Education has always been of paramount importance to the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, so it makes perfect sense to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the organization’s Schenectady chapter by talking about men like Thomas Barclay, George Passage and Thomas Nielson.
They were spinners, cobblers and ministers, and in their spare time they were schoolteachers. Their stories and others will be shared by Schenectady County Community College adjunct history professor Richard Rose in his lecture, “Colonial Days in Schenectady,” to be presented at the 100th anniversary dinner of the “Schenectada Chapter” of the NSDAR at noon Saturday at The Waters Edge Lighthouse Restaurant in Glenville.
“We have a community-service award, we do give scholarships, and we do have an American history award for junior high students,” said Jean Lindsay, current regent (president) of the local chapter. “Education has always been important to the DAR, and when I first got involved I found all the research I was doing very interesting. I learned so much, and I found the history so fascinating. That’s what the DAR is about at the national level, and that’s what we’re doing at the local level.”
Educational opportunities in and around Schenectady weren’t always so easy to find.
“If you look back at the Colonial period, education was restricted to families who could afford to hire a teacher for their children,” said Rose, a Schenectady resident who teaches western civilization and world history at SCCC. “Most of the time, education was a way to prepare kids to become congregants of the church. It isn’t until after the American Revolution that the idea of everyone participating in education is something society should think about.”
Before the Revolution, the idea that a teacher could make a living at the profession would have been laughed at.
“Thomas Barclay had a school in Schenectady in 1710, but he was also an Episcopal minister,” said Rose. “He focused on two subjects: reading and religion, and teaching was strictly a sideline for these guys. Nielson was a spinner, Passage was a cobbler. There was no way these men could have made a living as a teacher.”
Rose will also discuss the move to create Union College in Schenectady in 1795, as well as the formation of a citywide free school in Schenectady in 1854.
“There were a lot of things going on in the early 19th century, but they were all disjointed and directed at particular trades,” he said. “It was Samuel Howe, superintendent of the city schools from 1854 to 1905, who really started to create an educational system that looks something like the one we have today.”
Rose himself is a member of the National Society of the Sons of the American Revolution, like the DAR a group that restricts membership to descendants of individuals who fought during the American Revolution, or aided the cause.
“Anyone, either for the Daughters or the Sons, is eligible who had an ancestor that participated in the American Revolution,” he said, explaining the membership requirements. “Anyone who helped build this country, at any level, can become a member. It doesn’t matter if they were a general or a private. They also could have served in elected office, or just drove an army wagon. Anyone who supported the rebellion against the king of England is eligible.”
That includes African Americans, although there were times when the DAR wasn’t particularly welcoming. When opera star Marian Anderson wasn’t allowed to sing at a DAR event in 1939 because she was black, First lady Eleanor Roosevelt turned in her membership card in protest. The DAR later changed their position and invited Anderson to sing several times at Constitution Hall in Washington, many of those occasions serving to raise money during World War II.
“What I like to convey to people is that the good the DAR has done far outweighs the bad,” said Jane Alessandrini, secretary of the Schenectada Chapter. “I’m sure most organizations that have been around a long time have done something in their past that if they could have thought about more might have done things differently. That was long before my time, and the DAR has made amends.”
The name of the Schenectady chapter, “Schenectada,” is taken from an early Dutch spelling of a Native American word that, according to the DAR website, means “across the sandy plain.” The group has a membership list of 70 names, and usually gets around 25 people at their monthly meetings.
“Along with all the educational things we do, we also do fundraising, and one of the things we’re focusing on now is giving a donation to the Guardian House in Ballston Spa,” said Lindsay, who only joined the Schenectada Chapter in 2008. “It’s for female veterans, and they just recently opened and began taking residents.”
Lindsay said the chapter is also doing more to attract younger members.
“We do have a 19-year-old, and we do have some members in their 20s, 30s and 40s,” she said. “We try to schedule our meetings at times when working people can get there, so we are getting a good mix of people.”
The first meeting of the Schenectada Chapter was held on Oct. 15, 1911, at the home of the first regent, Harriet Colburn. The group officially joined the national organization on Dec. 14 that year and boasted 51 members.
The national group was created in 1890, a year after the Sons of the American Revolution was formed. The Sons group grew out of a San Francisco-based organization called the Sons of Revolutionary Sires, which had begun in 1876 during the celebration of the country’s centennial.
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