Any photos not otherwise credited are from the personal collection of Frank Passic, Albion Historian.
Albion Recorder, February 14, 2002, pg. 13
Albion has had an African-American population living here dating back to the 1840s. This week in honor of “Black History Month” we’ll briefly survey some 19th century African-American history in Albion. One person in town who has done extensive research on this topic is Robert E. Wall, whose findings no doubt will be fascinating when they are published. Yours truly has kept a file about local black history through the years which contains in part, obscure newspaper clippings of “local news” from the late 1800s concerning our African-American population. These provide a glimpse of what life was like in those days.
Another source of information available to us is the U.S. Census records. In looking through the Census records of the period, we find that the majority of Albion’s early black men listed their occupations as either barbers, such as a Richard Randolph, who lived in Albion Township. Some were listed as housekeepers. One is listed as a “calciminer.” No, he didn’t mine calcimine, but that was the term for a “white-washer” of walls in the days of dirty fuel sources for heating homes. This particular person was listed later as a paper hanger (wallpaper).”
The 1860 Census lists several black families living here. Among them was the family of Solomon Hurst, age 36, a native of Virginia. A barber by trade, Hurst came to Albion in 1851 and owned several tracts of land worth about $1,000. He was known as the wealthiest black in the village, but at the time of his death in 1895 he was living in the county poorhouse in Marshall. Hurst’s home was on the west side of S. Eaton St. just south of Porter St. Also here in 1860 were the families of Samuel Lee Jenkins, Charles Martin, and James Freeman.
Even at that early date, our local black population had organized various events. A “colored dance” was held at the Peabody Hall on December 31, 1858 (above present-day Lautenslager-Lipsey), and another one was later held at the Knapp House (present site of the Shell station on N. Superior St.). The word “colored” covered alot of ethnic territory in those days. Not only did the 1868-69 Albion Village Directory place the word “col’d” after several names such as: George Gunney, S. Hurst, and S. Johnson, but also after the Mingo family members which were native-Americans.
Some of Albion’s black men served in “colored” units in the Civil War. For example, in one reference I found listed a John Watson, a native of Tennessee, who enlisted in Albion on October 22, 1863, and served until September 30, 1865. A prominent Albion attorney, Rienzi Loud (1837-1896) was a white man who served as First Lieutenant of the 5th Massachusetts Colored Cavalry.
Following the Civil War there were several black families that lived in our community. Among them was the family of Samuel and Hannah Johnson, who were brought here from the South by a Civil War captain, probably either Phineas Graves or Harrison Soule. Mr. Johnson lived in a house on Washington St., (then known as 4 W. Perry St.) and was employed as mason, later as a meat cutter at the Ezra Robertson meat market in the 100 block of E. Erie St.
One of his sons, Eugene, was a bass singer with a traveling minstrel group, and performed at the Albion Opera House. A local news column dated Saturday June 3, 1893 stated, “The colored Mozart quartette, consisting of William Allison, Asbury Harrison, Eugene Johnson and Wesley Williams, were out serenading last Tuesday evening and sang very nicely indeed.” Asbury Harrison, who was in the above group, was another local black barber, who would tell the boys when they left after cutting their hair, “Come up again, boys, and come often. When you come, bring a little wood. Same fire warms you, warms me.”
The black families who lived here in the 19th century also had their own church. The Albion Village Council minutes of 1874 make mention of “the colored church property,” but doesn’t say where this was. It appears that some of Albion’s black population subsequently moved to Marshall and went to church there. The February 29, 1884 issue of the Albion Republican states, “The pastor of the AME Church of Marshall appears to be in a constant turmoil with some of the members of his flock, among whom are [Jefferson] ‘Prof” Lyons, and George Washington Hill, both formerly of this place [Albion]. He sued Lyons for an alleged unpaid board bill, but the latter proved to the satisfaction of the justice that his ministerial accuser owned him three times as much for labor, and the case was dismissed. The pastor also attempted to depose Hill and two others from the trusteeship. They didn’t depose worth a cent, and consequently things are in an unsettled state in that church.”
Photographs of early black families here are almost non-existant. In all my years of research I have seen very few. In my book A History of the Albion Public Schools on page 19 there is an 1890 group photograph of students at West Ward School. In the center row at the extreme left edge is pictured Violet Smith, a black third-grader at the time.
On page 106 under athletics, we see that there is a young black man pictured on the far right as part of Albion High School’s very first football team (fall of 1891). This was Charles A. Bolden, who was the first African-American to graduate from Albion High School, in 1892. Charles grew up in Albion with his mother Charlotte and step-father John Fields, who both encouraged Charles to complete his education. Following his graduation he moved to Ann Arbor to become a barber, but made his money in real estate. He owned and rented several houses here in Albion and Ann Arbor, and still has descendants in the Ann Arbor area today. From the Archives this week we present a photograph of Charles A. Bolden, the first black person to graduate from Albion High School.
Charles A. Bolden
All text copyright, 2020 © all rights reserved Frank Passic