From Vicksburg to Schenectady, Charles Nelson, a 15-year-old slave, followed all the rules. Then, with the help of a black barber named Richard P.G. Wright, he dared to become a free man.
At midnight on a summer evening in 1838, Nelson met Wright in a dark corner of Schenectady, and the latter put the young man in the charge of a local Quaker who took him to Saratoga Springs. Once there, noted abolitionist Mason Anthony drove Nelson across the Vermont border to Rokeby and the farm of another abolitionist, Rowland Thomas Robinson. Robinson hooked up his carriage and he and Nelson headed farther north to Montpelier and the home of Chauncy L. Knapp, Vermont’s secretary of state.
As far as local historian Marsha Mortimore knows, the story ends up a happy one, with young Nelson growing to manhood and living out his years in Vermont as a free man.
As for Wright, it’s a good example of how he spent much of his time from the 1820s through the 1840s, and it’s just part of the history Mortimore will discuss at 11:30 a.m. Tuesday at the Lally Mohawk Room as part of Schenectady County Community College’s celebration of Black History Month.
‘The Early African-American Presence in the City of Schenectady’
WHERE: Lally Mohawk Room, Schenectady County Community College
WHEN: 11:30 a.m. Tuesday
HOW MUCH: Free
MORE INFO: 381-1218, www.sunysccc.edu/bhm
“The more I looked into the Wright family, the more exciting the history was,” said Mortimore, whose talk is titled “The Early African-American Presence in the City of Schenectady.”
“I can remember seeing his grave at Vale Cemetery, and then I kept seeing the name in different places and how he was affiliated with the Freemasons and the abolitionists. He really piqued my interest in early African-American history in Schenectady.”
Nelson’s story, meanwhile, begins on a plantation in Vicksburg. When his master, Mr. Campbell, journeyed to Baltimore to get married, and then farther north to Saratoga Springs for his honeymoon, he had been accompanied by Nelson as his valet. When Campbell tired of Saratoga after a week, he decided to take his young wife to Niagara Falls, but its proximity to Canada persuaded him to leave his slave at a hotel in Schenectady.
Schedule of events
Monday, 11:30-1 p.m. — Lally Mohawk Room. Free.
David Stovall presents Social Justice in Education: Struggle, Process and Victory in Challenging Times.
Tuesday, 11:30 a.m. — Lally Mohawk Room. Free.
Marsha Mortimore presentation: see above infobox.
Wednesday, 11 a.m. — Student Activity Forum. Free.
African American Cultural Festival, including a performance by Zorkie Nelson of the Hamilton Hill Cultural Arts Center.
Thursday, 11 a.m. — Student Activity Forum. Free.
Cassandra Carter presents Waka Waka Africa.
Friday and Saturday, 7:30 p.m., Feb. 17, 3 p.m. —Taylor Auditorium. Free.
Soul Rebel Performance Troupe, Inc. will perform “Camp Logan,” directed and produced by Jean-Remy Monnay.
Feb. 18, 12:30 p.m. — Lally Mohawk Room. Free.
Wes Holloway presents Texas and the Emancipation Proclamation.
Feb. 19, 2:25 p.m. — Stockade Building, Room 101. Free.
Johanna Ortner presents Black Women’s Anti-Slavery Activism in the Antebellum Period.
Feb. 20, 12:30 p.m. — Stockade Building, Room 101. Free.
Brandie Dingman presents Critical Mass or Critical Mess: Diversity and Inclusion in Education in 21st Century America.
Feb. 21, 6-8 p.m. — Taylor Auditorium. Free
Rev. Leonard Comithier presents The Impact of Negro Hymns, Spirituals, and Gospel Music in the Lives of African Americans and the Black Church.
Feb. 27, 11:30 a.m. — Van Curler Room. $18
Soul Food Luncheon.
“The master wanted to go to Niagara Falls, but he didn’t want Charles getting that close to Canada,” said Mortimore, who began digging into black history in Schenectady when she began doing research on her church, the Duryee Memorial AME Zion Church on Hulett Street.
“P.G. Wright was helping slaves escape. When he met Charles, he said, ‘Do you want to be free?’ They met later that night and while Mr. Campbell was on his way to Niagara Falls, Charles was on his way to Vermont.”
While Wright was a prominent part of the Underground Railroad that went through Schenectady from the 1820s to the 1840s, his real claim to fame is that in 1828 his son, Theodore Sedgewick Wright, became the first black man to graduate from Princeton Seminary. The same year he graduated, he became the pastor at the First Colored Presbyterian Church of New York City.
In 1844, both men became affiliated with the Masons through St. George’s Lodge No. 6, which began at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Schenectady, not too far from where the elder Wright lived at 84 North Ferry St.
“In 1817, P.G. Wright took his son to Philadelphia for a big anti-slavery convention that attracted more than 3,000 people,” said Mortimore.
“He had similar beliefs to his father’s, and they were both involved with the Freemason movement. His father was very successful, and made sure his son had a good education. He went to a free Methodist school on Clinton Street in Schenectady, and because of that he was able to go to Princeton.”
The Wrights, who were connected to the St. George’s Lodge of the Masons, both died in 1847. The father was around 74 years of age, while the son was 50. As happy as Mortimore was to learn about the family, her research did result in some frustration.
“There’s absolutely nothing about the women,” she said. “I learned about how they were against colonization, and how Theodore Wright made some awesome speeches against slavery. But no reference to his wife, ever, or his mother. We know nothing about the women.”
Mortimore’s program is one of several being held at SCCC over the next two weeks.
At 11:30 a.m. on Monday in the Lally Mohawk Room, David Stovall of the University of Illinois at Chicago will speak about social justice in education.
Stovall is an associate professor of Educational Policy Studies and African-American Studies at the college, and over the past 11 years has been involved in social justice education efforts in Chicago public schools and across the country.
Also, the Soul Rebel Performance Troupe will offer three presentations of “Camp Logan,” a play written by Celeste Bedford Walker and based on the 1917 courts-martial and executions of 19 black soldiers. Jean-Remy Monnay is directing and producing the three shows, which will be performed Friday and Saturday night at 7:30 and Sunday at 3 p.m. at the Taylor Auditorium.