John Malvin

John Malvin (1795-1880)

        John Malvin was born in Dumfries, Virginia.  He was a free Black man who worked a variety of jobs such as a deckhand on a steam boat before eventually owning his own, a minister, an educator, and a carpenter.  Malvin was important to the 1858 Cincinnati Colored Convention because he held the position of Vice President along with A. H. Sumner and A. Redman.  He was also appointed to a committee that would decide on permanent officers for the convention.  

Cover of&nbsp;<em>Autobiography of John Malvin</em>

Cover of John Malvin's autobiography. Image courtesy of Read Autobiography of John Malvin here. 

John Malvin wrote an autobiography containing important information on his life.  The autobiography explains Malvin’s  ideas pertaining directly to the colored conventions, such as law, race and equality. Malvin’s interest began taking shape when he called meetings of the Black men of Cincinnati in order to address the injustice that was rampant in a supposed free city. Malvin states that “I succeeded in calling together a meeting of the colored men of Cincinnati, and, on consultation, things did not look very encouraging” (Malvin, 12). Here, Malvin explains his concerns in Cincinnati pertaining to the politics of racial inequality. This is an example of how the colored conventions were used as a means of agency for Black men who were seeking a means to enact meaningful change. The evolution of these small meetings would become the colored conventions. The conventions were a means of fighting the unjust laws of the time. It shows that the most efficient way of trying to enact change was to do it as a coordinated group.

John Malvin was born to a free mother and a slave father resulting in John Malvin being free.  He worked as an apprentice in Virginia until he grew old enough and decided to move to the free state of Ohio.  His autobiography tells of his travels, meaning we have a fixed timeline for when and where John Malvin was. For example, Chapter 2 of his autobiography begins by saying, “In the year 1827, a spirit of adventure, natural to most young men, and I concluded to leave Virginia and go to Ohio” (Malvin, 10).  Before arriving, he thought life would be different in a free state.  He thought Blacks would be treated equally, but he was wrong.  Upon arriving in Cincinnati, he discovered there was a lot of improvement to be made in order to work towards equality of the races.  He only stayed in Cincinnati for a short time before he moved to Cleveland. John Malvin married his wife, Harriet Dorsey, on March 8, 1829 and moved to Louisville, Kentucky.  After he met his wife, they made plans to move to Canada.  However, on their journey, Malvin’s wife argued they should not leave her father behind in slavery in Louisville.  Therefore, they went back to Cleveland.  Malvin raised funds to buy his wife’s father from slavery.  However, he had to work on a boat for several years prior in order to pay off the rest of the fee.  In one account described in his autobiography, Malvin rescued five slaves and helped them into freedom by sneaking them off a boat. Malvin was deeply involved in repealing Black laws and opening schools for African American children.  John Malvin was involved as a lecturer for the Cleveland Anti-Slavery Society that was founded in 1859.  He was also a founder of the School Fund Society (“Encyclopedia”).

John Malvin believed education to be a political right. According to his autobiography, when he first came to Cincinnati, he was appalled by the Ohio Black Laws.  The laws prohibited African Americans from entering certain institutions or buildings.  Upon coming to Cincinnati, he did not expect this, thinking that with “freedom” came all other rights that whites were privileged to have.  He believed that education was one of those rights that should be given to everyone. John Malvin worked towards creating more educational opportunities for African American children.  In 1832 he called a meeting for the African American men in Cleveland.  At this meeting the attendees hired a teacher to teach African-American children.  Malvin describes his horror at reading the laws of Ohio pertaining to Black men and concluded, “I found every door closed against a colored man in a free state, excepting the jails and penitentiaries, the doors of which were wide open to receive him” (Malvin, 12). Here, not only do we see the beginnings of today’s police discrimination problems, but also the beginning of Malvin’s interest in the well-being of the whole African American community. This would evolve into more than an interest over time that would culminate into Malvin’s steady involvement in the Colored Conventions. John Malvin was one of the founding members of the School Fund Society.  The purpose of this society was to establish schools in different parts of the state for “colored” children.  They established one in Cincinnati, one in Columbus, one in Springfield, and another in Cleveland (“Encyclopedia”).  Also, Malvin was not happy with the Black Laws that remained on the statute books, which prohibited African American children from going to the public schools.  Anxious for their repeal, Malvin called a meeting for the African American people of Cleveland and suggested the propriety of circulating a petition to be sent to the legislature for the repeal of those laws. He also proposed that they employ some lecturers to lecture through the state and raise a sentiment in favor of the repeal of those laws.  

John Malvin worked hard throughout his life to make public education possible for African American children.   

John Malvin was involved in eight conventions. He attended the 1843 National Convention in Buffalo, NY.  Malvin gave an opening prayer and was cited as the president of the chair. In the 1848 Convention held in Cleveland, Malvin was part of the Business Committee.  He was also put on a committee to inform the parties in each resolution of the action of the Convention (Convention Proceedings 1848).  At the 1849 Convention held in Columbus, Malvin held the position of Secretary.  He was also appointed to bring forward business for the meeting (Convention Proceedings 1849).  During the Convention of 1854 in Cleveland, John Malvin was present to ask the Chairman if any remarks not regarding the convention’s topic, Emigration, were allowed.  The Chairman did not allow them (Convention Proceedings 1854).  In 1856, during a Convention in Columbus, Malvin represented Cuyahoga County and worked on the State Central Committee (Convention Proceedings 1856).  In a Columbus Convention in 1857, Malvin was on the Business Committee and represented Cuyahoga County (Convention Proceedings 1857).  At the 1858 Convention in Cincinnati, John Malvin took on the position of Vice President.  He was also appointed to a committee that decided on permanent officers for the convention (Convention Proceedings 1858).  Lastly, in the 1865 Convention held in Cleveland, Malvin was part of the National Equal Rights League (Convention Proceedings 1865).  In 1880, John Malvin died.  He died in Cleveland, where he lived from 1850 until his death.  


Written by Kelly Quick and Colin White, Taught by: Dr Christine Anderson, Xavier University, Spring 2016

Work Cited

Colored National Convention (1848 : Cleveland, OH), “Report of the proceedings of the Colored National Convention held at Cleveland, Ohio, on Wednesday, September 6, 1848.,”, accessed October 3, 2017,

"Encyclopedia of Cleveland History: Cleveland Freedmen's Aid Society." Encyclopedia of Cleveland History: Cleveland Freedmen's Aid Society. N.p., 20 June 1997. Web. 01 May 2016. <>. 

Malvin, John. Autobiography of John Malvin. A Narrative, Containing an Authentic Account of His Fifty Years' Struggle in the State of Ohio in Behalf of the American Slave, and           the Equal Rights of All Men before the Law without Reference to Race or Color; Forty-seven Years of Said Time Being Expended in the City of Cleveland. Cleveland: Leader         Print., 1879. Print.

National Convention of Colored Citizens (1843 : Buffalo, NY), “Minutes of the National Convention of Colored Citizens; Held at Buffalo; on the 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th, and 19th of August, 1843; for the purpose of considering their moral and political condition as American citizens.,”, accessed October 3, 2017,

National Emigration Convention of Colored People (1854 : Cleveland, OH), “Proceedings of the National Emigration Convention of Colored People Held at Cleveland, Ohio, On Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, The 24th, 25th, and 26th of August, 1854 ,”, accessed October 3, 2017,

State Convention of Colored Men (1856 : Columbus, OH), “Proceedings of the State Convention of Colored Men, Held in the City of Columbus, Ohio, Jan. 16th, 17th, and 18th, 1856.,”, accessed October 3, 2017,

State Convention of the Colored Citizens of Ohio (1849 : Columbus, OH), “Minutes and address of the State Convention of the Colored Citizens of Ohio, convened at Columbus, January 10th, 11th, 12th, & 13th, 1849.,”, accessed October 3, 2017,

State Convention of the Colored Men of the State of Ohio (1857 : Columbus, OH), “Proceedings of the State Convention of the Colored Men of the State of Ohio, Held in the City of Columbus, January 21st, 22d and 23d, 1857.,”, accessed October 3, 2017,