Discussions about African American education dominated national Colored Conventions in the pre-Civil War era. African American activists believed that basic and advanced schooling would bring about social, political, and racial equality. Yet these schools often only targeted African American men. Subsequently, a manual labor college for African American male youth was proposed at the 1831 National Colored Convention in Philadelphia. Twenty-two years later, however, a shift occurred. At the 1853 National Colored Convention in Rochester, New York, a plan was introduced for a manual labor school that served African American men and women. African American leaders pivoted from ignoring African American women’s access to higher education to advocating for greater acceptance of women’s activism and co-educational models.

Though the education of women was by no means settled by the 1850s, this shift reflects the ever-evolving nature of gender politics in free Black communities in the antebellum Northeast. While African American men spearheaded Colored Conventions, they were aware of the dominant trends in men’s and women’s higher education and they were almost always in dialogue with African American women intellectuals. The national Colored Convention reports thus reveal three key factors that help to explain the evolution of the manual labor college initiative: the establishment of co-educational and interracial institutions of higher education; the contributions of African American women to these institutions; and the emerging women’s rights movement. Though the manual labor school foundered, it was not because of the question of educating women, but rather the question of resources and the idea of racial self-segregation. Nevertheless the 1853 and 1854 plans were the bellwether of a new phase in African American higher education, one where the quest for Black economic self-sufficiency depended upon both men and women.

Use the left-hand menu bar to navigate exhibit pages. The exhibit includes:

Maps that show cities where convention committee members and call signers resided and their travel routes to conventions.

A survey of news coverage reflecting the debate over the 1853 committee’s proposal for a manual labor college and Frederick Douglass’s proposal for the American Industrial School.

Biographical entries on people and institutions related to Black educational activism and antebellum manual labor schools. These biographies highlight the centrality of education in antebellum Black activism during a time of systemic segregation, inequality, and outright denial of education in northern and midwestern urban public schools.