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Education and the Campaign for Black Excellence Across the Colored Conventions

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Education and the Campaign for Black Excellence Across the Colored Conventions


In 1831 Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, both free persons and fugitive slaves gathered for the first National Colored Convention to discuss how they could improve the lives of colored persons in the United States. In hopes to “elevate” the socio-economic status and overall quality of life for people of color the delegates felt that education would be the most instrumental. Through the institution of slavery, colored persons were denied access to education in order to make sure the system of slavery prevailed. Therefore in almost all of the Colored Conventions, dating back to the first meeting in 1831, education for colored persons was considered one of the most critical tools the black community needed to succeed. Throughout the years of the Colored Conventions delegates were incumbent on coming up with the most practical strategies to attain education for people of color depending on the resources given and the opportunities of employment for people of color in whichever regions discussed.
Although the delegates were a group of educated men of color living in the North east, some of them professionals, understood that it was not realistic for most men of color to be employed outside of the agricultural/manual labor industry. In the first national convention of 1831, they created a plan to establish “a college…at New Haven Connecticut, as soon as $20,000 are obtained, and to be on the Manual Labor System, by which in connection with a scientific education also obtain a useful Mechanical or Agricultural profession.”{1} While this convention was taking place Institutional slavery was still thriving and many white people of the North believed that colored persons shouldn’t be given the ability to any other work then Manual Labor. As a result, many white people within the northern states refused to hire people of color in any other industry even if the person received a degree for that profession. For example George Boyer Vashon, an activist and a lawyer was enrolled in his father’s school for children of color along with other colored activists such as Martin R. Delaney, was a graduate of Oberlin, received his law degree and was denied by the bar in Pittsburgh twice.{2} As a result Vashon practiced most of his law in Haiti and then came back to the United States to create the Howard Law School for student of color. It was important that people of color be given the opportunity to become intellectuals however due to situations in the past, some delegates felt as if it was more important to focus on education that would guarantee persons of color financial stability.
In the years later to come after Manual Labor Schools had already been made, the benefits of vocational education for people of color was put into question. In the July 1855 Colored Convention, the delegates discussed the advantageous and disadvantageous of vocational education. One of the delegates, Mr. Edwards F. explained that he felt as if vocational education was institutionally forced upon people of color through slavery and therefore is not “self sustaining”.{3} There was uncertainty if this decision to continue vocational education amongst people of color would actually “elevate” the living conditions for people of color or continue the exploitation of black physical labor. A month later August 5, 1853, after the Convention, The Frederick Douglass Paper publishes the Report of the Committee on Manual Labor School, to the National Convention. In the publication, Charles L. Reason, George B. Vashon and Charles H. Langston discuss their approval of the Manual Labor School, stating “every person is here not merely to enjoy, but to work; and schools are only valuable in their teachings, as they assist in making both thinker and worker.”{4} They highlight the importance for men of color to be intellectuals as well as be able to work manually. Unfortunately it was rare that a man of color would be able to work outside of the Manual Labor industry, however it was just as vital for men of color to be able to think intelligently for themselves in order to understand their position as a free man of color, and help to elevate other people of color in the future.
The National Colored Conventions were highly focused on establishing a flourishing community of people of color within the North East. However when people of color began migrating west, California Colored Conventions began meeting in 1855 and were looking to establish some type of educational system or take advantage of what education system was already established there. The North’s black population was much larger and more established then in California in the late 1850s, hence by this time they had already established schools for children of color and Manual Labor colleges for adult persons of color. Delegates in the 1856 convention were trying to decide whether it was a good idea to establish a Manual Labor School along with a college that provided a formal education and preparatory schools for children. Or if it was beneficial to ask the state legislature for children of color to be able to enroll in the common schools. Some delegates such as N.F. Henry who thought that if they establish this new school system, “this early point of the history of our State, we should commence efforts to secure to our children the advantages of education”.{5} However other delegates felt as if the legislature would not be willing to allow them to purchase the land in order to make this school for colored persons and it would be better for them to just try to enroll into an already established school system that is providing good education.
People of color in California tried multiple ways to enroll their children into these schools, including a number of people who had to pass their child as white for them to be able to enroll in these common schools. For example, Sarah Lester was a white passing person of color who was kicked out of her school because they found out that she was actually a person of color. Multiple students of color were also passing for white in order to enroll in these common schools, however, once the Emancipation Proclamation was added to the Constitution, the establishment of a school for people of color in California was more attainable. In the 1865 California Convention, delegates made a plan “to present a petition to the Legislature to so amend the School Law that colored children, by its provisions, shall receive the benefit of its advantages in common with others; and, Whereas, The School at San Jose, being already established, and in successful operation, requires the prompt and earnest aid of our people, as well as their whole influence”.{6} The activists that migrated to the West had a hard time figuring out what was the best solution for the lack of education for people of color, however they continued to try different strategies in order to secure a strong socio-economic class of people of color.
All of the Colored Conventions whether state or National focused on the upward mobility of free people of color, through education. Education is the most critical necessity for people of color to succeed.

{1}Convention of the People of Color, First Annual (1831 : Philadelphia, PA), “Minutes and Proceedings of the First Annual Convention of the People of Colour, held by adjournments in the city of Philadelphia, from the sixth to the eleventh of June, inclusive, 1831.,”, accessed May 6, 2016,

{2}“The Church South’s Opinion of the Church North”.The Anti Slavery Bulge , no. 130 (1848).

{3}The Liberator. Colored National Convention. The Liberator. Boston, July 1855.

{4}Charles L. Reason, George B. Vashon and Charles H. Langston. Report of the Committee on Manual Labor School, to the National Convention. Frederick Douglass Paper. Rochester, New York. 15 August 1853.Print.

{5}Roberts, Sylvia Alden. Mining for Freedom: Black History Meets the California Gold Rush. Bloomington, IN: IUniverse, 2008. Print.

{6}Proceedings of the California State Convention of the Colored Citizens, Held in Sacramento on the 25th, 26th, 27th, and 28th of October, 1865. Printed at the Office of "The Elevator," (San Francisco, CA) 1865. PDF



The Liberator, The Fredrick Douglass Paper, California Conventions, The Anti SLavery Bugle, Black History Meets the California Gold Rush, “Education and the Campaign for Black Excellence Across the Colored Conventions,”, accessed October 23, 2019,