Monday, May 18, 2015

In Search of Dianna Mingo

Several months ago, while transcribing this 1873 newspaper article about the Albany Rural Cemetery, a reference to an 1872 interment certainly stood out.

An unusual record appears upon the register of interments for last year – that of the burial of Diana Mingo, a colored lady aged 106 years. She was the oldest person ever buried in the cemetery.

A further search of the Albany Evening Journal turned up a very detailed article on this centenarian which was published on July 30, 1872.

The Funeral of A Centenarian - Albany's “Oldest Inhabitant” - A Life Begun In The “Good Old Colony Times” - A Remarkable Old Woman and a Veritable “Mother in Israel”

On Sunday afternoon, one of the rarest of events occurred at the African Methodist church on Hamilton street, near Lark, in the celebration of the funeral services of one whose life had exceeded a full century, who died at last with mental faculties unimpaired and whose clear remembrance extended to early childhood, thus covering the entire history of a great nation.

Diana Mingo, a woman of unmixed African blood, born in the closing month of the year 1766, and therefore 105 years and six months old, died on Thursday, July 25, at her home, 686 State street, having been a resident of the city for nearly 60 years.  She was born in Schodack, Rensselaer county, the slave of Matthew Backeman.  She was freed before the general emancipation of the slaves in this state, and came to this city where she lived for years in the family of Mayor Stevenson, on the corner of State and Pearl streets, and thence went to the house of William Walsh, nephew of the mayor, near Cherry Hill, so called.  Afterward, she served as cook at the Patroon's manor house, and then in the family of Marcus T. Reynolds, which was her last place of service in this city.  She then went to live as cook with a Mr. Alger in Newburgh where some eighteen years ago she was stricken with paralysis.  She was so far recovered from the stroke that on her return to Albany she could do a little washing and ironing, with the aid of a niece who lived here, and by these occupations she has since supported herself.  Her last work was done about a month since, when she carried two pails of water from the house to the street.  Since then the extreme heat rapidly wore upon her aged frame, and she finally died of nothing but old age.

She was once married to Christopher Mingo, who died about forty years ago; but she leaves no lineal descendants, and the only relatives now living in the city are a niece, Mary T. Jackson, and a grand-nephew, William H. Anthony, the well-known barber at 51 Lark street.

Mrs. Mingo was nearly ten years old when the Declaration of Independence was proclaimed, and well remembered the great rejoicings and illuminations in honor of that event.  She saw Gen. Washington; and her recollections of many incidents were vivid and distinct; frequently she would delight her friends by recalling them; how when the British enemy were coming, the inhabitants would get up in the night and run for the woods, where they dug holes in the earth and buried their gold and silver, their plate and jewelry, and would also hide their treasures in their beds and lay upon them to protect them from marauding parties; how one of the ladies had a baby who cried, and how to stop its little tell-tale voice the mother lay over it and smothered it; how also the “tories” spurred into her master's yard one day, killed the cattle and poultry, and fired the dwelling, burning it to the ground.  The venerable woman would also often tell her reminiscences of the war of 1812; and describe the visit of Gen. Lafayette to this city in 1825; his crossing from Greenbush to this city, when the people remained up all night in order to receive him, and strewed flowers and branches in the roads before him; his riding in the gorgeous yellow carriage of the Van Rensselaers, and the tumultuous joy of the people in welcoming him.  Indeed it would take volumes to contain the oft-recounted memories of this really wonderful old woman; but what we have specified will show the great extent and interest thereof.

Diana Mingo was a truly remarkable instance of the preservation of both body and mind.  Forty years ago, when she felt she was going old, she planted a seed in front of the house in which she died, from which has grown a horse-chestnut tree that still flourishes, green and delightful, like her memory to all who knew her.  Since the organization of the colored Methodist church, about the same time as the planting of the tree, she has been an exemplary member; ever one of the foremost in faith and in good works.  She was a highly honored member of the various associations attached to this society:  The Lovejoy association, the Daughters of the Conference, Sewing Circle, Sabbath School Board, and the Lincoln aid society.  In olden times she used to take part in the unique celebrations of her race on  the “Pinxter” (Pfingster?) hill, just west of Eagle street, beyond the hospital, in the company of “King Charley” (a sort of leviathan Ethiopian dressed in scarlet coat with gold lace trimmings and other showy uniform.)  This celebration was a week's saturnalia given to the colored people by their master during the existence of slavery in this state, customarily on the week succeeding Whitsunday or Pentecost.  But this half-heathen observance was strongly contrasted by the religious character of her long life in the church.  That was a consistent and beautiful example of the true spirit of Christianity after which the best and highest in the land might well pattern.

The church on Hamilton street was crowded to every inch of standing room at her funeral services, held at 3 o'clock Sunday afternoon, the lobbies without and even the pulpit stairs being occupied.  The services were conducted by the Rev. George W. Williams, pastor of the Chestnut street Baptist church, who read many appropriate selections from the Holy Scriptures, and preached from the inspiring words in 1st Corinthians, 15:59, “For this corruption must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.”  The sermon was but slightly general, dwelling rather upon the personal and Christian virtues of the deceased woman, to which he did earnest honor.  At the close, the people among whom were but very few drawn by curiosity, passed by the coffin to take a farewell look at the face of Diana Mingo.  It was placid, the brow unwrinkled, and the wool above it unblanched by time's long durance, and many a face looks older at seventy than did the face of Diana Mingo, consigned to the grave on that day after its century's outlook upon the world.

Cornerstone of the A.M.E. Church on Hamilton Street

 Of course, I immediately wanted to locate Dianna Mingo's burial place, it would have to wait for spring and a search of the Cemetery's on-line records yielded no match at first.  There were two potential locations, however;  the A.M.E. Church plot or Section 99, an area of the North Ridge of almost entirely African-American burials.  There was no record in the former, but a thorough search of the latter revealed a burial plot owned by Diana's niece, Mary.  And one of the burials listed for that plot was Dianna Mingo.  She had not turned up in the original search as her name was mistakenly transcribed as "Diana Miner."

Section 99 is a large, level area at the opposite end of the North Ridge from the Soldiers Lot.  It has relatively few headstones in proportion to the number of burials, including the Ellen Jackson lot which has its own story (for some other time).  Lot 8 was not hard to locate since it was next to a gravestone I'd photographed some time ago (that of Ellen and Anna Baltimore).

There does not appear to be a headstone for either Dianna Mingo or her niece (who died of pneumonia at the age of seventy-six in 1888).  There is a very small marble headstone at the northwest corner of the plot, but it is completely illegible.  I made several attempts to identify any surviving letters, but could not.  Even greatly enlarged close-ups of the stone on my laptop yielded nothing.

The photo above shows the plot with the headstone at the upper right corner.  The paper on the ground (a print out of Dianna Mingo's burial index card) is near  the center of the lot.  The Baltimore headstone would be just to the left.

Burial records give a different address than the one mentioned in the newspaper article - 385 State Street.  This is likely the correct address as city directories from 186 list "Dinah Mingo, widow" at this address.  According to contemporary maps, Dianna's house and her chestnut tree would have stood just opposite the present corner of State and Willett Streets.  In Dianna's time, her house would have stood opposite a public space known as Washington Square and just a stone's throw from the old State Street Burying Grounds,

Both her house and tree are long gone; 385 State is now the address of the splendid palazzo-style Van Rensselaer Houses.

Current view of 385 State Street

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