There’s still time to see some of the city’s local history of the radical 1960s at the Albany Public Library.
“The Brothers: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in Albany” exhibit is on view to the public through the end of May at the Arbor Hill/West Hill branch.
The Brothers, a civil rights group founded in 1966 and active in the city for several years, was made up of African American men from the South End and Arbor Hill neighborhoods of Albany who fought for change and fought racism. Dubbed a “secret group” by the now defunct Knickerbocker News, the first action that brought them notoriety was their attempt in November 1966 to expose the alleged vote-buying practice of the Albany Democratic political machine. They eventually fielded black candidates for mayor, alderman, and county legislator.
University of Albany Director of Collections Brian Keough investigated and chronicled the Brethren’s rise. According to UAlbany records, then-Mayor Erastus Corning kept secret police surveillance files on the group, whose founding members included Leon Van Dyke, Gordon Van Ness, Clarence Williams, Sam McDowell and James Pryor.
“You have, you know, a group of working-class men from predominantly black communities here in Albany, associated with students who were active in the civil rights movement of that period, really scared, you know, Erastus Corning, the Democratic Political Machine, and it seems really interesting that a small group could put such fear into one of the most powerful political machines that has ever existed in the United States,” Keough said.
The Brethren published “The Albany Liberator”, a community newspaper which flourished between 1967 and 1971.
Records show the Brotherhood ‘lobbied landlords to clean up their buildings, offered free Black history classes, ran voter registration drives and a children’s breakfast program poor. They led rent strikes and protested discrimination and alleged police brutality.”
“The Brethren had the power, they had the community behind them,” Keough said. “And the chief of police actually met with the group a couple of times. Because, you know, at that time, in the summers of the mid-’60s, many cities had racial rebellions and protests and violence in the streets. You know , one of the greatest racial rebellions in this country occurred in Rochester, New York in July 1964. And it was fresh in the minds of the leaders of Albany. And you know, while they initially feared the Brethren, I think they came to respect them.
Van Dyke returned to Albany in 2020 after spending several years in the Philippines, telling WAMC he had a more positive view of race relations in the capital region than years ago.
“There are changes and those changes are obvious to me,” Van Dyke said. “You would hardly ever see Black working, you know, as sales people, what do you have. And now I see him everywhere. You know I smile when I eat when I’m at the Olive Garden, you know, and you see the host is black, you see the server is black, and before when would you see a black person in these stores, they were mopping the floor so it’s a big change that I see. So the diversity is becoming evident.”
The Brothers exhibition is on view from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. on Mondays and Wednesdays and from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. on Tuesdays.