In a recent article in the Washington Post, author Sydney Trent narrates the story of Stephanie Gilbert, a descendant of Oliver C. Gilbert, and her quest to learn of her ancestor and visit his place of birth and enslavement. The article briefly discusses O.C. Gilbert’s life in Saratoga Springs, NY, from about 1860 to 1876, when he moved to Pennsylvania.
Saratoga Springs offered many opportunities for employment, and it was said that while many of the Southern gentleman brought their slaves with them as they took in the season at The Spa, many of the Black men and women serving them were probably former enslaved people who had run for their freedom. Moreover, while Gilbert’s primary legacy is as a lecturer and musician, his political activism both before and while living in Saratoga Springs places him in the company of many prominent abolitionists, businessmen and politicians who continued the fight for racial equality as Jim Crow laws were becoming commonplace in America.
In the State of New York, full manumission of enslaved people occurred in 1827. Prior to 1820, all free men who owned at least $250 worth of property were allowed to vote; legislation changed that to Free Black men who owned $250 worth of property- White people did no longer were means tested.
While the laws and voting rights and restrictions varied in the other Northern States, there remained widespread resistance to the prospect of equal rights for Black citizens even though many White people were opposed to slavery and its spread in the South and West as new States joined the Union. The 1830s saw the rise of the Moral Reform Movement as a means to persuade them to alter their perceptions.
The advent of The Liberator, a newspaper published by abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison in Boston, served as a voice for the disenfranchised Black citizen. Vehemently opposed to slavery, Garrison called for temperance and high moral character to be practiced as the means to demonstrate the true character of the Black community, thereby raising their social status, and furthering to demonstrate the atrocities of enslaving them. The Liberator also served as a means for Black people to communicate and develop organizations, establishing themselves as upright citizens through intellectual discourse.
The First Annual Convention of the People of Colour was held in Philadelphia in 1831. Delegates from eight States attended and the first order of business was the formation of a committee to explore the development of a higher education facility for Black students. Education was seen as key to the future of the Black community. While the Education Committee failed in its pursuit, the format and organization of the Convention flourished- between 1830 to 1864, sixty-two Colored Conventions were held in various parts of the North, including Boston, Baltimore, Syracuse, Troy, Utica, Philadelphia, Albany and Buffalo among others.
For many years, William Lloyd Garrison and his newspaper The Liberator, was the most prominent abolitionist voice. But Garrison’s staunch insistence on the use of moral persuasion with no political involvement for Black people and his recommendations that the North secede from the Union, contrasted sharply with others such as Gerrit Smith, Henry Highland Garnet, William Rich, William Topp, Benjamin Lattimore, Jr. and ultimately, Frederick Douglass.
A controversial New York Anti-Slavery Convention in Utica, NY in 1835 highlighted the rifts within the Abolitionist movement. The followers of Garrison believed the U.S. Constitution was a flawed document in that it allowed for slavery and it should be destroyed and rewritten and that political processes were evil. Others argued the Constitution actually ensured slavery was not allowed and voting and participation in the political process was what would bring about the end to slavery.
Followed by an equally important Colored Convention in Albany in 1840 where the ability to vote was identified as the most desired goal, the Liberty Party emerged as the most prominent voice for Abolitionism among both Blacks and Whites. Gerrit Smith, a wealthy White landowner, led the move to locate the New York contingent in upstate Peterboro, Madison County, NY.
Other Black owned newspapers began to be published and the debates continued on their pages. Garrison was essentially sidelined in New York although he continued to publish The Liberator until 1865 and to
strongly support the abolition of slavery.
Oliver Cromwell Gilbert was born enslaved on an estate in Maryland in about 1828. His father Joseph Kelly was a free man but his mother Cynthia Snowden’s status as an enslaved person was passed on to
all her eight children. Oliver was about 20 years old when he escaped with fifteen other young men and began his flight North to freedom along the Underground Railroad.
Enroute, he was reunited with his brother Reuben. Given the escape was publicized and a warrant had been issued for Oliver Kelly’s capture, a group of Quakers who were assisting the freedom seekers advised them to change their names – Reuben changed his to Amos Gilbert and Oliver became Oliver Cromwell Gilbert.
While enslaved, Gilbert had worked as a house servant, and he was able to secure work as a waiter in the city of New York. An encounter with a relative of his former enslaver terrified Gilbert and he again sought assistance from the Underground Railroad and he was soon on his way to Boston.
While living in the home of the Rev. Timothy Gilbert, an unrelated prominent member of the abolitionist movement and the Boston Vigilance Committee, the Anti-Slavery Society and resource for the Underground Railroad, he was tutored by the Reverend’s wife and quickly learned to read and write. He also met many other prominent Abolitionists of both races, people including William Lloyd Garrison, William Cooper Nell, Wendell Phillips, William J. Watkins and Frederick Douglass.
In 1851, following the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, several incidents in Boston involving the capture of other freedom seekers prompted Gilbert to move to Lee, New Hampshire. With a letter of introduction written by
William Lloyd Garrison, Gilbert lived among educated Quakers in Lee for about two years, building his literacy skills and developing and refining his gifts for oratory and music.
In 1854, Gilbert was touring Massachusetts and New York with William J. Watkins, lecturing about his experiences as an enslaved man and his journey to freedom and entertaining the crowds with his singing. Chronicles of this tour were sent to Frederick Douglass, apprising him of the content and responses to the Abolitionist message they were advocating. August 1854 found Gilbert and Watkins at a Colored Convention in Saratoga Springs.
Dubbed the “Saratoga Fandango” by the New York Tribune, the convenors desire to unite the various political parties to join as one in opposition to slavery was unsuccessful; resolutions regarding the need to promote education brought agreement. And O.C.Gilbert’s singing was appreciatively noted. The tour continued throughout New York, the entourage eventually returning to Rochester where Watkins lived and worked as an editor on Frederick Douglass’s Paper.
Various newspaper accounts trace some of Gilbert’s brushes with less desirable behavior and his activities were publicly denounced by Watkins. Yet, the 1855 New York census shows Gilbert living in the Watkins home with William and his wife Annette, who was originally from Haiti. By 1860, the Watkins had moved to Toronto, Canada. According to Gilbert’s descendant, he moved to Saratoga Springs and married Maria Thompson.
Gilbert does not appear to have served in the Civil War. By 1865 he and his growing family were living at 56 Washington St at the home of John R. Wood, a free man who had accumulated enough money to purchase several properties in Saratoga Springs before and during the War. According to the City Directories, O.C. Gilbert ran an ice cream parlor at that address.
In 1870, Gilbert took out a chattel mortgage from Wood and purchased multiple items to furnish the high-end Boarding House that he ran on the property and named The Gilbert House. Wood, who is listed as a boarder in the house, at that point owned and operated a barbershop in the basement of the American Hotel. Gilbert advertised the Gilbert House as a high-end hotel for prominent Black people, noting names such as Frederick Douglass, Thomas Bowers, Henry Highland Garnet and Peter Baltimore as his guests.
While the Spa continued to offer many employment opportunities for Black workers, the influx of Irish and German immigrants and job seekers was clearly felt, reflecting a national trend. Black workers found themselves hired last, paid less, and worked harder than the White immigrant workers. They were also excluded from apprenticeships, newly forming unions, and trade associations.
While they were allowed membership in the supposedly race inclusive National Labor Union, they were silenced unless they agreed to abandon the Republican Party; the Republican Party had absorbed the Liberty Party through its support for anti-slavery laws and was at that time the political party of choice for most Blacks.
1870 was a pivotal year for Black Americans. While the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendments abolished slavery and the 14th amendment granted Black people citizenship, it is not until the passage and ratification of the 15th amendment in 1869/1870 that the Black male is allowed to vote in all States.
In late 1869, with ratification all but assured, a call was put out by Black labor leaders for the organization of Colored Labor Conventions at the state and regional levels to organize issues, adopt resolutions and elect delegates to a National Colored Labor Convention to be held in Washington DC in late 1870. It was an excellent opportunity for them to demonstrate their political existence through political organization.
The New York State Colored Labor Convention was opened on August 24, 1870 in Saratoga Springs. O.C. Gilbert was elected to be the Secretary and John R. Wood was the Sargent-at-Arms. Of particular note was the decision to include women. After some discussion, it was agreed that since women were also in the labor force they deserved a voice in the deliberations.
The Rev. Henry Highland Garnet gave a rousing speech. The various committees discussed and passed multiple resolutions. Support was strongly voiced for participation in the greater American capitalist society and people were encouraged to participate in the Freedman’s Bank. Attendees were encouraged to vote the Republican ticket. And again, education was identified as the most important component for success of Black citizens.
A delegation for the National convention was chosen and a resolution was passed, albeit regretfully that it had to be separate from the White union, for the formation of a National Labor Union.
Following the convention, O.C. Gilbert appeared at a Music Festival held at Hathorn Hall singing with Philadelphian Thomas Bowers, an opera singer known as the “Colored Mario.” This friendship and collaboration may have been part of the impetus for Gilbert to move from Saratoga in 1876. But not before he participated in another committee in arranging the celebration of Ulysses S. Grant’s presidential win in 1872. Gilbert again chaired a state convention for members of the Republican Party in 1876, where he also entertained.
The exact reason why O.C. Gilbert chose to move from Saratoga Springs to Philadelphia is somewhat of a mystery, but his subsequent success with his musical family performing as the Gilbert Family Jubilee Singers is one of his finest legacies.
Lorie Wies is a semi-retired Local History Librarian at the Saratoga Springs Public Library. She has written articles and conducted programs related to Saratoga history on wide ranging topics- from the Kayaderosseras Patent, to the Saratoga Lake Houses, and Racing Handicapping. She is currently working on a project tracing the story of an African-American family through multiple generations.
You can read more about O.C. Gilbert at the website of Stephanie Gilbert, the 2nd great granddaughter of Oliver Cromwell Kelly Gilbert.
Illustrations, from above: Portrait of O.C. Gilbert (from ocgilbert.com); A runaway advertisement for Oliver Kelly Gilbert from the Baltimore Sun, August 22, 1848; advertisement for The Gilbert House in the New Washington Era and Citizen, Sept. 26/27, 1873.