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Home > Introduction to the Colored Conventions Movement

Introduction to the Colored Conventions Movement

A Brief Introduction to the Colored Conventions Movement

From 1830 until the 1890s, already free and once captive Black people came together in state and national conventions to strategize about how they might achieve educational, labor, and legal justice. The delegates to these meetings included the most prominent writers, organizers, church leaders, newspaper editors, educators, and entrepreneurs in the canon of early African American leadership--and tens of thousands more whose names went unrecorded.

The movement began in 1830 when the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Bishop Richard Allen, hosted a Colored Convention of free Black men at Bethel AME Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The body of leaders contested widespread discrimination against Black communities, namely the 1829 Ohio exclusionary law and anti-Black mobs that forced two thousand Black residents to flee the state. Over the course of seven decades, tens of thousands of men and women from different walks of life traveled to attend meetings publicly advertised as "Colored Conventions." There, they established committees and political plans and circulated petitions; they raised funds to support Black newspapers, schools and community-building projects and protested racial inequality and state violence. Many of these conventions would also produce census-style records that enumerated facets of Black American life at a time when Blacks were misrepresented or left out of official state records. People, places, and events connected to Colored Conventions illustrate a diversity of cultural life and political thought among Black communities and their leaders.

Colored Conventions were held across the country, especially, in the antebellum era, in the Northeast, Canada and the emerging West--quickly becoming popular hubs of thought that informed public audiences of the political and social conditions of Black life in the United States and Canada. Often with large audiences attending, conventions were held in churches, city hall buildings, courthouses, lecture halls, and theaters. The day’s leading Black intellectuals were delegates and keynote speakers such as Frederick Douglass, George T. Downing, Henry Highland Garnet, James McCune Smith, and Charles B. Ray.

After the Civil War's end, Colored Conventions spread across the South, the only place, in 1860, 90% of Blacks in the United States had ever known as home. Swelling in size and number, tens of thousands of free and newly-freed citizens organized against state violence and political repression. “We have now thrown off the mask, hereafter to do our talking," proclaimed the delegates to the 1865 Arkansas State Convention, "and to use all legitimate means to get and to enjoy our political privileges.”

As businesswomen, editors, teachers, cooks, and boarding-house proprietors (among many other roles), Black women, too, contributed to campaigns for Black social, legal, educational, and labor equality. The newspaper work, entrepreneurial activism, and political commitments of Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Elizabeth Gloucester, Julia Williams Garnet and Frances E.W. Harper, for example, illustrate the ways in which Black women challenged traditional beliefs about women's place in public society and embodied the values of Colored Conventions beyond delegate appointment.

The circulation of printed minutes and newspaper coverage greatly enhanced the dissemination of leading ideas about racial uplift that were developed in the forums. Topics of debate and the performance of cultural traditions addressed ways to secure Black people’s civil rights, to consider their moral improvement, and to celebrate racial unity. The abolition of slavery, emigration, education, labor rights, and suffrage were leading subjects of debate before the Civil War. Suffrage, safety, land, and institution-buildling continued as the subject of conventions well into the 1890s as a concerted fight for full citizenship rights.

More than 200 state and national Colored Conventions were held over seven decades. The Conventions movement not only gave countless leaders political and procedural experience before they stepped into legislative roles in the postbellum period, they also served the immediate antecedents to political organizing at the end of the century. W.E.B DuBois's Niagara movement and NAACP as well as the National Association of Colored Women grew out of the Conventions movement and Convention cultures. Though many names, events and ideas connected to the movement have long been forgotten, a growing wave of interest among scholars and public communities confirms that the coverage, minutes, and petitions of the Colored Conventions movement offer many opportunities for the study of nineteenth-century Black political history and organizing. 


Written by P. Gabrielle Foreman, Sarah Patterson and Jim Casey.