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Notable Names In Albany's Black History

MLK Memorial
WAMC Photo by Dave Lucas

As the nation pauses to remember the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we take a look at some of the people and businesses regarded as milemarkers on the timeline of black history in our area...

Albany historian former Assemblyman Jack McEneny traces the city's rich history of black entrepreneurship back to the 1800's.  "Schuyler tugboat company, which did the major towing between New York city and Albany in the 19th century... a very prominent family... one of them was president of a local bank. You can still see Captain Schuyler's wonderful turret that's built on top of the building at the corner of Ash Grove Place and Trinity Place, where he could go up and watch is boats come in through the river. Somebody who would be considered Albany's black millionaire was the original builder of the Kenmore Hotel was Adam Blake."

There's also Stephen and Harriet Meyers, journalists who were active in the fabled "Road to Freedom," their Livingston Avenue home a station on the Underground Railroad.  "The Stephen & Harriet Meyers name is more than just a name on a middle school. It's a tradition of a seek to freedom, an ability to stand up to conventional biases of the day."

And moving into the 20th century, distinguished war veteran Henry Johnson. "The first American of any color or ethnicity to win the croix de guerres with the palm,  which is pretty close to what we could call the medal of honor in France in the first World War."

In the 20th century, McEneny notes, black businesses were smaller in Albany; many young men sought jobs in civil service and as attorneys, one of whom was elected to serve as a judge.  "His name was Thomas Matthews. A very prominent person. he's honored over in the Albany Law School." 

Joe Condon of Albany Broadcasting has been on area radio since the Capital Region was known as "the tri-cities," for about five decades. He says local black businesses got a boost in the early 1960s from local black radio talent. That came about because of Toni Brady - a pioneering female general manager at Albany's WABY.   "Being a general manager of a radio station and also being Jewish, she received a lot of discrimination. They would have monthly meetings of radios station general managers at Keeler's in Albany, male only in the bar area, and she would ignore that and couldn't go to the meetings. Also, when she would take a flight, because she was a woman, she couldn't fly business class. So she experienced discrimination and she saw what it was like."

Brady embraced the tri-cities' black community. "...and she hired Pee Wee Harris to do a Sunday morning  Gospel show as well as doing Saturday nights and Sunday nights playing the current contemporary rhythm and blues hits at the time."  Harris was a savvy businessman - youth of all colors flocked to his "Ten Eyck Record Shop" on South Pearl Street to buy 45's, dance and just hang out. Businesses with names like Garland Brothers Funeral home, Harder Beauty Supplies, Mackey and Modern Barber Shop dotted the cityscape. Sara Hill, Proctor's Marketing Manager, recalls small retail stores were gathering places.  "...we just came to for information and just dialog, whether we were talking about the games, the social awareness or current events. Barber shops and record shops were the social life of the black community."

And musically at least, what happened in the black community trickled over into the white community.  Condon shares an anecdote from Lee Gray, a white deejay who programmed top 40 station WTRY.  "Every week he felt it vital to talk with Pee wee Harris about local record sales, also Abe Pock he would talk to at the Blue Note Record shop, because those guys were honest and reflected what was going on."

In time, Harris became more more influential. One of his protoges would later play a major role in bringing the Martin Luther King memorial to downtown Albany and renaming a section of Northern Boulevard “Henry Johnson Boulevard.”

Condon recalled that "Pee Wee Harris would bring in different members of the black community. Art Mitchell was one of them. He would be your church reporter. Toni Brady said 'you should do your own show' - so the, Brother Percy Ivy of the Albany community started doing his own show...and then, Artis Kitchen and the Kitchenettes started doing their own show, so you had this 'minority block' on Sunday morning."  

Again, Sara Hill.   "Artis Kitchen was a huge promoter of Gospel music, and he brought famous Gospel singers to the Capital Region back in the 60s, 70s, right up until his death in the 80s. To sum it up, this was a trailblazer, and he really started some wonderful things with his own Gospel ministry and Gospel group, the Kitchennaires. And we're playing homage to him in April for our 3rd Gospel Jubillee at Proctor's. He had a saying: one of the things he used to end his television show with was 'be kind to the people you meet on your way up for they might be the same people you meet on your way down.'"

Artis Kitchen filled the local airwaves with his "Spiritual Time" radio show for more than four decades. The so-called 'minority' block continued through the early 1980s when WABY was sold.

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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