Prosperity and Politics: Taking Stock of Black Wealth and the 1843 Convention
Black Assets: Reports on the Condition of Colored People
The Committee Upon the Condition of the Colored People broke new ground when members compiled data on free African Americans in New York and Ohio in the minutes to the 1843 national colored convention held in Buffalo, NY. The committee’s trailblazing efforts led to one of the first collections of data that documented Black wealth following a six-year depression brought on by the Panic of 1837.1 Although the collapse of American banks in 1837 caused the broader real estate market to crash, many free Blacks were able to sustain and gain properties. In the absence of demographic reports on Black communities, the Committee Upon the Condition of the Colored People provided important documentation of the economic disposition of African Americans.
The monumental data collected in the committee’s report is among the first of its kind. A report of its caliber doesn’t appear until the 1860 US Census.23 Some 17 years before the 1860 census the committee’s collection of data began to quantify estate values of free Blacks in order to explore and reveal resources and assets within their communities. In the 1850 census the free black population amounted to a minor classification that appeared only in demographic, population, and location related statistics.4 The only place one sees a direct reference to real estate and personal wealth in the 1850 census is in Table CCXIV.5
It is in this chart that we learn that two of the four highest real estate values belong to New York and Ohio,6 which may explain why only data from cities in New York and Ohio were reported in the 1843 committee report. However, since Black property is not recorded separately, it is difficult to draw firm conclusions. The 1850 census does offer a glimpse of Black ownership and wealth in Table L,7 which reports the amount of free Black families in New York City who own dwellings. This table provides a snapshot of Black ownership within New York that is the focus of the 1843 minutes.
Outside of the federal census, in an October 1840 issue of The Colored American, we find some of the data amassed in the 1843 minutes corroborated in an article entitled, “The Colored People of Cincinnati.”8 Using the article’s statistics, the real estate per person in Cincinnati can be calculated to be approximately $80.24, a little over two dollars more than reported in the 1843 minutes.9 In an article titled, “Negro’s of Cincinnati Prior to the Civil War,” authors Woodson, Carter, and Logan describe the economic influence of The Iron Chest Company, a Black owned real-estate firm established in 1839.10 Although no explicit connections between the company and the 1843 colored convention are apparent, the Iron Chest Company undoubtedly serviced Black communities reported on by the committee; if not by making real estate more accessible to free blacks, the mere existence of the company, under Black ownership, represents the value of Black communities that the Committee Upon the Condition of the Colored People could boast about in 1843.
In 1846, three years after the Committee Upon the Condition of the Colored People made its appearance in Buffalo, the white abolitionist Gerrit Smith donated deeds to land worth at least $250 each to 2,000 African Americans in New York state so that they would have the power to vote.11 In a time when Black voting rights were being restricted, Smith understood economic enfranchisement in the form of land ownership to be the most effective form of resistance. In researching the economic history of a disenfranchised class of people, one expects to find gaps in the records. The work of the Committee Upon the Condition of the Colored People stands amidst those many empty spaces and showcases the political and economic power of Black communities.
Written by Monica Lindsay, English 344 taught by P. Gabrielle Foreman, University of Delaware, Fall 2014.
Edited by Sarah Patterson, Curator
- “Bubbles, Panics & Crashes – Historical Collections – Harvard Business School.” Bubbles, Panics & Crashes – Historical Collections – Harvard Business School. Ed. Walter Friedman. Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College, 2012. Web. 08 Oct. 2014.
- Eighth Census of the United States, 1860. New York, NY: Norman Ross Pub., 1990. Print.
- Minutes of The National Convention of Colored Citizens,” ColoredConventions.org, accessed October 8, 2014.
- U.S. Census Bureau, comp. Seventh Census of the United States, 1850. Washington, D.C: 1850. Washington: Robert Armstrong, Public Printer, 3 May 04. Web. 20 Sept. 2014.
- Ray, Charles B. “The Colored People of Cincinnati.” The Colored American 17 Oct. 1840: Accesible Archives. Web. 26 Sept. 2014.
- Woodson, Carter, and Rayford Logan. “Negros of Cincinnati Prior to the Civil War.” The Journal of Negro History 1.1 (1916). Pg. 1-22. Web. 28 Sept. 2014. The article can also be found on JSTOR. The description of the Iron Chest Company appears on page 9.
- Smith, Gerrit. Letter to Rev. Theodore S. Wright, Rev. Charles B. Ray, Dr. J. McCune Smith. 1 Aug. 1846. Gerrit Smith, a Biography by Octavius Brooks Frothingham. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1879. Pg. 102-05. Print.