In the early 19th century, Schenectady played host to a distinctly American process through which hundreds of Black people gained their freedom. Although Schenectady County had a small enclave of free African Americans into the late colonial period, the overwhelming majority of Black Schenectadians were enslaved.
As New York State legislation gradually abolished the institution of slavery by 1827, many Black Schenectadians had to confront a new reality in which they were legally independent, but by no means legally equal.
One of these people was John Wendell [Jr.] whose birth remains shrouded in mystery.
Key insights about Wendell’s birth come from Harriet Paige, a Schenectady socialite writing nearly 60 years after the fact. According to Paige, Wendell’s maternal grandmother Pye was enslaved by the Van Dyck family in Schenectady, while John’s grandfather, Tom, had been enslaved by the prosperous Bloodgood family of Albany.
We may never know how Pye and Tom met each other and its possible they were married before they were free. In any case, it would appear they began their lives together in Albany. The 1800 census lists two men in Albany as “Free Tom.” While we’ll never know for sure, it’s likely that one of these two men was John Wendell [Jr.]’s grandfather. Records from later in their lives show that Tom and Pye used the Bloodgood surname.
Unfortunately, we know nothing about their children, including the daughter who would become John Wendell [Jr.]’s mother. We don’t know when she was born or even her first name. The one thing we do know about her is that she was of child-bearing age around the year 1800.
The Wendell family traces its roots back to Evert Jansen Wendell, who came to New Amsterdam from Germany in 1649. Through the colonial period the Wendell family amassed property and married into other prominent white families like the Glens, Lansings and Van Rensselaers. Their influence was such that even today their name appears on street signs throughout the Capital District.
While Tom and Pye are difficult to identify in the 1800 census, Hermanus Ahasuerus Wendell is listed at the head of his household, which included a wife, five children, and three enslaved people. The Wendells were a family of considerable wealth, at the top of the socioeconomic order. How could their story intersect that of the formerly enslaved Bloodgoods? The answer is Hermanus’s son John Wendell [Sr.], the father of the John Wendell [Jr.], the subject of this essay.
What exactly transpired will likely remain a mystery but at some point soon after 1800 census, the black Ms. Bloodgood and the white John Wendell conceived a child together, who would also be named John Wendell. Harriet Paige tells us that the young John Wendell [Jr.] was born when his father was just 14 years old.
The young age of John Wendell [Jr.]’s father suggests that his mother was also quite young when he was born. If she was, perhaps, a hired servant girl of the Wendell family, that might explain how these two children from different social spheres came into contact. It was quite common for poorer families, both white and black, to hire adolescent children out to make ends meet. But, perhaps, we shouldn’t let our imaginations run too far with this. We must also wonder if this was a consensual relationship. Indeed, given the racial power dynamics in play, we must wonder if modern notions of consent were even intelligible in this time period.
Throughout the first half of the 19th century, we can see evidence that sexual liaisons between white and black people were not uncommon in Albany or Schenectady. In another of her stories Harriet Paige says Dr. William Anderson, a white Schenectady physician, was “hand in glove with everyone down to a Negro Wench.”
One day, Paige tells us, “he got into trouble with a girl of Mrs. Campbell’s and ran away on account of it.” Anderson spent some years in exile in New Orleans only to die while returning to Schenectady. Furthermore, in a remarkable coincidence, in 1826 we see another white Wendell man worried about some “trouble” he was in.
The Schenectady County Historical Society collections include a letter in which a friend counsels a distraught Henry Wendell on how to handle a “sick” woman who was formerly in his employ. We should note that even in this confidential letter, this friend is unwilling to speak plainly about what happened or who the woman was. The veiled references and euphemisms used are a testament to the scandal such a situation could create. Speaking broadly, the 1860 U.S. Census reported that of the 241 non-white people living in Schenectady, 60 were of mixed race. Among these 60 people there are 15 unique surnames.
While sex undoubtedly happened (either consensually or some variation of otherwise), marriage between people of different races was unthinkable. There is for example, not one interracial married couple listed in the federal censuses of Schenectady until 1900. Marriage was apparently not an option for the parents of John Wendell, but as scandalous as the liaison was it would be an even greater disgrace if the Wendells did nothing to support baby John Wendell.
In Harriet Paige’s accounts, we commonly see young men needing to pay cash settlements to women with whom they had affairs, but whom they had no intentions of marrying. In the aforementioned case of 1826, Henry Wendell apparently had to make “satisfactory arrangements” with the family of the Black woman he impregnated. On behalf of his young son John, Hermanus Wendell must have come to some arrangement with the young Ms. Bloodgood and her parents to support the grandson he wouldn’t otherwise acknowledge. Although his father was white, throughout his life John Wendell [Jr.] would be identified as “colored” and considered a part of the Schenectady’s Black community.
By 1810, Pye and Tom Bloodgood had moved to Schenectady where they would raise John Wendell [Jr.] along with his young mother. It may be that Hermanus Wendell required the Bloodgoods to leave Albany as a condition of their settlement. We know from Harriet Paige that they lived in a house along Green Street, still unnumbered in those days.
Unfortunately that’s where specific details end. The Bloodgoods and young John Wendell [Jr.] disappear from the census for several decades, although other evidence suggests they still lived in Schenectady.
John Wendell’s Life In Context
In 1810, there were 183 free Black Schenectadians listed in the census, plus at least 318 enslaved people. Altogether Black Schenectadians represented about 7% of the Schenectady County’s population. Those who were enslaved were considered the property of their enslavers. The Bloodgoods were free and had some legal standing. Court documents from the period show that crimes committed by white persons against free black people were sometimes prosecuted.
The Bloodgoods were however, considered second class citizens. They lacked voting rights and were treated unequally in local churches and in white society. In the encyclopedic writings of the 18th century socialite Harriet Paige, she mentions only a handful of African Americans, described as domestic workers, food vendors, and general laborers. She speaks of them in amicable yet noticeably distant terms.
They were not a part of her society. In one passage Paige mentions an old building visible in a “Negro Lane,” a term used so casually and without explanation that it must have been commonly understood in her time. I believe this particular “Negro Lane” was a rear alley way in which Black domestic servants could access a wealthy home without being seen or heard, much like we understand a servants’ staircase today. It serves as a telling metaphor for the social realities John Wendell [Jrr.] and the Bloodgoods faced as Black Schenectadians in the 1800s.
As John Wendell [Jr.] participated in a variety of occupations. Martlet’s 1841 Schenectady City Directory includes the detail that he published the Globe Recess, a short-lived publication about which little is known. The 1861 directory describes him as a “fruit dealer.”
He was probably best known however, as a barber, a business he operated as early as 1824, when he took out an advertisement to alert customers his shop would be moving from State to Ferry Street. His role as a self-employed barber suggests John Wendell [Jr.] was among the most prominent people of color in Schenectady.
In the early 19th century Schenectady’s public schools were closed to Black children. Many Black men at this time were farm laborers, but few could acquire the acres of land needed to be a farm owner. Census data from later in the century shows that no Black men entered into artisanal professions that required an apprenticeship. Trades like blacksmithing, broom making, or carpentry were exclusively white. Prevailing racist attitudes of the day ensured white tradesmen would not take black apprentices.
The barber’s trade was a unique opportunity for Black men. It required no formal schooling (perhaps only a little training from a fellow barber) and a relatively small initial investment for supplies or overhead. Other well-known Black barbers in Schenectady at this time included Francis Dana and Richard P.G. Wright, but these men, remarkable as they were, came to Schenectady from out of state and did not permanently settle here. John Wendell’s story is a truly local one and even among this notable group of Black professionals, he proved to be particularly successful.
The 1860 census taker valued his real estate holdings at $2,000 and his personal property at an extra $100. This would make him the second richest person of color in Schenectady at the time. John Wendell [Jr.] also used his position in the service of Schenectady’s Black community.
He was wealthy enough to vote in New York, and was politically active. He served as one of the first trustees of Schenectady’s African Methodist Episcopal Church and in 1840 was the secretary at a meeting of Black activists seeking an expanded voting franchise. Through his writings, Wendell advocated for greater equality for Black people in New York. He petitioned the Common Council to better fund the City’s segregated Black school.
He and his wife Abigail (Abby) had at least nine children and lived in what must have been an impressive $2,000 home in the city’s Third Ward, near the corner of what was then Pine and Fonda Streets. While some white families lived there as well, the area had the highest concentration of Black families and property owners in the city; more than a dozen households in close proximity (in 1860 most of these people were property owners).
Looking more broadly, we can find people of color living in every ward of the city in the 19th century. Those living in the first and second wards, areas developed during the colonial period, tend to be domestic servants living in the home of white employers; there are few Black households there. The third, fourth, and later fifth wards of the city, while considered inner city wards today, were the newly developing areas in the early 19th century. For a generation of newly freed people, these areas were the most accessible.
The Black neighborhood where the Wendell family lived was displaced by the Schenectady Locomotive works at the end of the century. Today Fonda Street is known as North Jay Street (it was designated “Little Italy” in 2004). Walking the area today, there is no evidence of what it may have looked like in John Wendell’s time.
John Wendell died in 1875 at over 70 years old and his wife Abigail passed away not long after. Many of their children remained in Schenectady for another two generations, and carried on the proud reputation of their parents. Two of their sons, Peter and Robert, followed their father in the barber’s trade with similar success.
Mike Diana is the Education & Programs Manager for the Schenectady County Historical Society. A version of this article first appeared in Schenectady County Historical Society Newsletter, Volume 65. You can become a member online at schenectadyhistorical.org.
Illustrations, from above: a black barber shaves the face of a lounging white man in a barber shop, from The Illustrated London News, March 9th, 1861 courtesy University of Missouri Libraries; Barber Ad from Schenectady City Directory; the approximate location of John Wendell’s barber shop in 1824, the intersection of Ferry and State Streets; and John Wendell appears in the 1850 Federal Census along with his wife Abby, five children and an older woman whose relation is unknown.