Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Schenectady's Nineteenth-Century Black Barbers and the Anti-Slavery Movement

Tom Calarco, who has written many books about the Underground Railroad, writes in his book The Underground Railroad in the Adirondack Region that "census records generally show that the majority of free blacks in upstate New York who had attained some level of prosperity were barbers. But more significant to a study of the underground Railroad is the inordinate number who were agents or active in organizations that intersected with the Underground Railroad." This certainly seems to hold true in Schenectady, where at least three nineteenth-century black barbers appeared to have been connected to Underground Railroad activity or to the movement for the abolition of slavery. More information and research needs to be done in this area; for now, here are a few brief biographies of these men:

Newspaper advertisement for Francis Dana's barber shop
Francis Dana (ca. 1811–d. ca. 1875?)
Francis Dana was born in the British West Indies sometime between 1808 and 1811. There is a Francis Dana listed as a passenger on the ship George, which arrived in New York City from Frederickstaat, St. Croix, in 1826. Dana applied for naturalization in Schenectady in 1840. He is listed in the 1841 city directory as a barber working out of 146 State Street, on the canal. In 1842, Dana was listed as one of Stephen Myers’ North Star Association agents for the distribution of the Northern Star and Freeman’s Advocate. He continued to live and work in Schenectady until about 1865. A Francis Dana last appeared in the 1870 Federal census in Saratoga Springs, Saratoga County, and in Oriskany Falls, Oneida County (both locations show a man of similar age listed as being "mulatto" or "colored" and working as a barber).

Newspaper notice announcing the shop of John Wendell moving
from State Street to Ferry Street.
John Wendell (ca. 1801-d. 1875)
John Wendell (sometimes spelled Wendall, Wandell, or Wandle) was a barber. He was active in the Duryee Memorial AME Zion Church, serving as one of the church’s first trustees. He served as the first president of a local African-American temperance society in 1836. He was chosen to serve as secretary at a meeting of African-American citizens about the elective process (See The Colored American 28 December 1840). Articles in The Cabinet on March 18, 1845 and June 13, 1848 mention Wendell applying to the Common Council for aid to the school for African-American children in the city. Wendell died in 1875.

Advertisement for Stillman's razors endorsed by Richard P.G.
Wright. These types of advertisements were common in the
mid-nineteenth century.
Richard P.G. Wright (ca. 1778–1847)
Wright is perhaps the best known and most well-documented person in Schenectady connected to Underground Railroad and anti-slavery activity. He was born in Swansey, Massachusetts, and lived in Rhode Island for several years. In earlier years, he went by the name “Prince G. Wright.” By around 1811, Wright had moved to Schenectady, where he would continue to live until his death in 1847. Wright was a barber and both his business at 2 Canal Street and his home at 84 Ferry Street were close by the Erie Canal. Wright was deeply involved with local and regional anti-slavery activities; he was an early member of the American Anti-Slavery Society and a founding member of the Anti-Slavery Society of the City of Schenectady in 1838, and attended many anti-slavery conventions and gatherings in the region. Along with his son, the abolitionist and pastor Theodore Sedgwick Wright, he was a member of the New York Vigilance Committee. Wright and his son were also the only African-American members of the St. George’s Masonic Lodge in Schenectady. An Eastern New York Anti-Slavery Society 1843 annual report mentions 3 freedom seekers and notes that the agent who helped them “gave letter to Emp. Wright and Ellis Clizbe [of Montgomery County].” According to an article in the Emancipator and Weekly Chronicle (Boston) 16 April 1845, Wright assisted Charles Nelson in escaping slavery to freedom in Canada. Wright died in 1847; he is buried at Vale Cemetery in Schenectady.

Page from the 1841 Schenectady City
Directory. Black heads of household are
listed in italics.
 It is also worthwhile to investigate the lives of other free blacks who may have been active in anti-slavery efforts. Among other sources, the 1841 city directory is helpful here. The directory lists in italics all of the heads of households who are black, and in some cases professions are noted. Francis Thomas is another black barber listed at that time. The directory also includes names of prominent black citizens, such as Jacob Douw and Richard Sampson, who we find in a 1836 Schenectady Cabinet article as being involved in a black temperance society that had invited abolitionist Gerrit Smith to speak. Additionally, significant events, such as a national black conference held in Schenectady on September 16, 1844, deserve further inquiry. The library's collections of church records, cemetery records, family files, census records, newspapers on microfilm, clipping files, historic manuscripts, and other sources can help researchers learn about the lives of the city's black residents at that time period and about the contours of anti-slavery activity in the region.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Early Days of Union College

West College at corner of Union Street and College Street, looking north down College Street.
Photograph from the Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection.
This blog entry was written by Frank Taormina, one of the Society's trustees and a frequent researcher here in the library.

We learned recently that Liberty Street was named after a Liberty Pole which had been erected in 1771 at the point where it was destined to make its eastward trek in 1802. Union Street, parallel to Liberty, got its name 4 years earlier in 1798 when it was changed from the Road to Niskayuna to Union by Schenectady’s first mayor, Joseph C. Yates. Yates was among the several citizens of Schenectady at this time who played a role in obtaining a charter from the New York State Regents for what was to be the second college in New York State, following Kings College, which came into existence in 1754 (Kings College was renamed Columbia University after the American Revolution). The process of obtaining a charter from the New York State Regents to permit the erection of a college in Schenectady took from 1779 to 1795.

Union College seal, which
features an image of Minerva.  
In 1795, Union became the first college founded in the United States that did not have a link to a specific religious sect.  Its name signifies that it was the “union” of several different religious sects then in existence in Schenectady that shared an interest in the creation of an institution of higher learning. Its symbol, a depiction of the Roman Goddess Minerva (who is usually also designated as the Greek Goddess Athena) and its motto, in French, “Under the Laws of Minerva, we all become brothers” was not associated with any religious sect.

Union’s first domicile was at the northwest corner of Union Street and Ferry Street, in a building erected in 1785, which had served as the “Schenectady Academy” until until Union occupied thie building in 1795.
Nine years later, Union moved to a location one block west, at the corner of Union Street and what became College Street, into a structure built especially for it which was called “West College.” That site today is the parking lot for the Van Dyck Restaurant.

From 1804 to 1814, this site, before the Erie Canal was dug along its eastern edge, was the location of Union College. In 1814, the college moved again, eastward, following the street which bore its name, Union, to the top of a hill generally called “Prospect Heights.” There, after erecting the stone wall we have since called “the Terrace”, were erected the two buildings, still very much like they were in 1814, and still called “South College” and North College.” 

Postcard depicting North College on Union College campus. From Grems-Doolittle Library Postcard Collection.
These buildings formed the beginning of the first planned college campus in America, still bearing witness, after nearly two hundred years, to the imagination and architectural skill of Jacques Ramee, and to the wisdom of Eliphalet Nott, the President of Union from 1804 to 1866, in hiring Ramee to plan the campus. 

The purpose of this blog is to introduce you to your surroundings on Union Street and to provide a brief account of Union’s existence in this neighborhood. There is so much more history of Union College – and much of it, for any one interested, on the net, accessible through a Google search.  In the meantime, as we walk down Union Street, let us listen - can we can hear the voices of all those associated with Union College as they strolled up and down the street named after their college between Ferry Street and Nott Terrace during the last two hundred years and seventeen years?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Love Letters of Joseph Clements, Jr. and Bertha Platt

Happy Valentine's Day! This valentine comes from the newly-acquired Mynderse Collection.
"Never have I been so perfectly contented as I have been in your society. You have even caused me to turn from the ever practicable and dream of seeing new faces and new sights to-gether . . . So often have I wished for your companionship when I have heard splendid things said or seen funny things occur when others were there to see but who could not see." - Joseph Clements, Jr. to Bertha Platt, January 2, 1906.

In an apartment building at 22 Washington Avenue in 2005, building owner Marty Colangelo found two black tin cash boxes full of letters. The letters - approximately 250 - were written during the courtship of Bertha Platt and Joseph Clements, Jr. The two met in October of 1905 and soon began corresponding by mail. The first letter, dated November 24, 1905 and written from Joseph to "Miss Platt," was warm and polite. A month later, his letters had become lightly and humorously flirtatious; he drafted a mock contract regarding their plans to attend a New Year's dance. Very quickly, Bertha and Joe began to write each other almost daily, and the content of the letters rapidly shifted from flirtation to earnest declarations of caring. By spring, the couple was engaged.

Bertha was from a wealthy family, and Joseph was concerned that he would be able to provide a lifestyle for her that was was accustomed to. Bertha, on her part, reassured Joe of her love and her desire to be with him above all else. "I think I have seen the serious and all possible bad signs to getting married quickly," Joe writes on November 4, 1906. "And now, I don't see that anything could make me look terribly serious again. You see what annoyed me was that I could not give you all you had. Now I know and have known ever since your declaration that you'd go South with me that it was just me you wanted." As the year 1906 began to draw to a close, the letters made more frequent mention of the couple's impending marriage. "You and I, together!" Bertha wrote in mid-November. "Can you realize how fine it will be? I do want to help you, I do want to be everything to you - I do want that you may never be disappointed when you look to me."

After over a year of long-distance courtship, Bertha and Joe were married on January 12, 1907, in New Britain, Connecticut. They went on to live in Schenectady, where they had a son, McMillan, in 1909, and a daughter, Diantha, in 1918. The couple moved into 22 Washington Avenue, a property that Clements had purchased in 1909, in 1937. Joe died there in 1945; Bertha sold the property to Nicolas Colangelo in 1956. Bertha continued to live in the apartment until her death in 1960. The couple is buried at Fairview Cemetery in Princetown, their graves marked by a single stone, linked for eternity.

The letters that are left behind from their courtship serve not only as a rich document of their developing romance and commitment to one another, but also record Bertha and Joe's thoughts about events, document their activities, record impressions of the people in their lives, and serve as a window into social life and customs in the area at the turn of the century. The original letters are in the possession of Marty Colangelo. Elinore Schumacher, who lives in the building where the letters were found, worked to transcribe the letters and to conduct research about the couple. The transcribed letters and supporting information are available in the library.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Working on the James Frost Papers

Map of Lot #2 in Currysbush Patent, surveyed by James Frost, file number P (Princetown) 168.
Many of the materials in the Frost Papers document Frost's work in Duanesburg, Princetown, and Montgomery County.
This entry is written by Robert J. Jones, a volunteer in our library.

I am a relatively new volunteer in the Grems-Doolittle Library, and a couple weeks ago, I finished my first big project.  For several months I worked on creating the electronic finding aid for the James Frost Papers.  James Frost was a surveyor and attorney living in western Schenectady County at the end of the eighteenth century and first half of the nineteenth century.  Frost’s work was largely in Albany and Schenectady counties, but he also did much work in Montgomery County, and to a lesser extent in Schoharie.  The collection is in remarkably good condition considering its age.  Most of the documents date to the early decades of the nineteenth century, so we are dealing with two-centuries-old documents.  The quality of his work is very good; Frost has a careful hand, and many of his surveys include maps with very minute details.

Not all the surveys are of farms, as one might expect, but at times whole villages and also large tracts of territory in the northern areas of the state which had yet to be widely settled at the time of his life.  As I worked with the material, it was fun to imagine Frost setting off on horseback or on foot with a mule to carry his surveying equipment.  Travel to some of these locales must have been quite challenging as there were few roads and even fewer railroads, even toward the end of his life, and not all his jobs were in the four county region mentioned above; some of his jobs took him down river to North Jersey and to territory further west along the Susquehanna.  Beyond imagining Frost setting out across the relative wilderness of upstate New York, the names of some of the characters he worked for were also amusing; by far, my favorite is one Mr. Cornbury Clapp!

The last time anyone had seriously looked at the collection appears to be 1980.  Considering more than 30 years had passed since the collection was organized and first catalogued, relatively little was misplaced or missing (although sadly, a very few documents have gone missing).  At the time of the original catalog, several hundred documents were unidentified.  Over the years many of those documents found homes.  Thanks to other electronic finding aids, the library’s card catalog and the internet, I was able to identify several dozen other documents and move them to their proper places.  Considering how many times I did rely on electronic sources, I doubt that these particular documents could have been reasonably traced in the past; even searching the original print catalog would have been a daunting task as it comes to nearly 50 pages.

This collection includes copies of survey sketches, maps, leases, receipts, legal documents, and other materials related to Frost’s work.  The papers are not only useful in their documentation of Frost’s work as a surveyor; the papers are also very useful for genealogical and historical research in identifying where people lived in the area. Click here for a complete finding aid for the collection.