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What Did They Eat? Where Did They Stay? Black Boardinghouses and the Colored Conventions Movement


During the nineteenth century, thousands of African Americans traveled to attend state and national Colored Conventions. While a great deal of scholarship on the Colored Conventions focuses on political activity occurring on the Convention floor, Psyche Williams-Forson's essay “What Did They Eat? Where Did They Stay?: Interpreting the Material Culture of Black Women’s Domestic Work and Labor in the Context of the Colored Conventions,” prompts us to look beyond the convention hall. Overall, this exhibit offers viewers exposure to alternate spaces and forms of political activism during the conventions movement. In this way, she prompts us to consider a broader spectrum of political engagement encompassing the work of women within home. 

"Where we ate, Where we slept" in [Album of 35 Snapshots of Washington, D.C. Monuments and Landmarks, July 5-15, 1896), 30-31. Courtesy of the Randolph Linsly Simpson African-American Collection. James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection in the Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Exhibit Outline

First, this exhibit encourages viewers to think about geography and the distance participants traveled to participate in Colored Conventions. It focuses on four conventions in particular: the 1859 New England Colored Citizens Convention, the 1865 Convention of the Colored People of New England, the 1848 National Colored Convention in Cleveland, OH, and the 1865 First Annual Meeting of the National Civil Rights League in Cleveland, OH. Next, this exhibit examines the role of boardinghouses in the convention movements by encouraging the viewer to ask the question, “Where did they stay?” In the final section, this exhibit focuses on food preparation and what convention attendees ate in order to understand food selection as means to communicate political messages. Psyche Williams-Forson reminds us that "food choice, preparation, and consumption is embedded in social, cultural, gendered and class delineations" and "can be read as communicating many aspects of one's identity." 

Use the right-hand menu bar to navigate the exhibit pages. The exhibit includes:

  • Interactive maps illustrating the travel routes of convention attendees

  • A survey of nineteenth-century African American boardinghouses and an interactive map of boardinghouse advertisements

  • An interactive map exploring inside the boardinghouse

  • A discussion of food preparation and menu selection during the conventions movement

  • An interactive menu

  • Biographical entries on people, places, and culture relating to the Conventions movement

Credits and Citations

Curators: Jenn Briggs and Anna Lacy, graduate students at the the University of Delaware, Dept of History, and Psyche Williams-Forson, Chair of the Department of American Studies at the University of Maryland. Created for Dr. P. Gabrielle Foreman's History/English 641 class, Spring, 2016.

Edited by P. Gabrielle Foreman and Sarah Patterson.

Special thanks to CCP senior researcher Caleb Trotter for providing technical assistance with data visualizations and to fellow ENGL 641 student Harry Lewis for sharing his essay on boardinghouses in the postbellum conventions movement.

The Colored Conventions Project proudly partners with national and local teaching partners and student contributors to bring the buried history of nineteenth-century Black political organizing to digital life.

Special thanks to Gale®, part of Cengage Learning, and Accessible Archives, for granting permission to host digital images of newspapers in its databases.