FOCUS ON HISTORY: Amsterdam’s remarkable Wilson family

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Benjamin Wilson responded with more information after reading the recent column describing his Amsterdam ancestors. 

Wilson is retired chairman of the prestigious Washington, D.C., law firm of Beveridge & Diamond. A Harvard Law School alumnus, he was an environmental litigator and advocate for diversity and inclusion.

Wilson is the son of the late Harrison Wilson Jr., a basketball standout at Amsterdam High School in the early 1940s. Harrison Jr. went on to become president of Norfolk State University in Virginia in 1975 and led that historically black institution until his retirement in 1997. He died in 2019 at age 94.

Ben Wilson said when he was a child most summers his family in Virginia visited his Amsterdam grandparents, Harrison Sr. and Marguerite Wilson, at their home on Cedar Street. 

Harrison Sr. and Marguerite raised eight children, four male and four female, all born in Amsterdam and now all deceased. They were, from eldest to youngest, Martha Ellen Wilson Marshall, Edward Wilson, Margaret C. Wilson, Mary Alida Wilson, Harrison Benjamin Wilson, Jr., Virginia Wilson Howard, Willis Thomas Wilson and Albert John Wilson.

Marguerite and Harrison Sr. emphasized education in raising their family. Marguerite, formerly a school teacher in Kentucky, was named Mother of the Year in a national competition. 

Martha, the eldest Amsterdam Wilson sibling. won the girls’ acting award when she graduated high school in 1931. She was a classmate of Isadore Demsky who became the movie actor Kirk Douglas. Martha became a nurse in El Paso, Texas, and her mother Marguerite died in El Paso in 1960.

The youngest Amsterdam Wilson sibling, Albert, died last year. He was an honors student and athlete at Lynch High School and Indiana University. He became a real estate attorney, and was a pioneer in corporate social responsibility. Ben Wilson said, “He helped develop corporate America’s response to investment in South Africa in the late 1980s and 1990s.”

Ben Wilson remembers visiting the Amsterdam parking lot on Federal Street which the Wilsons operated near, he said, a diner with great hamburgers and the police station, which had a soda machine.

Ben Wilson said, “We visited my grandfather Harrison Benjamin Wilson, Sr. at the parking lot, and my father and uncles would help my grandfather at the parking lot. My grandfather worked that lot every day until his mid-eighties. He died in 1982 at age 93.

“We engaged in typical family activities, visiting the museum in Albany, the World’s Fair in New York City and going to Caroga Lake and Lake George,” he said.

 “I had an interest in history and the year before I went away to school my parents took me to General Herkimer’s home and the area homes of Sir William Johnson. This was helpful when I had to read ‘Drums Along the Mohawk’ for English class. My teacher could not believe I had actually been to several sites described in the novel.”

Ben’s brother, the late Harrison Wilson III, was the father of National Football League quarterback Russell Wilson, now with the Denver Broncos.

In 2016 Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., who hosts a public television genealogy program, interviewed Russell at a public event called the Richmond Forum.

Gates found that Harrison Wilson Sr. came to Amsterdam from Kentucky in 1920 in part because he had an older brother, Albert, in Amsterdam. Gates said Harrison Senior owned property in Kentucky. His father had been enslaved and fought with the Colored Troops of the Union army in the Civil War.

Ben Wilson’s sister April Wilson Woodard is a TV journalist known for her work as a correspondent on the newsmagazine Inside Edition.

Categories: Fulton Montgomery Schoharie, Opinion

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