Historians show how economic freedom gave birth to Albany’s first black community

When Albany’s colored slaves were freed from their mostly Dutch oppressors in the early 1800s, establishing their economic independence was key to breaking out of white society.

The economic liberation they fought for laid the foundation for a strong community for generations to come, but the city archives fail to document the full story.

Now historians Tricia Barbagallo and Lacey Wilson are gathering archives and records at the Albany Institute of History and Art to fill in some gaps, their work is guaranteed with grant money. Barbagallo’s grant comes from the Federal American Rescue Plan and Wilson’s from the Charles L. Touhey Foundation, Inc.

Freedom shapes a black economy that grows community

The two discovered that the city’s first black entrepreneurs pooled their resources to start new businesses and pave the way for a self-reliant, local community.

“They don’t want to reintegrate into white society,” Barbagallo explained.

Slaves were not legally freed in New York City until 1827, but 1790 census data documented 25 free black residents living in six Albany households.

In 1813, several of these families were listed on the city’s first directory as residents with occupations, suggesting that they had managed themselves for years before freedom became a legal reality.

After the state passed the Progressive Emancipation Act in 1799—which freed enslaved children born after July 4, 1799, but indentured them until they were young adults—the list stretched out. By 1815, the number of free black households in the city had risen to 39, according to Barbagallo.

City archives don’t tell the whole story

Two of the pioneers recorded in the city directory of 1815 were Thomas Allicot and Benjamin Lattimore. Although their occupations were listed only as carters in the directory, Barbagallo and Wilson found receipts showing that they were multi-faceted contractors who worked on the waterway and in other jobs, which was common for a lot of people at the time.

Although city directories are a key resource for learning more about the past, Barbagallo and Wilson had to sift through other artifacts such as account books and property records to divulge the rest of their stories.

Jennifer Burns, a lecturer in African studies at the University of Albany, validated their methods.

City directories were more of a publicity tool than a book of records, according to Burns, which is why they fail to capture a larger story. Account books, however, frame transactions between parties that can help “complete the story about what a person’s profession or business really was,” she said.

Historians are able to identify black individuals in these records because often their names were italicized or labeled with a letter to distinguish their race.

Still, historians’ discoveries have led them to find many prominent people of color doing business in the city that were missing from directories.

Among those omitted from the record was Ned Davis, a prominent painter whose old account books show he mixed his own colors and was hired to paint City Hall. Notably, women such as Dinah Jackson, who ran a well-known boarding house, or goose and herb merchant Volkie Speck were also not documented in city directories, despite receipts showing their business dealings and their income.

Multiple jobs and multi-family households create black wealth

Albany historian Jack McEneny said the sharing of resources, homes, and skills had long been integral to those trying to establish themselves in a community. The practice remains common in many immigrant communities, and for newly liberated people of color in postcolonial Albany, it served as the basis for establishing independence from white society.

These early entrepreneurs propagated growth and unity by sharing their homes with each other and making mutual investments. Wilson gave the example of a person living next door to a carpenter. Knowing each other in the community, your neighbor was probably willing to teach you carpentry.

For them, working together and learning from each other meant more than being good citizens. Wilson said it was also a survival technique to protect each other from poverty as ethnocentric and prejudicial Dutch ideologies persisted.

And at a time when securing accommodation with their white counterparts was not guaranteed, living together gave them the power of numbers. Their homes were also their first meeting places to discuss community development.

“They’re really scrambling here to stay in their own homes, with their own families and in their own neighborhoods, operating churches, schools and everything else on the site,” Barbagallo said.

As revered members of the community such as Allicot and Lattimore grew their wealth, they made greater contributions to the black population, including their $1,000 investment in founding the African Society in 1805, who worked to buy the freedom of other slaves.

The African Society also collected donations from the public to purchase land, sites that later became a church and a school.

“They don’t take their excess income and go out and build a mansion… instead they invest in churches (and) schools, in the black community,” she added.

Such establishments helped solidify the roots of the thriving free black community and laid the foundation for the success of future generations.

Allicot’s own sons, for example, later opened their own grocery store and worked as boatmen like their father.

Barbagallo called it “empowerment”.

“They patronize their businesses, they gain economic power, economic freedom for the pursuit of happiness…and create their own neighborhoods away from the white system,” she said.

Funding for black history and research is scarce

Both Barbagallo and Wilson hope to uncover more stories about Albany’s early black community, but their time and funds are limited. Barbagallo has one year to document as much as she can online for the public and Wilson’s grant only gives her two years for her research.

Barbagallo began researching African American history years ago and said there was “simply no money” for his kind of work. His scholarship is funded by the American Rescue Plan.

She said it took a pandemic and an uprising over the deaths of black people like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in encounters with police to spur a cultural awareness that made money available.

That is why she is dedicated to ensuring that the stories of these humble people who helped shape Black culture and history in Albany are rediscovered and remembered.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to clarify that only Barbagallo’s grant came from the American Rescue Plan and that Wilson’s work is funded by the Charles L. Touhey Foundation, Inc.