ALBANY'S INVISIBLE COLONIAL BLACKS COME TO LIFE IN NEW RESEARCH
PAUL GRONDAHL Staff writer
Stefan Bielinski has forged a career as a historian by resurrecting lost lives of the ordinary and the invisible in colonial Albany.
It has been a painstaking task of stitching together scraps of biographical information from census reports, vital statistics and church records preserved from more than 200 years ago.
Now, Bielinski has done himself one better. He is giving form and voice to the most invisible of the invisible: African-Americans in early Albany.
The key that unlocked this scholarship was Fry's Albany Directory, a 64-page alphabetical list of the principal residents of the city published in 1815. There were 2,394 individuals listed, 40 of whom were printed in a different typeface. A notation on the last line of the preface stated: "Those persons whose names are in Italics are free people of color."
From the anonymously marginalized, Bielinski could now go to work reconstructing the life and times of these italicized members of Albany, the city's first ``black community.''
Bielinski, founder and director of the Colonial Albany Social History Project at the State Museum, spoke of the first African-American families of early Albany as if he knew them. He made it seem as if he could see them working small boats along the Hudson River in the city's South End or pushing heavy carts up the steep incline of Arbor Hill.
``These people walked an invisible path through the past, and it was a compelling challenge researching the stories of their lives,'' Bielinski said.
Although he estimates blacks accounted for between 10 and 20 percent of the city's population in this era, their collective history has never been brought into focus.
In the first federal census in 1790, there were 26 free persons of color living in seven separate city households, and 572 slaves among the city's 3,498 residents. That 1790 census marked the peak of slave ownership in Albany, with about one-third of the city's homes holding slaves.
By 1820, the last census that recorded slaves, Albany had 645 free people of color and 108 slaves in an overall city population of almost 13,000.
Bielinski said his findings confirmed that there were two important, historically rooted black communities in Albany, one in the South End and the other in Arbor Hill.
Bielinski's scholarship clears up misconceptions that those inner-city neighborhoods, home today to large concentrations of blacks and minorities, somehow sprung up from 1960s urban renewal and attendant ghettoization. To the contrary, those neighborhoods were prosperous black enclaves since the late 1700s.
``There is a long and proud heritage for the black community in those neighborhoods,'' Bielinski said. ``These are free people of color who had an independent life at least by the early 1800s and probably earlier.''
One of the most interesting discoveries by Bielinski was that of Captain Samuel Schuyler (1781-1842), who lived at 204 S. Pearl St. and worked as a boatman along the river. Schuyler was probably born a free man, perhaps in New York City or New Jersey, Bielinski surmises, although records are murky.
What is certain is that Schuyler was an early African-American success story in Albany. He worked his way up in the boatman trade, initially leasing dock space on the riverside Quay Street and carrying cargo between ports and landings on a contract basis hence his appellation as Captain.
Beginning in 1810, Schuyler acquired an entire block - at least 15 city lots on South Pearl Street between Bassett and Schuyler streets on the site of today's Rite Aid Pharmacy.
Schuyler used his block as a coal yard and warehouse, where his sons developed the Schuyler Tow Boat Line operation. After Schuyler's death at age 61 in 1842, his widow had a comfortable life and their four sons received an inheritance that helped them become prosperous businessmen into the late-19th century.
Bielinski published his findings in last fall's issue of New York History, a scholarly quarterly published by The New York State Historical Association in Cooperstown.
Bielinski said he continues to be frustrated, however, by the many unknowns posed by his article, ``The Jacksons, Lattimores, and Schuylers: First African-American Families of Early Albany.''
``I want to go deeper, to know more about these black families of early Albany,'' he said. ``But they walk such a narrow path through the past that it's difficult to tell their story.''
One big question mark in Bielinski's mind is the connection, if any, between Captain Schuyler and Revolutionary War hero Gen. Philip Schuyler, whose mansion on Catherine Street along South Pearl loomed over the captain's old properties.
``Some historians have confused the captain with a white man named Samuel Schuyler from that period,'' Bielinski said. He added that General Schuyler owned 13 slaves at one time, the city's largest slaveholder.
Was Captain Schuyler an emancipated Schuyler family slave? Did he have a Schuyler parent or ancestor? Bielinski is left only with unanswered questions.
It was natural for Captain Schuyler to settle in the South End, as future generations of new arrivals would. ``The South End was where newcomers from many ethnic backgrounds settled, got established and maybe started up a business,'' Bielinski said. ``That's been true for 200 years or more, and it's true today.''
Captain Schuyler's sons gave their father the prominence history books never did. They erected a considerable monument to his memory in the family plot at Albany Rural Cemetery.
Another italicized free person of color whose life Bielinski has reconstructed is Benjamin Lattimore. Lattimore was born in 1761 and grew up in Wethersfield, Conn. As a teenager, he moved to Ulster County and ran a ferry with his family on the Hudson River. At 15, Lattimore joined the Revolutionary army and fought in the battle for New York City, but he was taken prisoner by the British for a time.
During the war, Lattimore's regiment spent several weeks in Albany, and he befriended a number of soldiers who later became neighbors in Albany. Lattimore came to Albany for good in the 1790s, supporting himself as a teamster who bought a city license to cart cargo around downtown.
By 1798, Lattimore had saved enough money to purchase a lot west of South Pearl Street and build a two-story brick row house there (roughly on the site of today's Pepsi Arena). He soon bought more property on South Pearl, a main city thoroughfare.
Lattimore was baptized in the First Presbyterian Church in 1799. His wife and their children were church members, too. During the 1830s, Lattimore was president of the Albany African Temperance Society and was described as a man ``of irreproachable character and uprightness.'' He died in 1838 at age 78.
The black person who continues to fascinate Bielinski most deeply is Dinah Jackson, ``a free negro woman'' who became the city's first recorded property owner of African ancestry with her 1779 purchase of a lot north of the city. By 1814, Jackson moved to 31 Maiden Lane, a back street where several free black families lived. She worked as a cleaning lady at the Masonic Lodge and St. Peter's Episcopal Church on State Street.
Jackson's thriftiness blossomed. Eventually, she owned seven lots on Arbor Hill in the city's northwest corner. She died in 1818, having outlived her children, and bequeathed her properties to her six grandchildren. Each day in his State Museum office, Bielinski looks upon a print of a watercolor by James Eights depicting Albany in the early 1800s. Eights painted the East side of Market Street (what is Broadway today, between Maiden Lane and State Street). In one corner of the painting, a woman strolls the cobblestone street in a long, blue dress cinched at the waist. She is a black woman.
``I just have a gut feeling that the woman in Eights' painting is Dinah Jackson,'' Bielinski said. ``That's her neighborhood. She walked that street every day. I believe it's her.''
Not only has Bielinski given back their history to those invisible citizens of Albany's past. In Jackson's case, he has given her a face, as well.