Emigration Debates and the Colored Conventions

After the Civil War, many African Americans were hopeful for their future in the US. Both formerly enslaved and free individuals turned away from previously held views on emigration. Some notable emigrants, such as Mary Ann Shadd Cary, even moved back to the US from Canada and other locations in an effort to remake the nation as a place of equality. "The promise of political and economic self-determination influenced the low amount of support for emigration movements in the years immediately following the Civil War."1

Twenty-three Colored Conventions occurred in 1865 alone, a manifestation of the hope held by African Americans as the Civil War drew to a close. Of these conventions, ten happened in the South and harnessed the emerging organizational power of four million formerly enslaved individuals.

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[1] Sanderfer, Selena. "The Emigration Debate and the Southern Colored Convention Movement." Forthcoming in Foreman, Casey and Patterson eds. Colored Conventions in the Nineteenth Century and the Digital Age. 

The minutes of the Colored Conventions of 1865 display a strong sense of optimism. Dr. M. G. Camplin, a delegate from Charleston at the The Colored People's Convention of the State of South Carolina, Held in Zion Church, Charleston, November, 1865, stated that “the future was more bright and promising than some anticipated, and that after a while, when time had effaced some of the bitter memories of the late conflict, the white man and the Black man would consent to be friends and brothers, and live together in peace and harmony.”2 Camplin's individual hopes for the future were adopted by the convention as a whole in their "Address to the Colored Citizens of the State." Convention members stated, “We are Americans by birth, and we assure you that we are Americans in feeling.”3 Like Camplin, the delegates saw whites, “not as enemies but as friends and fellow countrymen, who desire to dwell among you in peace, and whose destinies are interwoven, and linked with those of the American people.”4 The proceedings of the 1865 South Carolina State Colored Convention betray a strong sense of faith in the ability of Black and white Americans to come together and work towards a promising future.


[2] Colored People's Convention of the State of South Carolina (1865 : Charleston, SC), “Proceedings of the Colored People's Convention of the State of South Carolina, held in Zion Church, Charleston, November, 1865. Together with the declaration of rights and wrongs; an address to the people; a petition to the legislature, and a memorial to Congress.,” ColoredConventions.org, accessed January 27, 2017, http://coloredconventions.org/items/show/570.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

The minutes of the State Convention of the Colored People of North Carolina, Raleigh, September 29, 1865 also display a sense of hope for the future of African Americans in the United States. The minutes record a distinct disavowal of colonization and emigration as acceptable strategies for Black southerners. Although the convention "resolved to offer official recognition to the nations of Haiti and Liberia," delegate "James Walker Hood, the Convention President and an elder in the AME Church, implored his fellow delegates to, 'live here with the white people; all talk of exportation, expatriation, colonization and the like was simple non sense.' Hood continued, 'we have lived here over 150 years, and must continue to do so. We must harmonize our feelings.'"5 Though the Convention officially recognized the independent Black nations of Haiti and Liberia, delegates were committed to remaining in the United States.

A similar attitude was displayed by representatives at the State Convention of Colored Men of the State of Tennessee... Held at Nashville, Tenn., August 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th, 1865. In "An Address to the Colored Americans of the State of Tennessee," the representatives encourage patience and deny the efficacy of emigration, stating, “We must exercise forbearance and endure as far as practicable, the many petty differences between us and the whites, or between ourselves. The scheme of colonization is impracticable, and we must relax no effort to continue our habitation in this country in full enjoyment of all rights and privileges exercised by any other class of citizens.”6 The delegates rejected colonization, expressing a desire to claim their rights as Americans.


[5] Sanderfer, “The Emigration Debate.”

[6] State Convention of Colored Men of the State of Tennessee (1865 : Nashville, TN), “Proceedings of the State Convention of Colored Men of the State of Tennessee, :with the addresses of the convention to the white loyal citizens of Tennessee, and the colored citizens of Tennessee. : Held at Nashville, Tenn., August 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th, 1865. ,” ColoredConventions.org, accessed January 27, 2017, http://coloredconventions.org/items/show/522.


William H. Grey, a delegate at The Convention of Colored Citizens of the States of Arkansas, 1865, also rejected colonization. Grey expressed a deep commitment to remaining in the United States, demanding of his fellow delegates that "We will not leave the graves of our fathers, but here we will rear our children, here we will educate them to higher destiny; here, where we have been degraded, will we be exalted - AMERICANS IN AMERICA, ONE AND INDIVISIBLE."7 Grey's stirring oratory insisted that he and his fellow delegates would work to make new lives as freed men and women in the United States.


[7] Convention of Colored Citizens of the State of Arkansas (1866 : Little Rock, AK), “Proceedings of the Convention of Colored Citizens of the State of Arkansas : held in Little Rock, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Nov. 30, Dec. 1 & 2.,” ColoredConventions.org, accessed January 27, 2017, http://coloredconventions.org/items/show/559.

Anti-colonization feelings were prominent. Delegates to the Convention of the Colored People of VA., Held in the City of Alexandria, 1865 stated "That as natives of American soil we claim the right to remain upon it, and that any attempt to remove, expatriate, or colonize us in any other land against our will is unjust, for here we were born, and for this country our fathers and brothers have fought, and we hope to remain here in full enjoyment of enfranchised manhood and its dignities."8  This message was reinforced through the singing of patriotic songs such as "Flag of the Free" and "Our Country" during the convention.

In this optimistic climate, many individuals, including the delegates to the 1865 North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and Arkansas State Colored Conventions, did not think that emigrating out of the country was necessary. "Black southern conventions emphasized land acquisition, but initially vehemently opposed achieving it through territorial separatism or any other collective action that could be interpreted as aggressively autonomous and thus incur the wrath of whites."9 Southern Blacks predominantly believed that their goals of economic independence, racial equality, and civil rights could be accomplished within the United States.


[8] Convention of the Colored People of Virginia (1865 : Alexandria, VA), “Liberty, and equality before the law. :Proceedings of the Convention of the Colored People of Va., held in the city of Alexandria, Aug. 2, 3, 4, 5, 1865.,” ColoredConventions.org, accessed January 27, 2017, http://coloredconventions.org/items/show/272.

[9] Sanderfer, “The Emigration Debate.”

As  Reconstruction progressed, life for many rural southern freedpeople became increasingly difficult. "In many ways... Black lives became even more precarious after the War as their newly empowered citizenship and motivation to acquire land instigated thousands of murders and outrages committed against them throughout the South in order to maintain white supremacy."10 African Americans made use of considerable tact and diplomacy in their everyday lives and at Colored Conventions as they responded to increasing white terrorism. The surging racialized violence of Reconstruction dampened the hopes that many African Americans had held for the future after the Civil War.  

These rural, often economically disadvantaged populations were among the first to recognize emigration, separatism, and Black nationalism as both necessary strategies for survival and valid forms of racial uplift. "By the late 1860s the failure to achieve economic independence had devastated lower class aspirations for any degree of equality, political, social or otherwise in the South and led the region's Black residents to advocate territorial separatism in considerable numbers."11 In response to the challenging climate of the South, many saw removal to a new, all-Black community as the only way to achieve their goals of economic independence and land ownership. "Black lower class southerners rationalized land ownership through territorial separatism as an effective means of achieving self-determination and survival."12 The large populations of recently freed men and women throughout the South were especially vulnerable to racial violence and economic disenfranchisement, forcing them to consider alternate survival strategies, like emigration.


[10] Sanderfer, “The Emigration Debate.”

[11] ibid.

[12] Ibid.

Sanderfer notes a sense of dwindling hope and increasing frustration in the minutes from the State Convention of Colored Men, Held at Lexington, KY, 1867, stating that "the tone of the State Convention of Colored Men was markedly different as Black Kentuckians’ patience subsided, as they had been, 'despoiled of our property, our females may be outraged, our school teachers shot down at their desks, and our ministers murdered in their pulpits, by any person lawless enough to do so.'"13 Though these minutes expressed the frustrations and disappointments of this population, they do not directly advocate emigration as a solution. The early advocacy for emigration remained largely the work of rural Black southerners. Although an editorial printed in the New Orleans Tribune and in the minutes of the State Convention of the Colored People of Louisiana, 1865, stated that "It is well to remark that the country delegates were generally more radical than most of the city delegates,"14 these rural populations were often silenced in the minutes of conventions from the late 1860s.

Unlike Black southerners with lower economic status who advocated for emigration, Black "leaders did not want to seem too orientated toward Africa for fear that whites would assume that they all desired to live or simply naturally belonged there."15 Rural and recently freed populations became frustrated with this attitude, as "Black farmers perceived a growing disparity between the ideals propagated by Black leaders and the needs of the lower class."16 Even when their views were not adopted by Black leadership or by other convention delegates, rural Black southerners continued to embrace emigration as a survival strategy.


[13] Sanderfer, “The Emigration Debate.”

[14] State Convention of the Colored People of Louisiana (1865 : New Orleans, LA), “State Convention of the Colored People of Louisiana, January 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th, and 14th, 1865,” ColoredConventions.org, accessed January 27, 2017, http://coloredconventions.org/items/show/271.

[15] Sanderfer, “The Emigration Debate.”

[16] Ibid.

Though Black leaders in the North and South initially condemned emigration after the Civil War, the undeniable violence facing Black communities eventually caused them to change their minds. "Gradually, more and more of Black leadership acknowledged Black farmers' calls and began to echo the philosophies and strategies of the southern masses" and "in response to freedmen's increased participation, began to understand emigration as an act of defense."17 The advocacy of recently freed rural Black southerners played an important part in changing the attitudes held by many African Americans about emigration.

Black leaders' new views on emigration also resulted from the changing demographics of leadership in the postbellum South. As recently freed men and women took on new leadership roles during Reconstruction, they brought with them new points of view and shifted "the agendas of southern Colored Conventions... to reflect a more practical view towards emigration."18 The priorities of land ownership and economic independence took the forefront as "new leaders, previously held in bondage, became more vocal and expressed a growing discontent and an unwillingness to adhere to appeasing political protest etiquette."19 The agitation of this emerging group of leaders challenged the opinions of wealthier African American leaders in the North and South.

Most conventions still did not advocate emigration abroad, but they began to look favorably on the movement. All-Black settlements in the South and West, particularly as the Exoduster movement, grew during the 1870s.


[17] Sanderfer, “The Emigration Debate.”

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid. 

State Capitol Nashville, TN 1901

The State Capitol of Tennessee, in which the 1879 National Convention was held. Photo Courtesy of Library of Congress. Courtesy of Bryn Mawr College

The published proceedings of the National Conference of Colored Men of the United States, held in Nashville, Tennessee in 1879, display a conflicted attitude towards emigration. Delegate P.B.S. Pinchback expressed African Americans' desire to stay in their homes, but he also recognized that doing so was increasingly inadvisable, stating: "I will take the opportunity to make this suggestion, that in considering this matter [emigration] you should bear in mind that the South being the home of the Colored people, they being adapted to its climate, its soil – have been born and raised there – we should not advise them to leave there unless they have very good reason to do so. On the other hand, we should not advise them to remain where they are not treated well."20 Though Pinchback did not want to support emigration, he began to accept that it was a necessary escape from violence and fear for significant portions of the southern Black population.

Resolutions passed by the National Conference also expressed a reluctance to consider emigration, stating that it "should be encouraged and kept in motion until those who remain are accorded every right and privilege guaranteed by the constitution and laws."21 Another approved resolution was even more direct and assertive, issuing a promise that "unless white friends take immediate steps to guarantee such rights, there will be an immediate exist for an emergency exodus of the race from the states in order to ameliorate their condition."22 These resolutions show the changing attitudes towards emigration, as even Black leaders and conventions turned away from their initial hope at the end of the Civil War to recognize the efficacy of emigration.


[20] National Conference of Colored Men of the United States (1879 : Nashville, TN), “Proceedings of the National Conference of Colored Men of the United States, Held in the State Capitol at Nashville Tennessee, May 6, 7, 8 and 9, 1879.,” ColoredConventions.org, accessed January 27, 2017, http://coloredconventions.org/items/show/323.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid. 

As   Selena Sanderfer notes, however, "Southern conventions' support for emigration, was not uniform and usually reserved for movements within the United States and its territories. As disillusionment for achieving a livelihood in the South ran high, so too did support for emigration among Black convention leadership, who followed the lead of their constituents in publically advocating the formation of Black towns. The change in Black leaders' emigration position was a direct result of the masses' unwavering advocacy for and use of territorial separatism as a strategy to counter racial subjugation."23 Sanderfer concludes: "While most Black southerners agreed to prioritize land ownership, it was not until the occurrence of racial pogroms, continued injustices, and widespread economic despair that Black leadership began to voice support for emigration. After the Civil War whites inflicted a reign of terror upon Blacks in the South and for the first time state colored conventions publically endorsed emigration movements. Most individuals supported movements to separate communities within the United States, still others recommended emigration to any hospitable territory where land ownership could be realized."24 Though not all delegates approved of international emigration, most recognized that emigration was a valid strategy of self-determination that could be used to escape white terrorism.


[23] Sanderfer, “The Emigration Debate.”

[24] Ibid.