EDITOR’S NOTE: As Black History Month begins, we’re taking a look back today at brothers Art and Joe Allen, and their history-making path into Schenectady’s political arena.
Black residents have always played some role in Schenectady’s long history, but it took the turbulent 1960s and the Allen brothers, Art and Joe, for them to become engaged in electoral politics.
Maybe you didn’t always know what the brothers were thinking — Art as president of the teachers’ union and Joe as a member of the City Council — but you could be certain they were listening.
“My father wasn’t very loud or boisterous,” Art Allen Jr. said of his dad last week from his home in San Francisco. “He would often wait and listen to what was being said, but then when he did say something, you took note. And if you were wondering what he was thinking, you got an answer.”
Lakeia Allen Bowman, Joe’s daughter and a Niskayuna resident, said her father was very much like his older brother in that regard.
“My dad was definitely quiet and reserved,” said Allen Bowman. “But then when he did speak up it was meaningful and had impact. He had a quiet strength about him.”
It was 25 years ago that Joe Allen became the first Black person to serve on Schenectady’s City Council, and it was 50 years ago that Art, eight years Joe’s senior, set his sights on a City Council seat. While Art’s foray into the political realm in 1971 was unsuccessful, he did serve as president of the Schenectady Federation of Teachers for more than a decade. Joe, meanwhile, went on to win four more elections to the City Council, becoming a strong advocate for the Hamilton Hill neighborhood. Art died in 1983 at the age of 56, well before his brother became an elected Democratic official, and Joe lived until April of 2015. He was 79 when he died.
“There were other Black people who were very civic-minded, but they weren’t political,” said Don Ackerman, a former Schenectady County legislator and Democratic county chairman who is writing a book on the history of Schenectady politics. “The Allen family was always involved in their church and always active in the community like many others, but then the brothers took it further, Art with his union work and Joe as a member of the City Council.”
Their parents, William and Mary Lee Chaires Allen, left their home in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, in the early 1930s and headed north to Schenectady for a better life. Art was an infant when they made the move, and the Allens soon added to the family upon arriving in Schenectady, first bringing a girl, Earlene, into the world before Joe joined the group in 1936.
“My parents didn’t go to college but they both stressed education to us and insisted that we go to college,” said Earlene Tanner, who went to nursing school in New York City while both of her brothers earned their degrees at Kentucky State College. “My father worked at GE and my mother was a domestic worker who went into the ministry, but they always told us, ‘you’re going to college.’ ”
Both brothers returned to Schenectady after graduating from Kentucky State. Art earned a master’s at New York University and became a longtime social studies teacher in the Schenectady City School District. Joe earned his master’s in educational psychology at The College of Saint Rose in 1981, and had a lengthy career working for the New York State Division of Youth.
They were both key figures in organizations such as the Carver Community Center, the Hamilton Hill Arts Center and other groups, but in the 1970s Schenectady was a different place than it is today. The city’s Black citizens seldom, if ever, entertained thoughts of running for political office and, according to Ackerman, who became a Democratic county committeeman in 1971, the Black community wasn’t a big enough voting bloc to merit much concern to those running for office.
“We never really thought we needed a Black [person] on the ticket back then,” said Ackerman ruefully. “Schenectady did not have a sizable Black population until well into the 1980s. There wasn’t a large constituency that needed to be represented. Back then what you had to have was an Irishman and an Italian.”
According to census information at the Schenectady County Historical Society, the city’s population in 1960 was 81,070, with Black residents making up just 2.5 percent (2,053). By 1980, the city population had fallen to 67,972, while the number of Black residents increased to 4,132, or 6 percent of the total. The number of Black residents has continued to rise, and in 2019 the city population was estimated at more than 65,000, with the Black population making up roughly 13,000, or 20 percent of the total.
In 1971, however, Art Allen’s City Council run never really got off the ground. Drafted by a group called the Coalition of Concerned Citizens, he was one of seven Democrats running for three spots on the council, and finished sixth in the voting.
Dave Roberts, who was a major force on the City Council throughout the 1970s and ’80s, and who ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 1975, said Allen’s campaign never gained traction.
“I don’t remember the details, but I think his campaign never really got going and it just kind of petered out,” said Roberts, who along with Karen Johnson and Joe Notar helped Democrats gain control of Schenectady’s City Council during that time. “I think it was nice of him to offer his name to that group, but things never coalesced under him.
“He was quiet and he would sit at a meeting and listen acutely, and at the end he would say a few words and that would wrap things up,” added Roberts, also a teacher in the Schenectady district at the time. “And then he really got busy with the union. He became our chief negotiator.”
Allen actually spent 10 days in jail as president of the union during a teachers’ strike in 1975. He was arrested for contempt of court and for violating the Taylor Law, which curtailed the ability of public employees to go out on strike.
Allen’s sister Earlene was in college in New York at the time, but she knew exactly what was going on.
“I can remember talking to my mother about it on the phone and she was terribly upset that he had to go to jail.” said Tanner. “He loved teaching more than anything. It was his thing, and he was willing to go to jail because he thought it was the right thing to do.”
Art Allen Jr. was in middle school when his father was jailed.
“He was receiving death threats, so it was really crazy back then,” he said. “He wanted to see things done right, so it was that important to him. It was a very interesting time.”
Joe Allen was 38 when his older brother got arrested, and while he was every bit as invested in the community as Art, he didn’t get politically involved until the mid-1980s, when future Republican Mayor Al Jurczynski suggested to him he should run for president of the Hamilton Hill Neighborhood Association.
“I was Art’s paperboy so we went way back,” said Jurczynski. “I always admired him. When I was a kid he seemed like a cool guy, and later on I told him he should do what I did. I became the president of the Hamilton Hill Neighborhood Association in July of 1980, then I was on City Council, and eventually ran for mayor and won in 1995. I used the neighborhood association to get into politics and I told Joe he could do the same thing.”
The two often differed on political issues but it never got personal, according to Jurczynski.
“I think we all admired him for the work he did with kids, and there was never any animosity between us, even though we disagreed a lot,” said Jurczynski. “He was a decent human being and we were both kind of pioneers. Nobody from Hamilton Hill had ever been elected to anything. I was a lifelong Republican and him a lifelong Democrat, but we were both from Hamilton Hill. We had that common link.”
Brian Stratton served on the City Council from 1992 through 2002 before twice winning election as mayor. He remembers Joe Allen as an enthusiastic fellow Democrat who spoke up when the time was right.
“He wasn’t one of these guys who liked to hear the sound of his own voice, so yes, he may have been reserved, but he was outspoken when the moment called for it,” said Stratton. “He wasn’t overly partisan and he was independent, but he was always proud of being a Democrat. He believed in the ideals of the party. He was about providing jobs for minorities, helping labor unions and creating a civilian review board for the police. He was a great advocate not only for Hamilton Hill but also for diversity. I have very fond memories of him.”
Allen went on to serve as City Council president.
Current Schenectady Mayor Gary B. McCarthy got to know Joe Allen while campaigning for a City Council seat in 1995.
“He came up a few votes short the first time, so he was determined to leave no stone unturned two years later,” said McCarthy. “He knew a lot of people in the city and put in a lot of hard work. He was a good friend, and I’m very happy that we were able to put his name on the new apartment building at the corner of Albany and Hulett streets. He liked the city and he loved his neighborhood. Now there is a lasting memorial for his many contributions.”
Marsha Mortimore, whose book “The Early African American Presence in the City and County of Schenectady” recounts the Black experience in Schenectady, remembers seeing Joe Allen in church every Sunday at the Duryee Memorial AME Zion Church.
“Joe and his entire family were very active in our church and the community,” said Mortimore. “I remember seeing him sitting in the same spot every Sunday. He was a very caring person and really looked after our church members who were seniors. He was very loving.”
Lakeia Allen Bowman remembers the time her father began going to City Hall once a week as a concerned citizen.
“He was so involved in the community that he thought he should go, and he never liked those closed-door meetings that they had at the end of the night,” remembered Allen Bowman. “He couldn’t access that information and that upset him. He wanted to know what was going on behind those doors, and I think that was what gave him the original spark to run. He wanted to be in a place where he could help people improve their lives.”
Running for elected office as a Black man in 1995 didn’t come without serious concerns.
“When he lost the first time, we got a letter from the KKK and I remember my dad contacted the FBI about it,” said Allen Bowman. “He tried to protect me from all of that horrible stuff, but we sat down and had a conversation about it because he wanted me to be aware of what was going on. He wanted me to be mindful and be on the lookout for trouble.”
While the Allen brothers were the first to throw their hats in the ring and run for political office, they had plenty of support from others in the Black community.
“Both my father and my uncle were a major influence on the Black population,” said Art Allen Jr. “But there were others, through the church or groups like the Silhouettes, that did so much. Guys like James Stamper and Ralph Boyd, they were a pretty tight group with my family. They all worked together with my father, and with uncle Joe you just knew he was all about helping people. Everything he did was about helping others.”