People often have pre-conceived ideas about historical periods, thanks in part to Hollywood. However history is at its best when it is presented on a smaller more personal level, the history of real people in real towns dealing with what seem to most of us, extraordinary circumstances.
Life in 1800’s Albany would have been trying for anyone. Diseases were rampant in those days; travel was tedious and took a long time. Education was not available to everyone. It may be hard for us to imagine now what life was like for our predecessors back then. Life for the African-American Albanian must have been even tougher.
The newspaper founded by Nelson Tift, The Albany Patriot, listed a tax digest for May of 1958. The total number of Albanians at that time was 1,458. Of that number 512 people were listed as slaves, five people were listed as “free Negroes” and two slaves were listed as being able to earn their own wages.
Dorcas Bryant was born a slave in Albany. After emancipation was declared, she and her three sons fled Georgia and settled in what is now Tampa, Florida. With the help of the Native Americans there, they cleared 60 acres of palmetto and forest land and made a farm for her family. Most of the old homestead later became downtown Tampa.
In “The History and Reminiscences of Dougherty County”, published by the Daughters of The American Revolution (DAR), there are some interesting accounts of “free Negroes” and their lives here in Albany. There is the story of “Uncle Jack” Chapman and his family.
They left Albany and moved to Africa and settled in Liberia (a colony established for freed slaves). Sometime after reaching Liberia, several family members died. One of Chapman’s daughters wrote to The Herald begging for assistance from Albanians so that she and the remaining family members could return to Albany. They were very unhappy in Liberia and wanted come back to America. There is nothing in the account to say if they were successful in returning to Albany.
The DAR book also speaks of a black man by the last name of Fielding that was born a slave but had gotten his master to pay him wages for his work. He saved his money and was then able to buy his own freedom. In fact he was so good at saving his money he even managed to buy a farm just two to three miles west of Albany. What happened next was ironic, Fielding, himself born a slave, had by at the start of the Civil War bought and owned slaves.
Professor James L. Murray was born into slavery. He managed to educate himself enough to later attend Fisk University, a historically black college in Tennessee. He taught at the college to help earn his tuition. After graduation, Murray became the principal of Albany Normal School which was a school for teachers.
Henry Hall and his wife Ann came to Albany from Montezuma, Georgia to work for Nelson Tift. Ann Hall ran the Tift household and Henry Hall was the overseer of Tift’s dairy farm in the late 1800’s. Hall was in control of all the operations of the farm including the marketing of products.
These stories are probably not typical for that time period, but may be little known to most people in Albany today.
Betty Rehberg is the historian for the Albany Journal and maintains a group on Facebook called Vintage Albany Georgia.