A Brief Look at Historic African-American Burials In Albany, New York

by Paula Lemire

September 2015

The A.M.E. Plot in the Church Grounds, Lot 14, Section 49 at Albany Rural Cemetery.

In a city whose earliest churchyards and small family burial grounds have long been obliterated by progress, the graves of Albany's early African-American residents are among the least documented.

Some of the oldest known graves of African-Americans in the Albany area are those found during excavations in 2005 near the Schuyler Flatts in Menands. The remains likely belonged to slaves who worked at the Flatts during the 18th-century. There was a Schuyler family graveyard at the Flatts, but these remains were uncovered in unmarked graves well apart from the graves of their masters and mistresses.

Some slaves, however, were buried much closer to their masters. An inscription on the brown sandstone monument of Colonel Nicholas Quackenbush, now in the Albany Rural Cemetery, notes that Nancy, a “servant, a faithful slave was buried with the Quackenbush family, though the date of her death is not given. Similarly, a small sandstone grave marker now in the Church Grounds lot at Albany Rural marked the grave of Dick, the 19 year old slave of John F. Pruyn, who was originally buried by his master in the Dutch Reformed Church's burying ground near South Pearl and Beaver Streets.

The 1790 map of Albany by Simeon DeWitt, the State's Surveyor General, includes what is perhaps the first reference to a “Negro burial ground” in Albany. The map shows a lot overlooking Sheridan Hollow from the north side of the bluff. This graveyard was located in the vicinity of modern-day Elk Street between Hawk and Dove Streets and may have been the same place where Pomp, Dinah, and Bet, three young slaves accused of the setting the Great Fire of 1793, were buried after being hanged. Lying just to the north of the area then known as Pinkster Hill, it may also be the same place place mentioned in an 1803 ode celebrating the annual spring revels held by Albany's black community, both slaves and freemen.

Now if you take a further round

You'll reach the Afric's burying ground.

There as I rambled years ago

To pass an hour of love-lorn woe;

I found a stone at Dinah's grave.

At the time DeWitt map was drawn, many of the city's old churchyards had already been replaced by a municipal burial ground just south of the present State Capitol. Located north of Eagle Street and south of State Street, this cemetery was divided into sections by congregation with the Dutch Reformed, Episcopal, Lutheran, and Presbyterian being represented. It did not allot any land for the burial of African-Americans, slave or free, implying that most people of color were indeed laid to rest on the Elk Street site.

By 1800, both the municipal cemetery and the Negro burial ground were replaced by the State Street Burying Grounds which, until the late 1860s, occupied much of the land that is now Washington Park. Like the old municipal cemetery, the Burying Grounds included sections for the Dutch Reformed, Episcopal, Lutheran, and Presbyterian churches, as well as for Methodists, Roman Catholics, Baptists, Seceders, and Quakers. There was also a potters field and, next to it, a section identified on various contemporary maps as the Negro or African burial ground. Many of those buried in this “Colored People's Burying Ground of the City of Albany” were members of the Israel African Methodist Episcopal Church which was founded in 1828.

Detail of a map of the State Street Burying Grounds

In 1844, the Albany Rural Cemetery was consecrated and the State Street Burying Grounds fell into decline as fewer families chose to bury their departed there; some families even removed their loved ones' graves and monuments from the old Burying Grounds to the Rural Cemetery. Catholics would replace their section at the Burying Grounds with St. Mary's Cemetery on the western outskirts of the city and, later, with St. Agnes adjacent to the Rural Cemetery.

The potters field (also called the “strangers burial ground” as many interred there had no family or other ties to Albany except as their place of death) and the Colored People's Burying Ground continued to be used, though less frequently, until the city closed the State Street Burying Grounds, removed all remains and headstones to the Church Grounds (Section 49) of the Rural Cemetery) and, in 1869, cleared the old graveyard for a magnificent public park.

Within the Church Grounds lot at the Rural Cemetery, the graves from the old Burying Grounds are again arranged by congregation. The A.M.E. lot lies near the north edge of this field. The two short rows of headstones laid there, however, represent just a fraction of the burials. An estimated 340 burials may have been moved there from the State Street Burying Grounds and new burials continued in the lot until at least 1878.

The Church Grounds (Section 49) at the Albany Rural Cemetery

In 1854, a woman named Ellen Jackson passed away. Her will, witnessed on February 2 of that year and probated five months later, contained the request that, after a bequest was paid to an aunt in New York City, “just” debts, and funeral expenses were paid, the remainder of her estate was to be placed in trust with an attorney “in trust to be applied in and about fencing, repairing, and improving the burying ground in the City of Albany known as the Colored People's burying ground in my sister Catharine Shell is buried, or if desired practicable, and expedient in purchasing and improving a lot for Colored People in the Albany Rural Cemetery or in both.”

Ellen Jackson signed her will with an "X" indicating she probably did not read or write.

Ellen Jackson's bequest was carried out; a large portion of what is now Section 99 on the North Ridge of the Rural Cemetery was purchased with funds from her estate. The lot known as the Jackson Grounds received its first burial – that of Margaret Cladwell, a 76 year old woman who died of pleurisy and whose body lay unclaimed in the public receiving vault at the Burying Grounds.

From a 1912 lot map of the Rural Cemetery - the Jackson Grounds are the lot marked "33 Estate"

Ellen Jackson's legacy at the Rural Cemetery received burials as late as 1935. It is, perhaps, ironic, that the location of Ellen's own resting place is not known. It is likely that her sister's grave was one of the many moved without headstones to the Church Grounds, but not record exists.

The remainder of Section 99 adjacent to the Jackson Lot is filled also filled with predominately African-American burials.

General view of the Jackson Grounds and Section 99 at the Albany Rural Cemetery

A monument in Section 99.  More on this family can be found here.

A look through the card files which contain the Cemetery's burial records will show many cards marked as “Colored,” but this is not to say that the Rural Cemetery was segregated by color. While Section 99 was almost exclusively African-American, a number of well-known colored citizens were buried throughout the grounds in lots of their own selection. Adam Blake, a successful hotelier and founder of the Kenmore on North Pearl Street, is buried in a family plot within sight of the magnificent Van Rensseler family lot. Blake's father and namesake, also buried here, was born a slave on the Van Rensselaer Manor and, after emancipation, served as head of the Manor's household staff. When Stephen Van Rensselaer III, the elder Blake led the funeral procession of the Last Patroon. Doctor Thomas Elkins, a physician and pharmacist, is buried beneath a worn marble shaft in a multi-family lot on the Cemetery's North Ridge and William Topp, a barber of mixed race who was active with the Albany abolitionists, is buried on the South Ridge, surrounded by such prominent Albanians as Marcus T. Reynolds, William James, and Dr. James Armsby. Stephen Myers, a former slave and publishr of abolitionist literature whose Lumber Street (now Livingston Avenue) home was an important part of the local Underground Railroad network, is buried in a modest family plot on the North Ridge.

In the Middle Ridge lot of the Boyd family, there is a weathered marble headstone to mark the grave of Cretia Jackson. Born a slave, she served the family from childhood until her death at the age of 57 in 1855. Further along the same cemetery road, in the large plot of banker Thomas Olcott, there is the grave of 80 year old Rosanna Vosburgh, “for 63 years a faithful colored servant in the family of Thomas W. Olcott.” While her grave enclosed within the family plot, it stands somewhat apart in a back corner.

On a steep hillside within sight of President Chester A. Arthur's magnificent monument, the headstone of Arabella Chapman Miller has fallen facedown. The first African-American to graduate from what is now Albany High School, Arabella is currently the subject of a research project at the University of Michigan which attempts to reconstruct the lives of Arabella, her family, and social circle based on a pair of antique albums containing tintypes of her family, friends, and such prominent public figures as Abraham Lincoln and John Brown. Arabella is buried in a family plot which also contains the graves of her parents, husband, and son. The plot is located in a large section which includes granite mausoleums, sculpted angels, and the unmarked graves of women and children who died in the city's House of Shelter.

Perhaps one of the most intriguing black Albanians buried at the Rural Cemetery is Dianna Mingo. Buried in Section 9 in an unmarked grave purchased by her niece, Dianna was born a slave in Schodack before the Revolution and died at the age of 104 almost two decades after the Civil War. On a recent late summer day, someone had laid chestnuts on her grave, perhaps a nod to the chestnut tree planted by Dianna Mingo in front of her State Street home in the early 1840s.

A small iron angel marks the grave of the Cross family in Section 99 at the Albany Rural Cemetery.