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First African-American Families of Early Albany

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This project is a sub-project of a FUTURE COLONIAL AMERICA PROJECT!

The Jacksons, Lattimores, and Schuylers: First African-American Families of Early Albany

by Stefan Bielinski and the Colonial Albany Social History Project

Most of the people of early Albany lived their lives below the level of traditional historical scrutiny, but African Americans were practically invisible. Stefan Bielinski relieves the historical obscurity of the African-American community and discusses the process by which it was done. Bielinski is the founder and director of the Colonial Albany Social History Project at the New York State Museum.

In the summer of 1815, an Albany businessman named Joseph Fry issued his third annual register and directory of the residents of the city. Following a conventional format, the 1815 edition began with rosters of the public officials. It then listed physicians, boat captains, city licensees, officers of Albany's banks, education institutions, other incorporated enterprises, social organizations, and the chiefs of a number of Albany based civic and moral improvement groups whom today we might call "lobbyists." The directory included population. and election statistics and more miscellaneous information that Fry promised, on the directory's title page, would prove to be "other interesting Matter."

But the principal feature of what was known as "Fry's Albany Directory" was a 64 page alphabetical list of the principal residents of the city of Albany.1 Considerably larger than its more rudimentary predecessors, the 1815 edition graphically revealed that Albany was in the midst of a period of dramatic growth. Founded in the mid-seventeenth century and chartered as a city in 1686.

Albany's resident population, for a variety of reasons, grew slowly, reaching 3,498 people by the first federal census in 1790. In each of the following decades, however, the city's population almost doubled. The rapid growth was based on the maturation of the city's traditional roles as a regional market and service center, transportation interchange and jumping-off place for the West, and by its new status as capital of the Empire State. The coming of migrants from New England and other states and the arrival of European immigrants more than offset the outmigration of many traditional early Albany families. The only boundary change made before the Civil War added a populated section on the northern edge of the City in 1812. Formerly part of Watervliet, new neighborhoods called Arbor Hill and North Albany contributed substantially to the city's population. By the end of the War of 1812, a one-time frontier outpost had become one of the fastest growing urban centers in North America.2

The 1815 directory named 2,394 individuals (up from 1,596 in 1813) and listed more precisely the addresses, activities, and characteristics of not only the traditional heads of households but of a growing number of individuals who were living in the city and not under a kinship umbrella. The newest feature of the 1815 edition was explained by a notation on the last line of the preface stating that "Those persons whose names are in Italics are free people of color."

This reference to the city's African-American householders was the earliest printed manifestation of what could be called a "black community." However, Albanians of African ancestry had lived in city households for almost two centuries. During that time, blacks had accounted for between 10 to 20 percent of the city's population, had lived in 30 to 50 percent of the city's households, and, in general, had been overlooked as individuals. They rarely appeared on local government, business, and church rolls that readily identified most community members of European ancestry. But in 1815, the placement of forty italicized names in "Fry's Albany Directory" identified a significant minority group as part of the mainline city.