Becoming Frederick Douglass
1841 Maine State Convention of Colored Citizens Held in Portland
An urgent call for a state convention to “demand an immediate effort for our moral and intellectual elevation” appeared in The Colored American on September 4, 1841. All in the vicinity, especially Black women, were encouraged to attend to address matters of importance affecting the local Black community including employment opportunities. The convention also focused on the abolition of slavery: “The condition of our enslaved brethren greatly affects our own. We cannot expect the full enjoyment of all our rights while the influence of slavery is felt in our land.” That the free, colored citizens felt compelled to address also the abolition of slavery, this convention would have certainly appealed to Frederick Douglass as a fugitive.
Douglass began his public speaking career in 1841 while attending an anti-slavery meeting in Nantucket, Massachusetts; he would travel the lecture circuit throughout the New England region. Likely that he was aware of the Maine State Convention that year in Portland (even if he may not have attended it). Examining this convention is therefore useful to place the launch of Douglass’ career in context of the Colored Conventions movement.
Click on the maps to take a closer look at the terrain Douglass traveled throughout the Northeast. An early speaking engagement in Holden, Massachusetts places him in close proximity to the 1841 convention, which he may have likely encountered reports of such from newspapers like The Colored American that published the proceedings.
Convention Delegates and Debates
Of those assembled for the 1841 convention in Portland, two men—Rev. Amos N. Freeman and Stephen Myers–would eventually form alliances with a younger Frederick Douglass just a few years later. They led debates about the immediate abolition of slavery everywhere, and resolved to petition Congress for abolition in the District of Columbia in particular. Delegates, however, did not endorse the use of “physical force” for slave liberation, a sentiment echoed later by Douglass.
Officers of the convention:
- President: Rev. Amos N. Freeman
- Vice Presidents: Rev. John W. Lewis and Stephen Myers
- Secretaries: Henry A. Chandler, Jeremiah Rogers, and Charles Pier
While women participated in the 1841 convention, they are not recorded among the thirty-three male delegates as contributing to the debates. Rev. Freeman though proposed the forming of a committee to gather statistical data about the conditions of free Black populations in the region. This committee included the following women:
- Miss Caroline Griffin (of Gardiner)
- Mrs. A. Jackson (of Brunswick)
- Mrs. Taylor (of Portland)
- Mrs. E. Spencer (of Portland)
These Black women make a significant contribution to the convention, working alongside male delegates, assessing the progress of communities thriving despite the racism and socioeconomic conditions threatening their survival. As recorded in the convention minutes, the report contained demographic listings about occupations, real estate value, education, social and civic organizations, and religious institutions. Only the perspective of one woman, Nancy Prince, is recorded in the conventions minutes as presented to the assembly: “A letter from Mrs. Nancy Prince, a teacher from Kingston, soliciting aid from this country, was read by the President.” The actual letter however was not recorded in the minutes. Notably, the full text of other letters written by male supporters / absentee delegates are preserved in the minutes as clear evidence of gender bias.
The role of women in Black public culture is discussed further in the exhibit to provide broader contexts for understanding the new world of freedom Frederick Douglass entered as a fugitive slave and where he encountered Black activists-intellectuals who would appear as role models in the Colored Convention movement.