ADAM BLAKE: BLACK HERO OR A WHITE MAN? QUESTIONS RAISED AS TO RACE OF 19TH-CENTURY ALBANY HOTELIER

Judy Shepard and Pamela Newkirk
Section: MAIN,  Page: 10A

Date: Wednesday, March 4, 1987

For more than a century, Adam Blake has been one of Albany's black heroes, but his own family would like to topple him from that throne.


Historians consider Blake, who was proprietor of the Kenmore Hotel, the richest and most prominent black in 19th-century Albany. But in a suburb of Detroit, Blake's great-grandson, Carroll Blake, and his wife, Georgiana, say Blake was white - just as they are. Mrs. Blake's challenge not only calls into question Adam Blake's race, it threatens to rob Albany's black community of part of its history and has stunned local historians.


"There is a considerable amount of importance here," said Jacob Hotchkiss, a historian who wrote a paper on Blake in 1964 for the Albany Institute of History and Art. "A prominent figure in early black history, a rags-to- riches story, the Kenmore itself - it's adventure, it's romance and it's local history."


"All these years! And all those documents!" said Ethel David, a teacher who has worked on black history projects locally.


Mrs. Blake, an amateur genealogist, recalled in an interview with The Knickerbocker News her surprise in reading a reference to her husband's ancestor in "O Albany!" in which author William Kennedy called Blake "the best-known and most affluent Negro in 19th-century Albany."


"I was surprised. My husband said he had never heard that either," Mrs. Blake said of Kennedy's racial reference.


She wrote to Kennedy and received a reply from his publisher, referring her to the sources for the Blake reference: the Albany Public Library and the library of the Albany Institute of History and Art. She followed up with letters to both, which now are on file at those institutions.


At first glance, the local evidence that Adam Blake was black appears strong.


His father, also named Adam Blake, was a prominent freed slave who worked for Patroon Stephen VanRensselaer, the last Dutch leader of old Albany, and later for Gov. DeWitt Clinton. He also presided over the annual African Pinkster festival.


When the younger Adam Blake died at the Kenmore Hotel in September 1881, the Albany Argus obituary read, in part, "Mr. Blake was the subject of remark and attention as a colored man who kept hotels for white patrons exclusively. ..."


Blake generally was not a joiner, but one group he did join was a black organization - the Burdett-Coutts Benevolent Association - of which he was president at the time of his death.


"The fact that he considers himself black - that is important," said Dr. A.J. Williams-Myers, acting director of the State University at Albany's African American Institute.


Williams-Myers said that, based on Blake's association with that organization, "we could conclude that he was black - he recognized his roots as African or black."


Blake also was called "the richest and best-known businessman of his race in this county" in a chapter on blacks in Howell and Tenney's 1886 "History of the County of Albany." But the evidence begins to crumble when Mrs. Blake presents her side of the story.


FIRST OF ALL, Blake was adopted. The elder Adam Blake took him in as a child and raised him.


Carroll Blake, the younger Adam's son, wrote Mrs. Blake a letter in which he said: "The name Blake was derived from a man who took my father in as a baby. His real father was an Englishman named Webster who deserted his Dutch and Indian wife."


Mrs. Blake also has a photograph of Adam Blake, posing with his children in front of his hotel.


"I have the picture of Adam in front of me," said Mrs. Blake during a telephone interview from her home in Rochester, Mich. "He does not look black."


Mrs. Blake sent The Knickerbocker News a photocopy of the photograph. Although the copy is not distinct, it appears to show a portly, fair-skinned man with a bushy moustache and straight hair.


Local historians have been unsuccessful in locating a photograph of Blake.


Mrs. Blake said she had visited Adam Blake's granddaughter in a Connecticut nursing home and also knew his son Carroll - her husband's grandfather - as well as another son, Jessie. Both are now dead.


"If you look at the family, you would never think black, you would think Indian," she said.


Official documents further cloud the issue.


Adam Blake's death certificate is missing from the Albany Vital Statistics office, which has records dating to 1870, 11 years before his death. The death certificate for his son, Carroll, however, lists him as white.


According to Virginia Poyer, a prominent black resident of Arbor Hill: "My birth certificate says I was white, right down there in City Hall. When I was born, the doctor looked at you and if you looked white, they just put it down."


Poyer discovered the error as an adult. "When I got the birth certificate, I said, 'This isn't entirely correct. I have never been known as white.'"


THE YOUNGER ADAM BLAKE first appears in the 1855 state Census, listed as "mulatto." The definition of mulatto at that time, according to Webster's Dictionary of 1836, was "a person or offspring of one black parent and one white parent."


In the 1870 federal Census, Blake is listed as white, as are his wife, Catherine, and daughter, Mary K. The 1880 Census identifies Blake, his wife, and their five children as mulatto.


According to James Corsaro, senior curator of manuscripts and special collections at the New York State Library: "The 1880 Census is definitive. It seems to me it's pretty clear that he is mulatto. He is listed as mulatto in the state Census of 1855, and that and the federal Census of 1880 are the most detailed."


Corsaro said the 1855 and 1880 counts were most reliable on the question of race because they were more detailed in this regard than the 1870 Census.


Nevertheless, a professor of African and Afro-American studies at the State University at Albany said Census entries on race were "really quite unreliable."


Census takers were white and untrained, and made judgments of race solely on personal observation, said George Levesque, who is studying the early history of blacks in Albany.


To establish Blake's race, Levesque said, "you'd have to trace his genealogy, and that is not easy. The umbilical cord to the past was almost completely severed by three centuries of slavery."


Levesque also pointed out that an odd thing commonly happened to successful blacks in American history. "When a person who was black did something successful, he was transformed into an Indian or a white. This was because of the prevailing racist notion that blacks were innately inferior."


Blake's success can be traced from the time he finished grammar school, went to work as a hall boy at the Delavan House, and rose to headwaiter in 12 years. By 1866, he was the proprietor of Congress Hall, a hotel patronized by legislators, judges, and Gov. John T. Hoffman, who lived there.


When Congress Hall was razed to make way for the new Capitol in 1878, Blake took charge of another Albany hotel - the Kenmore - which Howell and Tenney said "enjoys a first-class patronage and is one of the best- equipped hotels in the city."


The hotel catered to an exclusively white clientele, a situation historians say was typical of successful black establishments in the 19th century.


But Blake served the black community as well. A stained-glass window in the Israel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Hamilton Street was dedicated to him as a man who never turned away a friend or stranger in need.


After his death, the Albany Argus wrote, "He was friendly to talent and energy among his people, and its brainier members always had in him a friend."


ALBANY BLACKS STILL embrace Blake. Harriet Van Vranken, a 95-year- old Albany woman, remembers childhood stories from her mother about Blake's generosity, kindness and ambition.


His public achievements are well documented, but the private man remains a mystery. And now there is one more piece to make up the puzzle. Was Adam Blake black or white?


"There is no final authority," said SUNYA's Levesque. Referring to elaborate racial classification systems in place in some Southern states before the Civil War, he said: "There used to be at one time, before 1850, but those things all went by the board. It was mainly on the basis of physical appearance."


Mrs. Blake said that for her, the issue was not one of race.


"We are interested in the truth," she said. "The family is very proud of him." But "he is not black."