The Mystery of Ivanhoe Bland

Happened to be looking through the 1920 Albany City Directory, as one does, and looked up an address where I spent a lot of time over the past couple of decades. I knew that the building currently there had not been there that far back, and that there had been a little neighborhood of brick row houses on Monroe Street back before it turned into some warehouses and factories (and now back into housing again). And at 25 Monroe Street, I noticed the name of one Ivanhoe Bland, dyer and cleaner. It would be hard not to want to know more about someone bearing that moniker.

It seems that Ivanhoe Bland was of African-American descent, of a family that generally only spent a bit of time in the Capital District, but which produced one quite famous person.

The family patriarch was Allen M. Bland, who was born  in South Carolina (likely Charleston), with potential birthdates ranging from 1827 to 1836. He is marked as “mulatto” in the census, and is said to have been one of the first African-American college graduates. He is in fact listed in Oberlin College’s “Catalogue and Record of Colored Students,” 1835-62, and is listed as for the years 1845-48; with his name is the description “(taught in New Jersey many years; useful).” (The first student in the catalogue was James Bradley in 1835.) Beyond that, the life of Allen Bland is a little hard to track with certainty. It is known that he lived in Mannington, NJ in 1850, and Flushing, New York in 1854, but had moved with his family to Troy by 1857. With him there in 1860, when he was listed as 26 years old, were his wife, Lydia Ann Cromwell (24), who was from Delaware; daughters Frances (8) and Mary A. (6); sons James (5) and “Ivenko” (Ivanhoe, aged 3), and a one-year-old child with a name that probably wasn’t Tansant, which is what the census-taker wrote down. Frances, James, Ivanhoe and the youngest were born in New York; Mary was born in Tennessee. the family lived at 54 Albany Street in Troy; that’s now called Broadway. He was listed as the principal of the Third Ward School, noted as “African,” on Seventh Street.

In 1860, Allen is briefly mentioned in a letter, “Our Albany Letter,” published by correspondent “Justice” in a newspaper called The Weekly Anglo-African. Dated April 2, 1860, the letter includes: “Allen M. Bland, Esq., of Troy, paid us a flying visit yesterday.”

He was still in Troy in 1862. It is claimed that after a stop in Philadelphia, he moved to Washington, DC, where Allen Bland was the earliest known African American appointed as an examiner in the U.S. Patent Office, though some researchers have been unable to confirm that claim. He was also said to have attended law school at Howard University, but to have become a tailor near Howard. He is listed as a teacher in Newark, NJ’s city directory in 1863. He is listed as a merchant tailor in the 1865 Washington, DC directory, and in several other years. He is listed in the census for Charleston, SC in 1880, living with mother Frances; he’s a tailor and she’s a seamstress. The rest of his family is not there. He’s listed in the Charleston directory as a tailor in 1882. In the 1893 Washington, DC directory, Lydia is listed as the widow of Allen, living at 1632 R St. NW.

James A. Bland became very famous, known as “the black Stephen Foster” and “The World’s Greatest Minstrel Man,” touring the United States, working as a singer and banjo player in London for 20 years.  He wrote at least 50 songs (and perhaps many, many times more under other names); the best-known of them all was “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny,” which was the state song of Virginia until 1997. Unfortunately, after minstrel music fell out of favor, James seems to have fallen into obscurity, dying in Philadelphia in 1911; he is buried in Bala Cynwyd.

Of Ivanhoe, who started this inquiry, we know very little. It appears that he was born around 1855. In 1905, he was living at 206 W. 27th St. in Manhattan, working as a tailor; his wife Mary was an at-home dressmaker, and 19-year-old daughter Maud was listed as at school. As noted above, in 1920, Ivanhoe was in the city directory at 25 Monroe, as a dyer and cleaner. In 1925, Ivanhoe and “Mattie” were lodgers in the home of Ralph Vedder at 100 Orange St. in Albany. Ivanhoe was now listed as a cleaner and dyer, and his wife was still a dressmaker. That home was at the corner of Orange and Cross Street, later known as Theater Row, just around the corner from where he had been five years before. But by 1930, Mary was living at 24 S. Swan, with John and Leonora Bland (perhaps her son?), and is listed as the widow of Ivanhoe.

I went into this with the assumption that Ivanhoe is the son of Allen and the brother of James; one of the brief biographies of James mentions his brother Ivanhoe. Confusingly, there is an Ivanhoe Bland buried in Troy’s Mt. Ida cemetery. This Ivanhoe died Jan. 10, 1860, aged 4 years, 7 months and 7 days. Given the timing, it’s certain that this Ivanhoe was the child of Allen and Lydia, who arrived in Troy that year. The census records on the Ivanhoe who survived to adulthood are, unfortunately, imprecise about his age. In Manhattan in 1905, he’s listed as 39 years old, so born about 1866, when Allen and Lydia were already back in DC. In the 1925 census in Albany, he’s listed as 52, which would give a birth year of 1873 or so. If he is the son of Allen and Lydia, and their second son named Ivanhoe (it wasn’t uncommon then to give a child the name of one who predeceased him), why did he come back to the Albany area long after they had moved on?

It gets more confusing. In 1870, “Allan” and “Lilly”  are living in Washington, DC. Their places of birth, South Carolina and Delaware, and their ages seem to make them our Allen and Lydia. Allen is listed as a clerk in the patent office. (By the way, he lists real estate worth $2000 and $100 in personal estate). With them are Mary, 16, born in Pennsylvania, and James, 15, born in New York and going to school. Next in the household is someone listed as “Taxout E,” a 12-year-old male born in New York and also at school. Taxout would appear to be the surname. Below that, appearing to share the same surname under census conventions, are an Ivanhoe, age 9, and Josiah, age 7. All are listed as “mulatto.” Also living in the house is William Fuller, a white male age 30 who was a clerk in the Interior Department.

The “Taxout” surname would appear to just be a mistake; it doesn’t occur anywhere else in the census, ever. This is most likely the same child that a census-taker had as “Tansent” or something similar in Troy in 1860. Ivanhoe, born in New York around 1861, is most likely the second child that the Blands gave that name, the first having died in 1860.

Even that 1861 birthdate doesn’t align well with Albany’s Ivanhoe Bland, who barely appears in the records available to us. Outside of these censuses, we only know one date with certainty. The Albany Evening News listed his death as September 13, 1927. From this, we also learn that he was a member of the Black Elks, the Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the World, founded in Ohio in 1899 when the other Elks would not accept blacks. (The white BPOE fought the IBPOE of W, quite unpleasantly, until 1918, but still didn’t allow black members until 1976.) “Relatives and friends, also the members of Empire State lodge, No. 272, I.B.P.O.E. of W., also the Daughters of Loyal Temple lodge, No. 148, are respectfully invited to attend his funeral Friday afternoon at 2 o’clock at 38 grand street. Remains may be seen Thursday evening.” Even in this notice, we don’t get his age (apparently the style at the time).

I wanted to shed a little light on an obscure life from Monroe Street, but I’m not sure that’s possible.

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