Albany's Oldest African Church Congregation and Building, 1812
Mr. John Wolcott, Albany Historian At Large, discovered the existence of this congregation, and of the existence of this church that was built on this site in 1812. Here are some comments he gave in 2005, along with some of his later factual corrections and additional notes.
The following is the text of a talk which I gave on Sunday the 17th of October last, at the Welcome Chapel Missionary Baptist Church at 124 Chestnut Street in Albany, New York. This was part of a celebration of the 47th. anniversary of the founding of that church. The topic is the origin of the Albany African Church, it's transformation to the Albany African Baptist Church in1824, and the fact that Welcome Chapel is located wthin the last building of that church, built in 1870. Some corrections and addenda will follow :
A CLOSER LOOK AT BRICKS AND STONES, AND PAPER
Sometimes you don't always get what you see. Upon a closer look one might find there is more, and different, or even less. All of these apply to the sacred edifice we are in at this moment. This story begins in 1812 when a group of eight free Blacks banded together to jointly acquire a 32X50 foot lot at what is now 90 and 92 Broad Street. Here they built the first school house for Blacks in Albany, as pointed out by Marian Hughes in her scholarly book " Refusing Ignorance ". Mt. Ida Press 1999. As indicated on City tax rolls, this building had been converted , by 1819 into Albany's first Black Church: " The Albany African Church ". It was interdenominational and owned and maintained by the " Albany African Church Association ". In 1822 this Association under the leadership of their first Minister Nathaniel Paul, either built a new wooden church, or moved the original school house-church, to a site on the north side of Hamilton Street between Fulton and Grand. In 1824, according to Joel Munsell 's Annals of Albany 1858, the Albany African Church Association re-incorporated as " The First African Baptist Society Of Albany ", but with some degree of controversy. This wooden church was the home of the First First African Baptist Society until 1869. Some known notable things happened here in that time. There was a school for Black children in the basement for several years. Doubtless there are many forgotten notable events, for their records are missing. In 1827, slavery was finally and completely abolished in New York. The celebration of this was held July 5th. at The Albany African Baptist Church.\preceeded by a parade through the city led by the African Band and then a speech was delivered by the church's Minister Nathaniel Paul, known as a richly eloquent orator. For several years afterward, more July 5th. celebrations were held at the Albany African Baptist Church. Reverend Paul was the brother of Rev. Thomas Paul founder of the famous African Meeting House in Boston. In1837, after 6 years away in Canada and England, where he's better remembered than in Albany,, he helped to organize a special group, and became it's president. At a convention held on April 20, 1837, at the Albany African Baptist Church; " The Union Society of Albany Troy and Schenectady " was formed to promote morals, education, vocational training and abolition
What became of Albany's first African American Church congregation? No one now, really knows. It's history has recieved scant attention. One reason being the mistaken belief that Israel A.M.E. was the earliest Black Church in Albany. An easy mistake. Israel is, indeed the oldest still existing Black congregation, having been founded in 1829. It's also on Hamiltong Street so the two churches get mixed up historically. The first deed of 1822 for the Hamilton Street African Baptist lot can't be found because when the deeds were re-indexed in the late 19th. century, a clerk entered it in the Grantee index under Israel A.M. E. by mistake. It's generally believed that The African Baptist congregation dissolved after they sold their old wooden church to a new congregation of French - Canadian Roman Catholics in 1869. Published accounts fomented this mistake. Weise's History of Albany 1884, and the 1909 75th. Anniversary booklet of Emmanuel Baptist Church, both have The First African Baptist Church disappearing without a trace in 1869. Arthur Weise lists a " Second Baptist Church " as a new congregation started in 1870. In reality this was the same as The First African Baptist Church. Both titles are perfectly true at the same time. Just stop to think about it. What became of the last building of the First African Baptist Church ? It supposedly burned in 1892 as " l' Eglise de l' Assomption ". But that church was actually the next to the last. The answer to this question is that the last church building of the first Black congregation in Albany is still standing, and we are standing and sitting in it, right at the moment. " The proof is in the pudding'". And better yet in a certain deed of February 5th. 1870. it is from John Chambers and Elizabeth Chambers, his wife, to " The First African Baptist Society of Albany". It is for this lot. The African Baptist congregation built this church in that year of 1870 in a nice Gothic design , under the pastorate of the Rev. John D. Bagwell. That is except for past the archway toward the front, and the present glazed brick facade, the bell tower, the present front stoop , and the brick side gate. These were all added on after removing the original facade by the First Christian Church in 1909 under the pastorate of the Rev. Adelbert Youmans. At time, a new corner stone was laid, or else the old one relocated with an added date. The First Christian Church also added the tow story sections in the rear and the rear side, in 1883 when they acquired this church. The First African Baptiist congregation lost the church in 1879 due to mortgage foreclosure proceedings againstthem, started in 1876 by the National Savings Bank of Albany. Their last pastor was the Rev. Henry H. Mitchell. After a while, the connection of this church edifice with the African Baptists became obscured. One clue, however, has always remained. The elevated baptismal tank up behind the pulpit. It's amazing that after so many years, history kind returned full circle when the doors of Welcome Chapel first opened here.
In 1883, The First Christian Church of Albany, under the pastorate of the Rev. E.C. Abbott, acquired this building from George Dawson and Louise Thompson. After being repaired and enlarged, it was dedicated on July 7th. Noell Sisson, and his wife Emeline, were major benefactors of this new congregation in it's early years. The name Sisson is to be found in the bottom of the largest of the stained glass windows. The one facing Chestnut Street in the front. In 1938 or 39, The First Christian Church merged with the Congregational Church. The last minister of this merged congregation was the Rev. Clarence Gould. At first, it was called The First Christian Congregational Church of Albany, then The Second Congregational Church. So a similiar thing happened with numbers here, as did in 1870. Just to make it difficult for people like me. There's a saying for this; " The first shall be the second, and the second shall be the last of the first. " You were wise not to use a number for your name.
I will make one last mention of part of the building; There may be a way to learn more about the history of the congregation that built this church. They are hard to make out now, but I remember years ago that there were tow dates to be clearly seen on the cornerstone. Things like historical summaries, coins, and newspapers of the the time, names of founders, builders etc. were usually deposited in corner stones. Is it possible that information on both the First Christian Church, and the African Baptist Church, is in that stone? If a way could be found to safely open the stone, you just might return some lost history to Albany.
Some history of admirable people who hoped, and worked, for the best of things for themselves and others, in times, not at all , the best for them.
First paragraph, fourth sentence: " 32 X 50 foot lot " These dimensions are based on the 1812 mortgage, by which the lot for the school and the African Church was secured This is a later typescript copy. It has an incomplete and garbled up description. I deem it safer to go with the assessment description of 1819-1821 for the front part of the lot: " Benjamin Lattimore; Lot 12 33' X 62 ' vacant - in front of the African Church " This was the first year of " descriptiive " tax rolls for the !st ward. This entry repeats up to 1821. In 1811, Lot 12 had been sold by Elizabeth Hamilton, widow of Alexander Hamilton, and daughter of General Philip Schuyler, a veteran of the Revolution, sold Lot 12 to Benjamin Lattimore, another veteran of the Revolution. ( The first Minister of the Albany African Church was the son of yet another Revolutionary veteran.) This lot was in a portion of the Schuyler Farm that the General had presented to his daughter as an inter-vivos gift. It's original measurements were ; 162 feet X 34 feet ( later reduced to 33 feet ) The assessment records dimensions then would leave 33 feet x 70 feet for the back portion, conveyed separately, in 1812, by Benjamin Lattimore, to the 8 Black men, which group included himself. This school - church lot never appeared on the assessment rolls because it was always tax exempt. The correct lot position, and dimensions are important as a guide for an archaeological probe that should be conducted at this location.
Second paragraph, seventh sentence from the last : " added the two story sections in the rear and the rear side, in 1883 " I was in error about part of this. The two story addition attached to the west of the rear addition, was added in 1909, when the front was also added to.
In the years 1822, and 1823, the assessment rolls, and the newspapers indicate the move of the Albany African Church from South Pearl Street to Hamilton Street, in ways that pose interesting questions. On June 27 1822, Isaac Denniston sold the Hamilton Street lot to " The Albany African Church Association ". In that same year the assessment entry for Lot 12 was changed to read; " Lot 12 Benjamin Lattimore Jr. 33' X 132 ' Lot including the African Church & Lot - new house brick front " Benjamin Lattimore Jr. was one of the original trustees to the church, whose property had reverted to Benjamin Sr. who in turn sold it , indviidually, to his son. The new church on Hamilton Street was probably under construction in the latter part of 1822. It was formally dedicated on Thursday the 23rd of January. The account of this event in the papers refers to the church as " The African Meeting House ". Just as the world famous one of 1806 still standing , in Boston , is called. " The African Choir " performed the music. The dedication prayer was offered by the Rev. Lewis Leonard of The First Baptist Church of Albany, and two other guest Ministers participated; the Rev. Mr. Goble, and the Rev. Mr. Lamb. The Pastor; the Rev. Nathaniel Paul, gave the sermon from John Chap. 4., verses 21 through 24. After the ceremony, a collection was taken up " to assist in discharging the debt due on the building ". This last item could imply that an entirely new church building was constructed on Hamilton Street, designed as a church to begin with, instead of moving the old one. What then, became of the old church building ? Was it sold to another denomination, as claimed on page 187 Vol . 7 of Munsell's Annals of Albany ? Was it simply demolished ? Or could it even have been moved eastward to the street line, and then faced with brick and made into Benjamin Lattimore Junior's new house ? Who knows ?
The following is a list of the trustees of the "Albany African Church Association"e recorded on 6 September 1820. This is to be compared the next list; that of the trustees of the " First African Baptist Society in the City of Albany " recorded on 16 May 1826 ( Munsell has 1824 ) Taken from the Book of Church Patents ( now in the Albany County Hall of Records }. These lists indicate a majority of Baptists as trustees of the original association. This may reflect a plurality of the same denomination in the general membership, as claimed at the time, in defense of the change. Also the Minister was a baptist to begin with.
ALBANY AFRICAN FIRST AFRICAN BAPTIST
CHURCH ASSOCIATION SOCIETY IN THE CITY OF ALBANY
Trustees 1820 Trustees 1826
William Heyer Charles H ? ( name not clear }
Francis March Francis March
Francis L. Pile Francis Pile
Asher Foot ( Root ? ) Asher Foot ( Root ? )
Benjamin Latimer Jun. Benjamin Latimore Jr.
Joseph Murray John I ? ( name not clear }
" elected by a plurality "
In 1827 when New York State completely abolished slavery on July 4th. Albany's celebration of this was planned at a March meeting of Albany's Black citizens, held at the Albany African Baptist Church. The irony of and contradiction of slavery having survived the War of Independence and lasting so long here, and still existing, along with a July 4th. proclamation, did not go unnoted. At this meeting, Benjamin Lattimore Sr. The Revolutionary War veteran, was unanimously elected chairman of the planning committee. Then Lewis Topp an Albany musician, made a motion that ; " whereas the 4th. day of July is the day that the National Independence of this country is recognized by the white citizens, we deem it proper to celebrate the 5th. " The motion carried. The July 5th. celebrations culminated at the Albany African Baptist Church. There in his Abolition Address, The church's Pastor; The Rev. Nathaniel Paul, the son of a Revolutionary War veteran; included these remarks: ".... a country, the very soil of which is said to be consecrated to liberty, and its fruits, the equal rights of man. But strange as the idea may seem, or paradoxical as it may appear to those acquainted with the constitution of the government, or who have read the bold declaration this nation's independence; yet it is a fact that can neither be denied or controverted, that in the United States of America, at the expiration of fifty years after its becoming a free and independent nation, there are no less than fifteen hundred thousand human beings still in a state of unconditional vassalage. Yet America is first in the profession if the love of liberty, and loudest in proclaiming liberal sentiments....". A few years later Nathaniel Paul left Albany to work for the Wilberforce Colony of Black American refugees, and fugitives, in Upper Canada, where his brother Benjamin became Minister of the Baptist Church. From there he went to England in i832, where he married, and met with his abolitionist heroes Thomas Clarkson, and William Wilberforce. ( They were prominently praised in his 1827 Abolition Address in Albany ). He also met with Irish M.P. and advocate of Irish independence, and Roman Catholic equality, Dan O'connell, who rallied the Irish M.P. vote to help pass the Wilberforce Emancipation Act of 1833, which Paul witnessed. During his four years in England, and Scotland, Nathaniel Paul went on a successfull speaking tour as a much sought after speaker, among the many American abolitionists visiting there. He spoke in opposition to African Colonization, and on behalf of raising support, and funds for abolitionist activity in the U.S. He also spent some time soliciting farm supplies and tools, and funding for vocational education for the Wilberforce Colony, which sponsored his trip. In 1836 the Rev. Paul returned to Canada, with his wife. The Colony Director expressed dissatisfaction that he had spent not enough time on their behalf, and by 1837, Nathaniel Paul was back in Albany. Here, he became Pastor of The Albany African Baptist Church again, until his death in 1839.
It would be very appropriate and proper, to monument some of the sites associated with the events , institutions and people cited above. Doing so would serve an enducational and inspirational purpose. It would preserve some of Albany's history, preserve their memory, and encourage more research concerning them. In addition to this relatively easy thing to do, I would here, like to suggest a special multi-point project for the sorely neglected block on the west side of South Pearl Street between Fourth Avenue and Alexander Street. Repair all of the buildings remaining there. Conduct a close examination of the house at 367 South Pearl, to see if Benjamin Lattimore Junior's house of 1822 might be, at least , partially, enclosed within it. 367 was part of the front portion of Lot 12. Do the same thing with the building at 363 South Pearl. This was the major part of the front portion of Lot 13. Elizabeth Hamilton sold this lot to Francis March, an Albany Skipper, who built a house here before Benjamin Lattimore Junior's house was built. Francis March was a trustees through both phases of Albany's first Black church. Being a skipper, he would have been one the relatively few, moderately affluent Blacks in Albany at that time. While at it, some attention and care likewise might be given to the large structure at 371- 373 South Pearl. This was a German Music Hall in the 19th. century, called " Eintracht Hall " meaning Unity Hall. This should begin real soon before it the whole block ends up in some demolition landfill. like too much of historic Albany has. A very definite thing to do here is to archaeologically test so much of the 70 foot section at the rear of Lot 12 that isn't covered by the building at 92 Broad Street. Then it can be determined if any of the o foundation of the original school-church are there. If they are, they would make a focus for a fine archaelogical project. Probing where the Hamilton Street African Baptist Church was, might even be in order. A new and larger French Canadian church was built there after the 1892 fire. Not to mention that everything was cleared away there, for the Mall Approach in the early seventies, but you can never tell. In another of those July 5th. celebrations held in that very church in 1828, the following remarks were made by the speaker; John G. Stewart : " ....I shall not attempt an elaborate, but call your attention to some of these emblems: First The Albany African Association --that banner of union intended to stimulate the minds and unite the sentiments of every heart of African extraction, and when the hand of time shall sweep into ruins this sacred edifice, beneath its walls shall be found, engraved upon the corner stone, the name of the " Albany African Association ".