The Fight for Black Mobility: Traveling to Mid-century Conventions

Nathaniel W. Depee

From October 16 to 18, the 1855 National Colored Convention took place at Franklin Hall in Philadelphia, with the “determination of duty” to give freedom to their “brothers in bonds” and demand the rights they are being denied.1 Among the men at the convention was merchant tailor and social activist Nathaniel W. Depee. Nathaniel Depee was chosen to attend the convention as a delegate due to his years of service in the Philadelphia area. Although he was very active for many years, the minutes from the convention do not seem the show much activity from him. Throughout the whole document, his name is only listed once.

Portrait of Nathaniel Depee

Nathaniel W. Depee
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “Members of the Acting Committee.” New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Depee’s activism extended beyond the Colored Conventions. In 1845, he helped to form the Colored American National Society, which was meant to serve as a “bridge organization between the Convention Movement and the American Moral Reform Society.”2 The organization was short lived, but Depee continued serving the Black community. He is associated with the Institute for Colored Youth (ICY). Beginning as a trade school in 1837, the Institute went on to become one of the most prestigious African-American trade schools. The curriculum featured a strong liberal arts curriculum and ideals that were reflected in the National Convention. The Institute is known today as Cheyney University.

Depee continued his own education as a member of the Banneker Institute, an intellectual organization considerably made up of former members of ICY. Banneker Institute was originally composed of “young men with known demonstrable intelligence and disposable income.”3 Although the organization’s membership mostly consisted of male Black elites, it accepted women. Sarah Mapps Douglass was one of its members.

Depee also formed his own group with the Vigilance Committee of Philadelphia. A vigilance committee was described as a group of private citizens who gather to enforce private law when they feel government law is inadequate. This group was dedicated to defending the rights of the African Americans in the community. In this group, Depee served on the acting committee along with William Still and Jacob C. White. He would continue working with these two men well into the 1850s. Together they founded Snow Hill, a town in Southern New Jersey meant as a “refuge for Blacks from slavery and prejudice.”4 Snow Hill later merged with Free Haven, another town devoted to the same purpose.

Nathaniel Depee also aided the Underground Railroad. His home was listed as one of the stops. He worked closely with William Still, Robert Purvis, Isaiah Wears, and others to help get slaves through Philadelphia. In 1855, his address was listed as 334 South Street; it was the fourth stop for slaves making their way through Philadelphia.5 Depee continued to play a part in this operation until his death in 1868. His devotion to helping African Americans attain a better life in the United States and opposition of the colonization movement suggest that he believed that the country would one day recognize African Americans’ rights to freedom and citizenship.


Submitted anonymously.

Revised and Edited by Samantha de Vera, University of Delaware.


  1. Proceedings of the Colored National Convention, held in Franklin Hall, Sixth Street, Below Arch, Philadelphia, October 16th, 17th and 18th, 1855.
  2. Perry, Richard J. “The African American Ethical Tradition.” The Promise of Lutheran Ethics. Ed. Karen L. Bloomquist and John R. Stumme. (Minneapolis: Fortress P, 1998), 85.
  3. Karsonya Wise Whitehead. Notes from a Colored Girl: The Civil War Pocket Diaries of Emilie Frances Davis. (Columbia: U of South Carolina P).
  4. Elizabeth Varon. “‘Beautiful Providences’: William Still, the Vigilance Committee and Abolitionists in the Age of Sectionalism.” Antislavery and Abolition in Philadelphia: Emancipation and the Long Struggle for Racial Justice in the City of Brotherly Love. Ed. Richard Newman and James Mueller. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 2011).
  5. William Still. The Underground Railroad. (Philadelphia: William Still, 1886), 612. Web. Link