How New York is making huge efforts to shed light on its black history
I WAS SIPPING A GLASS OF RIESLING in the oak-paneled library at the Fort Orange Club, Albany, NY’s oldest and most exclusive private club, when one of the lawyers at the dinner party mentioned the Ferguson unrest. Initial reaction was that it couldn’t happen here. Then the wife of a stately African American surgeon who is never seen without a well-knotted conservative tie, said in her proper British Jamaican accent, “My husband was just pulled over in East Greenbush for driving while Black.”
After a shocked gasp, the conversation quickly turned to recent family vacations and the upcoming Albany Symphony program at the Palace Theater. But as I looked around at the diverse gathering of professionals, I couldn’t help but notice that most of us would not have been allowed on the premises even a few decades earlier.
When local leaders — among them several descendants of Albany’s original Dutch colonists — opened the Fort Orange Club in 1880 near the state seat of government, it was to be a place of “Food, Drink & Fellowship” for a very select group of “gentlemen who represented that which was best in Albany…those who possessed the qualities which make good men and had risen to the top.”
Thus began a long history of politics, networking, and backroom deals that was reserved for the privileged few allowed in the door. It wasn’t until the mid-1960s that membership was quietly extended to Jews, and not until the 1970s to African Americans. Less quietly, women were invited to apply in 1988.
Patterns of segregation aren’t always so obvious, and understanding the current events that impact our future requires investigation. Now more than a few exhibits in the Capital Region are thankfully shedding light on Black History in New York.
Fort Crailo, once part of the vast Van Rensselaer estate, houses the museum of the Colonial Dutch in the Hudson River Valley. New Netherlands, as the Dutch colony was named, was known for forwarding freedom and tolerance. Less well-known is that the prosperous settlement was built on the backs of displaced men, women, and children — as many as 550,000 enslaved Africans furthered the “Golden Age” of the Dutch Republic.
A new exhibit, A Dishonorable Trade: Human Trafficking in the Dutch Atlantic World tells that story as it focuses on both the people and the business sides of the Dutch West India Company and its African slave trade.
As you enter the exhibit, a somber voice over the speaker lists the number of dead slaves tossed overboard each day on the 1959 ocean passage of the St. Jan. Inside, a poster about a sibling squabble between the Van Rensselaer brothers that took place over three years, 1657-1660, seems almost petty in comparison: was 50 beaver pelts sufficient exchange for Andries, a slave who was skilled in the care of horses? What is a human life worth? Dutch paintings of the day that include slaves show that they were valued, but only as a symbol of wealth and status. One painting in the exhibit shows a slave and dog as having equal status, and both inferior to the alabaster-skinned Dutch family.
A tour of the Ten Broeck Mansion, home to another Van Rensselaer relative, Elizabeth and her husband General Abraham Ten Broeck, vividly shows the difference in status and welfare between the Dutch colonials and African slaves. Built in 1796-98 in the Greek Revival style with Victorian additions in the late 19th century, almost all parts of the house reflect great wealth and refined taste. Even the well-stocked wine cellar — lost for decades behind a brick wall erected during Prohibition — is cavernous. The only small and plain room in the mansion is the tiny, sloped-ceiling attic room that served as the slave quarters, reportedly housing nineteen slaves.
Interestingly, our guide explained that even once New York became emancipated in 1827, former slaves were required to report to work at the mansion one day a week. And not only were they not compensated, they also had to pay for their own food, shelter, and transport. It was suggested that, in some ways, it was the former slave owners who most benefitted financially from emancipation.
The path to abolition was rocky, but at least Albany, NY, has a proud history in this regard, as New York’s capital played a major role in the Underground Tunnel that assisted slaves on their way to freedom in Canada.
Hundreds of escaped slaves — exact numbers are difficult to establish, but records show anywhere from nearly 300 in 1856 to 600 in 1860 — passed through the Capital Region in the years leading up to the Civil War. That history, including the accounts of individual freedom seekers, is shared in the Underground Railroad History Project of the Capital Region found at the Stephen and Harriet Myers Residence.
Freed from slavery as a young man, Stephen Meyers held several jobs including grocer, steamboat steward, and newspaper publisher. But his most important position was as point person for the Underground Railroad.
The fugitives who arrived in Albany came mostly from Delaware and Maryland; often after passing through Philadelphia or New York City where they received the most immediate assistance such as replacements for tell-tale field clothes. It could take months, even years, for freedom seekers to get all the way to Canada, although that journey could be significantly lessened by travel over water. As Albany was a port city — in 1850, the port of Albany could dock 50 steamboats and 1,000 sailboats — it saw a significant number of fugitive stowaways. Stephen Myers reported in the Northern Star, “fugitives from slavery had been coming to Albany on boats since 1831.”
In addition to helping fugitive slaves escape re-enslavement, the Underground Railroad community, sometimes organized as the Vigilance Committee, provided food, clothing, money, shelter, legal and medical assistance. From Albany, freedom seekers were sent on to stations in Syracuse or Oswego, while others went directly north to Canada, often by steamboat along Lake Champlain.
Paul and Mary Liz Steward, founders of the Underground Railroad History Project of the Capital Region, took on the mission of researching this story and restoring the building where the Vigilance Committee once met. Since 2003, this organization has expanded from planning a UGRR walking tour to restoring a former Myers residence into a museum, establishing an annual conference, and inspiring major community involvement.
It’s wonderful to see how local volunteers are transforming a once derelict property. Now the façade has been completely restored to its original red brick beauty, while brand new ceiling beams speak to the building’s freshly shored structural integrity. The Stephen and Harriet Myers Residence, once headquarters of the Underground Railroad in Albany, is now a fitting symbol of the value of learning history for a better tomorrow.