Becoming Frederick Douglass
1843 National Convention of Colored Citizens Held in Buffalo, NY
Five years of freedom had embolden Frederick Douglass perhaps by August 1843 when he attended the National Convention of Colored Citizens in Buffalo, New York. Yet a fugitive, Douglass also had become a seasoned abolitionist lecturer, delivering hundreds of orations on a grueling schedule throughout the Northeast. His performance as a talking thing from the South made him “a rising star” on the Garrisonian roster of speakers, which also included Charles Lenox Remond, “the leading black moral suasionist” (Blight 107-108). Having faced often hostile audiences of mostly white Christians and street ruffians alike, the two men fell right into place among other Black leaders at the Buffalo convention. Or, so it would seem, since what we understand most about this convention is the philosophical schism among the black leadership rather than a unified mission to achieve full freedom.
• President: Amos G. Beman (New Haven, CT)
• Vice Presidents: F. Piere (Maine), Frederick Douglass (Mass.), W.W. Matthews (CT), J. Sharp (NY), A.M. Summer (OH), H. Johnson (MI), and N.W. Jones (IL)
• Secretaries: Charles B. Ray (NY), James W. Duffin (Geneva, NY), and A.H. Francis (Buffalo, NY)
Very active on the abolitionist lecture circuit, Amos Gerry Beman (1812-1874) participated often in local, state, and national Colored Conventions as well. His travels may not have been as extensive as Douglass, but Bemen was among the top-ranking black leaders in antebellum America. He would preside also over the Colored National Convention held in Philadelphia, October 16th-18th, 1855, and advocated for the establishment of a Manual Labor College as well as black emigration as a radical response to the growing restrictions on black freedom in the U.S.
Delegates and Debates
The first order of business usually for any major colored convention was to determine the representation of delegates. This was also the first issue debated at the 1843 convention in Buffalo with more than seventy black men in attendance from ten states. After a lengthy address by Buffalo native Samuel Davis about the rights of citizenship, the congregation debated the qualifications for delegates. Douglass agreed with those arguing in favor of having appointed delegates and honorary membership to allow for broader concerns and viewpoints, though only delegates would hold voting privileges at the convention. The goal being “to assert principles embracing the largest liberty to all, and to take broad ground in favor of the free expression of opinion” (Minutes 8). Henry Highland Garnet led the opposing group to this motion (and, later, the resolution about choosing delegates). They believed that the convention’s deliberations would be weighted towards addressing local issues given the majority of those in attendance (from communities throughout New York). The congregation adopted the resolution to allow for equitable representation, but the lines were drawn between rival camps of Douglass’ versus Garnet’s cohorts at the convention. Both leaders served on various committees and continued with the proceedings to adopt other resolutions: the establishment of a weekly newspaper (with delegates recruiting subscriptions), collection of statistical data about Black life, and financing of the national convention. Douglass and Garnet went from the closed convention debates to the public forum for an evening session of speakers at the Park Presbyterian Church. They were joined on the podium by Charles B. Ray and Charles Lenox Remond.
Douglass and Garnet
On August 16, 1843, the second day of the convention, Henry Highland Garnet delivered his now famous “Address to the Slaves of the United States.” He spoke for over an hour delivering this militant call to action for exploited slave laborers in the South. He insisted that they reclaim their natural rights to freedom: “Think of the undying glory that hangs around the ancient name of Africa—and forget not that you are native-born American citizens, and as such you are justly entitled to all the rights that are granted to the freest. Think how many tears you have poured out upon the soil which you have cultivated with unrequited toil and enriched with your blood; and then go to your lordly enslavers and tell them plainly that you are determined to be free…You had far better all die—die immediately, than live slaves” (294). By addressing slaves and the free Blacks at the convention, simultaneously, Garnet wholeheartedly dismisses the intervention of Whites—as abolitionists or other allies—to achieve black liberation.
Garnet’s incendiary oration was swiftly opposed by Douglass and others. The next day (Aug 17th), Douglass was appointed to a special committee to examine Garnett’s speech before making it available to the public. News coverage of Garnet’s speech eventually would be widespread in the abolitionist and black presses. Even by 1847, as he became more politically radical, Douglass would reprint it in his first newspaper The North Star. Scholars continue to examine the form, context, and impact of Garnet’s “Address to the Slaves” as one of the most significant political tracts in American history.
Like Douglass, Henry Highland Garnet (1815-1882) was born a slave in Maryland. His father planned the successful escape of the entire family in 1825. They relocated to upstate New York where Garnett was allowed to attend the African Free School, and, later, the Oneida Institute. He became a licensed Presbyterian minister in 1842, presiding over a predominately white congregation in Troy, New York.