Monday, February 22, 2016

Plucked from the Fire, the story of Julia A.J. Foote

The African Methodist Episcopal Church (A.M.E.C) was founded in 1794 as a response to racial discrimination in the American Methodist Church when officials at St. George’s MEC pulled members of the Free African Society off their knees while praying. These members desired a congregation where they would not be discriminated against while trying to pray and formed the Bethel A.M.E.C. The A.M.E.C. spread throughout the Northeast and by 1837, Schenectady’s first A.M.E. congregation was formed, the Duryee Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church. Schenectady was the birthplace of first female ordained deacon in the A.M.E. Zion Church, Julia A.J. Foote. Her autobiography, A Brand Plucked from the Fire: An Autobiographical Sketch gives a harrowing account of her early life in Schenectady and the struggles she faced throughout her life as a black female preacher. It's also an engaging read and a lot of Julia's beliefs are surprisingly modern, such as her views on gender and racial equality.
Sketch of the A.M.E. Church in Schenectady from the
April 25, 1908 issue of the Daily Gazette.
According to her autobiography, Julia’s father and mother were slaves. In a tragic turn of events, her father was actually born free but was stolen as a child and enslaved. Her mother was born a slave in New York. Julia’s father eventually saved enough to buy his family from slavery. Her parents were Methodists and would regularly attend the Methodist Church in Schenectady where blacks were required to sit in certain seats and had to wait till every white person finished communion. She remarks on the vast inequality in the Church, saying “How many at the present day profess great spirituality, and even holiness, and yet are deluded by a spirit of error, which leads them to say to the poor and the colored ones among them, 'Stand back a little—I am holier than thou.'"

Julia A.J. Foote as shown
in her autobiography.

Many of the chapters in Julia’s autobiography act as a parable that relates back to her faith and spiritual beliefs. Chapter six tells the story of the hanging of her teacher, her reaction to it, and how it formed her beliefs. When Julia was ten, she was sent to live with the Prime family in Glenville who sent her to be taught by John Van Patten in Rotterdam. She was a quick study in reading and writing due to her “great anxiety to read the Testament.” However, she wasn't able to be taught by Mr. Van Patten for very long. Mr. Van Patten shot and killed a paramour who insulted him and was hung for his crimes. Julia witnessed the hanging and it shook her, “The remembrance of this scene left such an impression upon my mind that I could not sleep for many a night.” The hanging of her former teacher formed her belief that the taking of any life, even “a life for a life, as many believe God commands,” was a horrible, barbarous thing.

Her family eventually moved to Albany to join the A.M.E. Zion Church where her faith was reignited. She married George Foote at the age of eighteen and moved to Boston. In Boston, she was dedicated to informal evangelizing in her community. Foote believed that she had been sanctified by the Holy Spirit and was destined to become a preacher. This was a highly controversial belief that challenged Christian tradition, as well as many American beliefs. Her mother, husband, and minister of her church all disapproved of Julia’s public preaching. Not even the lack of higher support from higher church authorities could sway Julia from preaching, and she began an independent preaching career.
"When Paul said, ‘Help those women who labor with me in the Gospel,’ he certainly meant that they did more than to pour out tea!”- Julia A. J. Foote

Julia traveled throughout upstate New York with other A.M.E. ministers and worked her way west to Ohio and Michigan, often attracting crowds of thousands of both white and black Americans. Her sermons would often focus on the evils of racism and sexism. She was the first woman ordained as a deacon in 1894 and was the second to hold the office of elder in the A.M.E. denomination in 1900. Julia died on November 22, 1901 and was buried in the Cypress Hill Cemetery in Brooklyn.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Journey of Jared Jackson, Civil War Soldier

This blog post was written by library volunteer Diane Leone

African-American Ancestral Burial Ground
at Vale Cemetery in Schenectady. Courtesy
of Diane Leone.
Within Schenectady’s Vale Cemetery lies the African-American Ancestral Burial Ground.  Among the interred is Jared Jackson, a Civil War soldier whose story was uncovered only in recent years, through the efforts of social studies teacher and local historian Neil Yetwin. (See this article in The Gazette from May 3, 2003 for more information).  Jackson’s story is not only that of an individual, but is also representative of the many African-American soldiers who served honorably in the Civil War, and whose lives were shaped by the pernicious forces of slavery and racism.

Veterans Plaque in Vale cemetery. Courtesy
of Diane Leone
Jared Jackson was born in Bethlehem, New York on May 20, 1840, the son of George and Jane Ann Jackson, who migrated from New York City after New York State abolished slavery in 1827.  They worked as tenant farmers.  Jared too was a farmer, and only twenty-three years old when he enlisted to fight for the Union.
Efforts to include African-Americans in the Union military bore fruit after Abraham Lincoln passed the Emancipation Proclamation in January of 1863.  On May 22 of that year, the War Department issued Order 143, which established the United States Colored Troops (USCT).  After enlisting in Albany on December 14, 1863 Jackson became a soldier in Company N of the New York 20th Regiment of the USCT.
New York’s three regiments--the 20th, 26th, and 31st—comprised 4,125 troops.  Apparently, most of the 20th received basic training at Riker’s Island in New York City; the rest at the Elmira Military and Draft Rendezvous.  On March 5, in a racially charged New York City, two groups convened as the 20th Regiment and were given a rousing send-off in Union Square, where the one-thousand recruits marched past an enthusiastic crowd, before being conveyed to the USS Ericsson on their way to New Orleans. 

Presentation of colors to the 20th United States Colored Infantry in New York City.
Courtesy of the National Park Service
Although African-American men were now serving in the military, not everyone agreed on what their role should be.  Even some whites who supported freedom for blacks viewed them as intellectually inferior and lacking in the discipline needed for soldiering.  Racism was a factor within the US military as well.  Black soldiers were disproportionately given garrison duty, and forced to serve as cooks and laborers, as was Jackson.  Furthermore, in contrast to their white counterparts, who received $13 per month plus a clothing allowance, African-American recruits were paid $10 per month--whether they served as laborers or soldiers--minus a $3 clothing allowance.  As noted by William Seraile, author New York’s Black Regiments During the Civil War, members of the 20th Regiment would have paid $24.50 for clothing and supplies prior to their first posting in New Orleans.  In June of 1864 Congress granted equal pay to black troops, with certain restrictions.  Finally, on March 3, 1865, Congress passed a sweeping law approving equal pay for blacks.  Seraile points out however, that pay was quite irregular, many men going for months without compensation.
While information on Jackson is limited, we can flesh out the 20th Regiment in which he first served.  According to Seraile’s study of government records, of the 1,325 recruits, over half (712) were born in New York State, as was Jackson.  Farmers like Jackson made up the second largest contingent (340), surpassed only by laborers (616).  The twenty-three year-old was part of the majority age cohort; 52% of the men were in their twenties. 
We know that USCT regiments were led by white officers.  Very few black men were appointed to the rank of commissioned officer, the most notable exceptions being the regimental chaplains.  In New York State, there were no black commissioned line officers.  On the other hand, blacks did serve as non-commissioned officers, often replacing whites in these positions as time went on.  Jackson, in fact, was made a corporal.  In his African-American Soldiers in the Civil War: USCT 1862-1866, Mark Lardas notes that training brought out qualities needed in NCOs, such as literacy, leadership potential, and intelligence.  We can assume that Jared Jackson must have distinguished himself to merit this promotion.

Prison Camp in Elmira, New York. Courtesy of the
New York State Archives
Jackson’s regiment was sent to Louisiana to do menial labor.  William Seraile explains that many soldiers became ill, the combined results of subtropical conditions, poorly cooked food, lack of proper nutrition, and unsanitary conditions, exacerbated by inadequate health care.  Two hundred of these men, including Jackson, were sent to Elmira Prison Camp, newly created from what had previously been a military depot where recruits like Jackson underwent basic training.  Made to hold five thousand prisoners, in its one-year existence it housed over twelve thousand in abysmal conditions that resulted in a 24% death rate, primarily from diseases, malnutrition, and exposure to the elements.  Among its inmates, the prison came to be known aptly as “Hellmira.” Michael Horigan offers a fascinating account of the prison in Elmira: Death Camp of the North.  For a brief overview of this facility, see “When Hell Was in Elmira: Civil War Prison Camp 150 Years Later,” by Keri Blakinger.
Member of the U.S.
Colored Troops
Guarding a Confederate
prisoner at Elmira. Courtesy
of the Chemung County
Historical Society.
Jackson’s group, which arrived in mid-July, was tasked with guarding the Confederate prisoners, who showed their resentment by spitting, and hurling insults, including racial slurs in the guards’ direction.  In spite of these circumstances, the guards carried out their duties professionally.  In October 1864, ten prisoners managed to escape via tunnel, in one of the most amazing breakouts in the war.  According to Neil Yetwin, although white guards who had fallen asleep on duty were actually responsible, the 20th was blamed.  As a result, they were sent to South Carolina and Louisiana as laborers. Corporal Jackson at this point was transferred to Company H of the 26th Regiment, based in Beaufort, South Carolina.  Although primarily involved in skirmishes, they did participate in several battles, including the Battle of Honey Hill on November 30, 1864.  Records indicate that Jackson hurt his back while unloading a naval vessel on November 1, 1864.   He was discharged from the military on August 28, 1865.
William Seraile refers to a homecoming celebration reported in the Albany News at the time. On September 19, 1865, two hundred black residents of the city met with soldiers discharged from the 54th Massachusetts Colored Volunteers and the 26th Regiment of the USCT. One wonders whether the young corporal attended the reception held in the soldiers’ honor.
In his new civilian life, Jackson returned temporarily to his family in Bethlehem, then moved to Schenectady and married Hannah E. Wendell in 1866.  After trying his hand at running a stable near Fonda, he settled down as a laborer in Schenectady.  He and Hannah purchased a house and had a daughter, Lucrecia.  She and her husband, Theodore Springstead, gave Jared and Hannah four grandchildren. 

In spite of having served the Union honorably, Jackson, along with many veterans—particularly African-Americans—were deprived of their disability pensions for many years.  In Sven E. Wilson’s insightful article, “Prejudice & Policy: Racial Discrimination in the Union Army Disability Pension System, 1865-1906,”he states that the application process was burdensome and expensive, which automatically put many poor, uneducated blacks at a disadvantage.  Even when they applied, many African-Americans had difficulties.  Despite a higher mortality rate due to disease, during the war they were not hospitalized for illness as frequently as their white counterparts; consequently, they often could not provide the certification needed to verify their claims. Complicating the situation was the tendency of pension bureau employees to more frequently give white applicants the benefit of the doubt in cases of uncertainty. 
At last, in September of 1888, after many years of waiting, Jackson received the $12 monthly payment to which he was entitled. It is possible that he applied based on his back injury mentioned earlier.  In an unkind twist of fate, Jackson expired soon after, on November 21, 1888, of “consumption and liver disease,” as listed on his death certificate.  He was laid to rest on November 25.
African-American Civil War Memorial
in Washington, DC. Courtesy of Peter Fitzgerald.
Jared Jackson is only one example of the thousands of African-Americans who served their country in the Civil War. As Marsha Mortimore notes in her pamphlet, The Early African American Presence in the City of Schenectady (June 2014), three other Schenectady soldiers from the 26th Regiment have been identified: William Childers, John Dickenson, and Peter Sampson.  Although no details are available for two of these men, Childers served in Company H of the 26th Regiment, as did Jackson.  He saw action at the Battle of Bloody Bridge, St. John’s Island, in South Carolina.  He too lived in Schenectady after the war, but, unlike Jackson, Childers lived to the ripe old age of 90. 
All of these veterans’ names are listed on the African-American Civil War Memorial in Washington, DC.  We owe a debt of gratitude to them, and to all of the approximately 200,000 black soldiers and sailors who heeded the call of Frederick Douglass:
Who would be free themselves must strike the blow....I urge you to fly to arms and smite to death the power that would bury the Government and your liberty in the same hopeless grave. This is your golden opportunity.