by a large number of prominent local citizens. (Lot 97, Section 100)

Lost At Sea

In a lot just a few feet from the grave of Dr. Elkins, a tall, simple marble shaft plot bears the name Jacob F. Benjamin, the phrase “LOST AT SEA,” and a date — December 25, 1853. It was on that Christmas when the San Francisco, a vessel from the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, encountered a terrible gale and foundered near Charleston. The ship had left New York and was bound for Panama. Aboard were both soldiers (the ship was transporting the Third Regiment of the United States Artillery) and civilian passengers, including women and children. The decks were swept with wind and water, the smokestacks toppled, the boats lost. Reports of the total casualties varied, but some contemporary newspapers reported about 300 casualties and 150 saved.

Among those reported dead that night was a man simply identified as “The barber, colored, washed overboard.” It was Jacob F. Benjamin who, that same year, had been listed in the Albany city directory as a barber residing at 111 Knox Street. His body was not recovered, but his name was carved on the marble shaft in a family plot deeded to his wife, Abigail. At the time of his death, they had five children who ranged in age from an infant (his father’s namesake) to 11 years old. Jacob was thirty-five when he was lost to the waves. His daughter, Catherine, would marry the younger Adam Blake. (Lot 94, Section 100)

A Civil War Veteran Honored

The Storming of Ft Wagner lithograph by Kurz and Allison 1890
A lithograph of the 54th storming Fort Wagner. / via Wikipedia

Among over 900 Civil War soldiers buried at Albany Rural are several men who served in the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the unit depicted in the 1989 film Glory. One of them was William A. Francis, whose grave remained unmarked for 112 years.

There are very few details of Francis’ life, though records show he was an Albany waiter, about 30 years old, married, and the father of a two-year old son when he joined the 54th. He would take part in all of the unit’s battles, including the bloody 1863 clash at Fort Wagner in South Carolina. He became the 54th second highest ranking black member, second to Master Sergeant Lewis Douglass (son of abolitionist Frederick Douglass).

William Francis returned to Albany and again took work as a waiter. He died on December 2, 1897. In 2009, thanks to the efforts of local historian Mark Bodnar, funds were raised by Civil War re-enactors to mark Francis’ burial place with a military headstone. (Single Grave, #, Tier 4, Section 111).

Others

Albany Rural marker Dick Slave of John Pruyn

Other African-American residents of Albany buried at the Albany Rural Cemetery include Stephen and Harriet Myers, leaders of Albany’s Underground Railroad community (Lot 2, Section 98), Arabella Chapman Miller and family, subjects of a University of Michigan research project, (Lot 448, Section 104), William H. Topp, a tailor active with the Vigilance Committee ,  the Temperance Cause and staunch advocate for women’s suffrage in the mid 1800s (Lot 25, Section 11), and Dick, whose grave marker describes him as a slave of the well-known merchant John F. Pruyn (Lot 14, Section 49).

A Presidential Postscript

In 1853, Elizabeth Jennings Graham, an African-American teacher and church organist, was refused a seat on a lower Manhattan omnibus operated by the Third Avenue Railroad Company. When she refused to get off the horse-drawn streetcar the conductor had her removed by the police. Graham filed suit against the company which owned the streetcar. The jury found in her favor, awarded her damages, and the Third Avenue Railroad Company immediately desegregated its streetcars. Her lead attorney was future President Chester A. Arthur.

Written by Paula Lemire (significant Friend of Albany History) and appeared in Allover Albany.com  in February 2016.

The Story of the Women’s Suffrage Movement in Albany – Part I; The Mothers of Invention

Before 2017 closes, the 100th anniversary of the women of NYS getting the vote, we thought we needed to tell you the story of how the women of Albany figured in that history. The NYS Museum focused on that statewide struggle and the Institute of History and Art focused on the the Albany women who opposed a woman’s right to vote. S0, we felt we needed to tell you what we could about the women who lived in Albany and how they figured in the NYS women’s rights movement. It’s a story that’s never been told in its entirety before, and we decided it was high time. We did a deep dive and found some very interesting stuff about the women and the critical roles they played.

Because the struggle spans 70 years and multiple generations we decided to post in a 3 part series.

Here’s the first part.

Part I – The Mothers of Invention 1848-1879

The women’s rights movement started with a hastily put together meeting in Seneca Falls, NY in summer 1848. It was the brainchild of two staunch abolitionist women – Lucretia Mott and Elisabeth Cady Stanton. What emerged from Seneca Falls was a “Declaration of Rights and Sentiments”. Frederick Douglass, the only Afro-American to attend the meeting, said the result was a “grand movement for attaining the civil, social, political, and religious rights of women”

While the focus was on changing national laws barring women from voting across the country, a key goal was to change New York laws. The Seneca Falls attendees were mostly New Yorkers and believed that if you could change our laws that would change the national landscape.

2Influencing NYS law meant coming to Albany to lobby the Legislature. That started in 1854 when the 2nd NYS Women’s Rights Convention met in Albany. The Convention was held in Association Hall in the upper rooms of the Young Men’s Association at 40 State St. (about where the Hampton Plaza is today). Hundreds of women from all over the state flocked to Albany; on the last day they made their way to the old Capitol to listen to Stanton petition a committee of the NYS Legislature.

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We can imagine scores of women trudging up the hill to the old Capitol 3.3building in pouring rain and icy mud (it was mid-February in Albany), some in heavy crinolines, shawls and bonnets, others in the new “Reform” dress or “Turkish Costume”, loose trousers under a skirt, pioneered by Amelia Bloomer (who had attended the Seneca Falls Convention). Newspapers described convention attendees as “grannies, old maids and young Bloomers.

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But few women from Albany were involved in the woman’s rights movement in its first decades. This general lack of interest would continue for another 25 years or so. Yet during that time Albany was a hub of suffragist activity. Albany hosted several more NYS and national women’s rights conventions. Stanton gave a remarkable address to the NYS legislature in 1860 that resulted in major changes to laws affecting women’s rights; Anthony and Stanton addressed the 1867 NYS Constitutional Convention; Anthony was indicted for violating federal election law in the old City Hall on Eagle St. in 1873 and the next day testified to the NYS Constitutional Convention.

A local newspaper described Albany women as “singularly apathetic” on the issue of woman’s rights during that period.

But there was a quartet of Albanians who were the backbone of the movement in its early days; 3 remarkable women and 1 man.

Phebe Jones (P.H. Jones) was an activist from the earliest days of the movement. She was a widow, originally from Troy, who moved her business to Albany in the mid-1850s. Jones owned a men’s haberdashery at 584 Broadway and lived on Columbia St. She was a Unitarian involved in all sorts of social reforms as well as women’s rights. Both Jones and her daughter Margaret were close allies of Susan B. Anthony, who had joined the movement in 1852 (sort of late in the game).

William Topp was a well-to-do Afro-American merchant tailor with shop on Broadway close to that of Jones, between Maiden Lane and Clinton Ave. Topp was an integral part of Albany’s Underground Railroad and an activist for Afro-American rights; he attended a number of NYS and National Colored People’s Conventions, and was a leader in the American Anti-Slavery Society and the NYS Council for Colored People But Topp was an advocate of rights for all, and was an incredibly important supporter of women’s rights, and key actor at national and state women’s rights conventions before his untimely death in the1857.

Margaret Thompson was a young English women who came to Albany in 1850. She was a practitioner of phrenology (a rarity for women in those days). Phrenology was the study of a person’s head shape to determine character and methods of improving character deficiencies. It was, throughout much of the 19th century, a legitimate science. Stanton and Anthony were fascinated by phrenology because its message confirmed their hope of advancement through personal striving and self-improvement. Thompson’s “phrenological museum” was first at 518 Broadway, near the shops of Topp and Jones, and then later on Chapel St. Mrs. Thompson was at one point president of the NYS Temperance Society, as well as being active in women’s rights and the abolition movement. She too was close friend of Anthony. It appears that Margaret passed away in the early 1860s.

1 (2)            Lydia Mott was a radical Quaker who also owned the Gentlemen’s Furnishing store, first at 60 Broadway and then at 540 Broadway. Lydia was a cousin of Lucretia Mott’s husband and part of a group of activist Quakers who were zealously anti-slavery. Lydia first met Anthony when they were students a Quaker girls school in Philadelphia in 1837; they remained the closest of lifelong friends.

Frederick Douglass’ daughter Rosetta lived with the Mott and her sister Abigail for a number of years in mid-1840s. (Rosetta may very well have been recommended to the care of the Motts on by Anthony.) Lydia was an integral part of the Albany abolitionist (including the Underground Railroad) and temperance movements. Mott was instrumental in forming Anthony’s views on these subjects, as well as women’s rights. Long before Anthony became involved in woman’s suffrage in 1852, Lydia was knee deep in lobbying the NYS Legislature, along with Stanton, on the rights of property for married women. One writer suggests that Lydia was a key member of a group of young Quaker women, including Stanton, which first identified the principles in the “Declaration of Sentiments” a number of months before the Seneca Falls Convention, during the annual meeting of NYS Quakers.

From 1852 until her death in 1875 Mott was the lynch pin of the women’s right movement in New York State. She was its great organizer. It was Lydia’s idea to have the 2nd NYS women’s rights convention in Albany; she and Topp were elected vice presidents. Mott appears to have been indefatigable, simultaneously fighting for women’s rights, temperance and abolition, while running her business (with aid of another sister, Jane).

8Lydia is credited with doing much of the coordinating work of the annual conventions state and national conventions and NYS legislative activity. She was the “glue” that held the movement together in its early days. In 1855 the “New York Evening News” lamented that the women’s rights movement needed some new recruits, beside the same old same old: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Lydia Mott.

8.1Equally as important, Phebe and Lydia provided a “home base”, first on Maiden Lane and then in their Columbia St. homes for 3 decades. Their cozy hearths and merry homes provided a welcome respite for the abolitionists and suffragists who had spent days making speeches, attending meetings and lobbying politicians in Albany.ly as important, Phebe and Lydia provided a “home base”, first on Maiden Lane and then in their Columbia St. homes for 3 decades. Their cozy hearths and merry homes provided a welcome respite for the abolitionists and suffragists who had spent days making speeches, attending meetings and lobbying politicians in Albany.

Her relationship with Anthony was especially close. Anthony spent most her time crisscrossing the country organizing the movement and giving speeches for women’s rights and other social reforms, but in 1875 when Lydia lay dying of consumption, she dropped everything and spent a month at her bedside. On the day Lydia died, Anthony noted in her diary “There passed out of my life today the one who, next to my own family, has been the nearest and dearest to me for thirty years.”

Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor