originally published in the Albany Times Union



by Judy Shepard, staff writer

There are some 250 Jacksons in the Albany phone book, and Stefan Bielinski hopes some of them can trace their families back to the city's first Jackson clan.

Almost 200 years ago, members of the Jackson family were living on Division Street, in Sheridan Hollow, and on Bassett Street.  "This is the first real family of African Americans in Albany," says Bielinski, director of the State Museum's Colonial Albany Social History Project.

Bielinski's program attempts to re-create the lives of ordinary people rather than the wealthy, prominent families such as the Schuylers or Van Rensselaers who traditionally have dominated local history.

Civic leaders such as the Schuyler family left voluminous records behind them, but many of the city's plain people can be found only through indirect means: mentioned in church, baptismal or marriage records, death certificates, tax rolls, or in court proceedings.

It is through these records that Bielinski sifts to build a framework of dates, addresses, and other facts on which to hang an individual life.  Where blacks are concerned, the task can be frustrating.  In the colonial period, they made up about 10 percent of the city's population.  "But I couldn't translate that statistic into individual lives, which is our unit of study," Bielinski says. "Before the Revolution, they were not treated as people, they are treated as property."

Names of slaves appeared in wills, but often only a single name was given.  Bielinski sighs as he riffles stacks of file cards, each one for a separate event or activity and bearing only single names such as "Dinah" and "Jack" - all-too- popular names for slaves.

But last fall Bielinski began work on a research paper on three early black families to present in April at the Chemung County Historical Society's symposium on black history in upstate New York.  A year ago, Bielinski recalls, he read about the conference and said, "Damn it, I'm going to write a paper."  His frustration resulted from the fact that until then no one had tried to use the material on Albany’s blacks that had been collected by his program and stored in files.

The records trail improves after the Revolution, when blacks began to establish themselves as free householders and to be included by name in tax and census records.  New York abolished slavery in 1799 and set into motion a gradual emancipation completed in 1827.

Blacks took new last names, found work, and began to reassemble their families -  often buying their wives or children out of slavery.

Working in his third floor office at the State Museum, Bielinski attacked his mountains of file cards on every one of the 16,000 people who lived in Albany before 1800.  Sifting through the material, he put together sketches of three early black families.

There is Benjamin Lattimore, a free black man from Weathersfield, Connecticut, who fought for the colonies in the American Revolution and settled in Albany in 1794.  He married, joined the Presbyterian Church, lived on Plain Street near where the Knickerbocker Arena is rising, and had a city license to work in the carrying trade - carting things around town in a two-wheeled, horse-drawn wagon.

"He's real uncommon," Bielinski says. "The British promised to free the slaves, so not many of them would have fought on the American side - where no such promises were forthcoming.  But Lattimore was not a slave; he was born free.  That was somewhat exceptional at that time, but not so much in New England."

Asked to bear witness for Lattimore in an 1820 court case, Gerrit Denniston, a local attorney, attested to his "irreproachable character for integrity and uprightness."  Lattimore died in 1838.  His will mentions a son, Benjamin Lattimore.

There is Capt. Samuel Schuyler, a boat captain in the busy river trade between Albany and other Hudson Valley ports.  He lived in the South End, on South Pearl Street around Bassett Street, and was well known in the community.  Bielinski says he thinks Schuyler owned his own sloop and was comparatively well off.  Bielinski found another black skipper, Francis Marsh, who lived near Capt. Schuyler in the South End, and who, in 1795, bought his wife's freedom.

Then there were the Jacksons, the largest black family in early Albany. Bielinski first found Abraham Jackson, a laborer, living on Bassett Street.  Born about 1770, he died at age 50, and was identified as a property owner on the 1799 tax rolls.  "The rolls show him owning the lot on Bassett, and living there.  But there is no house specified, so I think he was living in a tent or a makeshift shelter."

By 1800, four Jackson households showed up in records: two Jacks, George and, Abraham.  "I think the older Jack is the father of young Jack, Abraham, and George," Bielinski says.  "I think there is some relationship.  These Jacksons were a homegrown family."

As he progresses in his research, Bielinski says he is making discoveries almost daily.  Most recently, he came across an emancipation document of a man who bought his 18- year-old son out of slavery in 1818 for $130.

Every little detail works to flesh out the early portrait of Albany.  And in doing so, Bielinski is in good company.  In addition to the Chemung County Historical Society program in Elmira, the Federation of Historical Services in Troy is planning a September program, "Active Voices: Presenting the Role of Blacks in New York State History."  Albany Institute of History & Art, which held a series on black history in the fall, also is planning an off-site exhibition in the black community sometime this year, and long-term plans include an exhibition on Albany's cultural diversity.

First published on February 12, 1989

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