In January 1779, Dinnah Jackson, "a free negro woman," purchased a lot on the South side of lower Second Street. That transaction identified her as Albany's first recorded African-ancestry property owner. It also is the first reference to her thus far encountered by the Colonial Albany Social History Project. Although her origins remain unknown, over the next decades, she was one of the more prominent of a small number of free blacks living in the city at that time.
We believe that Dinnah Jackson was the wife of "Old Jack" and probably the mother of "Young Jack" - whose holdings on the hillside above Pearl Street were listed on the city assessment roll for October 1779. Both men were more often referred to as "Jack Jackson." Although by that time, some slaves and others of African ancestry were beginning to be noted in the records of Albany's churches, no mention of Dinnah Jackson has been found in these sources before September of 1790 when Dinnah and Jack witnessed the baptism of John Orion. Unfortunately, we cannot determine whether that Jack Jackson was Dinnah's husband or her son.
During the 1780s, Albany's free black population not only began to grow - but also was becoming more prominent in the community's historical record. The assessment roll for 1788 listed only the house of "Widow Jackson and son" in the Second Ward. In 1790, the household of "Jack Jackcum," consisting of seven "free people of color" and two white males - also in the Second Ward, accounted for more than 30% of the free blacks in the city. Perhaps counted within that household on the census, Dinnah Jackson was the housekeeper at the nearby Masonic Lodge and also performed domestic chores at St. Peter's Episcopal Church.
Over the next three decades, this industrious and frugal widow was able to purchase a number of additional parcels of real estate along the North side of Foxes Creek, West of Middle Alley, and above the Lutheran Church burial grounds. Real estate transactions recorded between 1779 and 1819 reveal that she owned as many as a dozen pieces of property throughout the city. Although all of these parcels could be called marginal, the widow's determination to own multiple plots of city land sets her apart from her Afro Albanian contemporaries.
The city directory for 1814 included Dinnah Jackson among Albany's prominent people calling her "widow" and listing her residence as 31 Maiden Lane. Subsequent directories have identified her at that location as well. Her modest home would have been just West of North Market Street - probably abutting the corner mansion of Chancellor John Lansing. Albany artist James Eights remembered her and painted her near her house in one of his classic Albany streetscapes.
Widowed for almost three decades and having outlived all of her children, Dinnah Jackson died in the summer of 1818. From her will filed that June, some picture of her family and also an inventory of her extensive holdings comes into view. First, her six grandchildren were the only heirs identified. Granddaughter Dinnah received the bed and bedding, half of the household furniture and clothing, monies, five lots in the Fifth Ward (Arbor Hill), and a share of another Arbor Hill lot. Jain (Jane), the wife of John Williams, was given the remaining half of the furniture and clothing and half of another lot. Grandson John Jackson was bequeathed a lot on Arbor Hill on his own. Perhaps they cared for their grandmother in her old age. Three younger grandchildren, Elizabeth, Hannah, and Harry, were left monetary bequests.
This sketch of the life of Dinnah Jackson is a prime example of how to reconstruct the story of a a person's life without benefit of subject generated resouces. As an Afro-Albanian woman, people in her situation are among the most difficult to retrieve - in terms of resources. However, as an "everyday person" on the community mainline, a community history would be seriously incomplete without her and the many others in similar situations - in terms of historical resources. Thus we have taken more care in exposing the sources used in reconstruction her life than in most CAP online biographies. See also "The Jacksons, Latimores, and Schuylers."
This image is a detail taken from a watercolor painted by James Eights of how he remembered North Market Street in 1805. The woman shown in the lower right corner of the painting would have been standing in front of Dinnah Jackson's home at 31 Maiden Lane. We believe Eights was recognizing a prominent person from his childhood.
Detail from page 53 of The Albany Register and Albany Directory for the Year 1815, compiled and arranged by Joseph Fry (Albany, 1815). The 1815 edition named 2,394 individuals, listed street addresses, and provided some information about occupations. For the first time, the city directory included forty italicized names and explained in the preface that "Those persons whose names are in Italics are free people of colour." Dinnah Jackson was one of that sizeable Afro Albanian minority. See Stefan Bielinski, "The Jacksons, Lattimores, and Schuylers: First African-American Families of Early Albany," New York History (October 1996), pp. 373-94.