"We Rise or Fall Together": Separatism and the Demand for Equality by Albany's Black Citizens, 1827-1860

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"We Rise or Fall Together": Separatism and the Demand for Equality by Albany's Black Citizens, 1827-1860

INTRODUCTION

In November 1825, seven years after work had begun, Albany celebrated the completion of the Erie Canal, "hailing it as a harbinger of prosperity, national solidarity, and peace." As the canal's eastern terminus, Albany was well placed to receive raw materials and take advantage of expanding commercial interests with the western United States, and almost immediately the canal quickened the pace of commerce in the capital city. In addition, railroad technology reached Albany in the 1850s, further enhancing the city's commercial exchanges. The railroad linked Albany eastward to Boston, northward to Vermont, and southward to New York City, making Albany a railway hub. As a result of its geographic centrality and the availability of transportation, between 1830 and 1870 Albany experienced tremendous economic development, as the transportation revolution lowered the cost of moving goods and stimulated both commerce and manufacturing. Responding to growing demands, Albany quickly began supplying various products to an expanding domestic market.(1)

The economic expansion in Albany drew immigrants and migrants seeking jobs. With a population of over eleven thousand, Albany was the eighth largest city in the United States in 1820.(2) As a result of the economic boon, however, Albany's population burgeoned; by 1830 Albany was the second largest inland town in the country.(3) Irish people escaping the potato famine comprised the largest influx of immigrants into Albany. Catholic churches built in the beginning of the century enhanced Albany's desirability as a final destination by welcoming newcomers to the city and providing a support network for the Irish community. As early as 1798, the Catholic Church in Albany created numerous institutions and voluntary associations intended to protect religious traditions from Protestant reform efforts as well as to meet the practical needs of immigrants to the community.(4)

The Irish presence had a significant impact on race relations in Albany. Throughout the ante-bellum period, Albany's voters had an almost unshakable tendency to elect Democratic mayors. The Democrats strongly opposed black suffrage, reflecting their traditional strength among groups hostile to both African Americans and reform, and assumed that more voters could be won through racism than through appeals to humanitarian sentiments.(5) The party's popularity in Albany paralleled the growth in the Irish community, with an increasing proportion of Democratic mayors elected in the 1840s, 1850s and through the Civil War. Using elections as one mechanism for demonstrating their attitudes towards blacks, the majority of Albany's white voters consistently rejected proposals for African American advancement and equality.

Black Albanians comprised a tiny portion of the city's total population (throughout the nineteenth century the number of blacks in Albany remained below two percent),(6) yet they collectively developed strategies to address the difficulties facing them. During the first half of the century they often overcame their differences in order to provide a united challenge the racist policies implemented by whites in the city. As this community confronted persistent hardships they ultimately turned to institutions free from white control and interference for the support they needed. By doing so, they inverted whites' notion of black inferiority and the need for exclusionary practices and instead found empowerment in all-black organizations.

1830 TO 1860: COMMUNITY BUILDING

On July 4, 1827, Albany's black citizens commemorated the long-anticipated abolition of slavery in New York State.(7) They made numerous plans for the occasion, emphasizing the symbolic parallel that the Independence Day event had to the young nation's break from England's oppression. Addressing their desire for political equality and their belief that emancipation had helped to accomplish this goal, blacks in Albany celebrated with a "procession. …