THE FIGHT FOR BLACK MOBILITY: TRAVELING TO MID-CENTURY CONVENTIONS

A. ELIZABETH (OLIVER) ARMSTRONG

One of the few women at the 1855 National Colored Convention, Ann Elizabeth (Oliver) Armstrong was born in 1826 in Maryland1 and died in Philadelphia in 1900.2 She likely inherited her attitudes about community service from her parents, John D. Oliver, a whitewasher3 and second-hand clothes store-owner,4 and Julia Oliver.5 She married Littleton Armstrong, who was employed as a coachman for a merchant and who could not read or write.6 However, 19th-century census records are notorious for falsely recording African Americans as illiterate. In 1862, Armstrong had one child who died young.7 Armstrong was very involved in charitable organizations at Mother Bethel AME Church in Philadelphia, particularly in the Dorcas Society, and she associated with other activist women such as Ann Maria Teagle, Rachel Cornish, and Mary Sheppard.8 The purpose of this society was to raise money to help those in poverty, particularly the elderly. Armstrong served as the secretary of this society for a number of years, in addition to participating in various other fundraising events for the church.

While Armstrong is only mentioned on the 1855 National Colored Convention roll, her place as an educated, married woman at this convention is not to be discounted. Armstrong would have taken note of and engaged in discussions with others about the roles of educator-mothers, like herself, in the community. Armstrong also participated in events for Wilberforce University, where she served on the fundraising committee in 18649 and sang for a benefit concert in 1863.10 An advertisement in The Christian Recorder noted, “We hope there is not a mother nor a father but what will feel it to be to their own interest to respond to this earnest appeal. Now is the time for elevation and education.”11 Thus, although almost ten years had passed at the time of this concert, the spirit of the 1855 National Colored Convention was alive and well, and bolstered by persons like Armstrong.

Armstrong had a well-earned reputation as a person who deeply cared about her community, which is likely why she was invited to the 1855 National Colored Convention in the first place. While her voice is missing entirely from the record, her quiet acts of service speak to a person who was dedicated to community service and education. She and Littleton lived out their lives together in her mother’s house12 and did not travel much beyond the community boundaries.

Credits

Written by Kathryn Wright, English 634, Spring 2013. Taught by Professor Gabrielle Foreman.

Edited by Carolyne King, English 641, Spring 2016. Taught by Gabrielle Foreman, University of Delaware.

References

  1. 3Ancestry.com, “1850 United States Federal Census Record,” accessed March 13, 2013; Ancestry.com, “1870 United States Federal Census Record,” accessed March 13, 2013.
  2. Ancestry.com, “Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Death Certificates Index, 1803-1915,” accessed March 13, 2013.
  3. Ancestry.com, “1850 United States Federal Census Record.”
  4. Ancestry.com, “Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Death Certificates Index, 1803-1915,” accessed March 23, 2013.
  5. Ancestry.com, “1850 United States Federal Census Record.”
  6. Ibid.
  7. Campbell, Rev. J.P., “MARRIED” (The Christian Recorder: Philadelphia, PA, July 5, 1862), accessed March 13, 2013 from the African American Newspapers Database. See also Frisby, S.W., “OBITUARY” (The Christian Recorder: Philadelphia, PA, May 7, 1862), accessed March 13, 2013 from the African American Newspapers Database.
  8. “LOCAL COLUMN” (The Christian Recorder: Philadelphia, PA, February 28, 1878), accessed March 15, 2013 from the African American Newspapers Database.
  9. “NOTICE” (The Christian Recorder: Philadelphia, PA, December 31, 1864), accessed March 22, 2013 from the African American Newspapers Database.
  10. “NOTICE: Wilberforce University” (The Christian Recorder: Philadelphia, PA, December 31, 1864), accessed March 22, 2013 from the African American Newspapers Database.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ancestry.com, “U.S. City Directories, 1821-1989,” Accessed on March 13, 2013.