What Did They Eat? Where Did They Stay? Black Boardinghouses and the Colored Conventions Movement
Teaching Questions: College/AP Classes
This exhibit looks at the concrete needs, the housing and food, that are needed for a city or neighborhood to host a convention. It asks “why is so much of that labor hidden?”
How do digital tools help us make this hidden labor visible—especially the work performed by Black women?
This exhibit includes a map of boardinghouse advertisements—where they appeared, how they were worded, and who posted them.
What do these ads tell us about the community in which conventions were held? Why is it important to look at these advertisements together?
This exhibit’s Inside the Boardinghouse StoryMap visualizes what a boarding house might have looked like in the nineteenth century and indicates what each room would have been used for.
Why is it important to explore and analyze the spaces that Black activists occupied? What is the role of food in these spaces?
In the essay on which this exhibit is based, Psyche Williams-Forson explores how objects and things can influence people’s expectations, actions, and behavior within a given space without being noticed.1 She asserts that providing food and lodging allowed Black women to participate in the Colored Conventions. In her essay, Gabrielle Foreman argues that providing housing and food is building activist infrastructures.2
Although most women were not explicitly acknowledged in convention minutes, what questions must we ask to trace and document their participation? What new insights can we glean by looking at how what often is considered domestic labor can be seen as movement building?
1 See Psyche Williams-Forson, “Where Did They Eat? Where Did They Stay?: Interpreting Material Culture of Black Women’s Domesticity in the Context of the Colored Conventions,” The Colored Conventions Movement: Black Organizing in the Nineteenth Century, eds P. Gabrielle Foreman, Jim Casey, and Sarah Lynn Paterson (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2021), 86.
2 Foreman, “Black Organizing, Print Advocacy, and Collective Authorship: The Long History of the Colored Conventions Movement,” 36.
While Underground Railroad conductor, businessman, and activist William Still has been written about by many historians, this exhibit turns our attention away from him to acknowledge his wife Letitia Still’s life and work. The exhibit page The Still Family in Philadelphia centers Letitia Still as a businesswoman, activist, and organizer in her own right.
How does privileging the domestic and public work of Black women such as Letitia Still destabilize common assumptions about nineteenth-century Black organizing being a male arena?
Black material culture–the studies of objects as purveyors of culture, identity and cultural and intimate relationships–is often overlooked when it comes to documents that only highlight people’s declarations and words.
How does this exhibit turn our attention to the importance of Black material culture? What and who goes unexamined if we take issues of Black political culture off table?
Write a paragraph to a page outlining what you think this exhibit does best.
If you wanted to extend the analysis of Black women’s work in the conventions, what would you add, center, or develop?
If your class were to create/hold a convention today, what issues would be its focus? Write a convention call that outlines the convention’s objectives, urgent issues at hand, and the active measures delegates and attendees would need to consider, discuss, and plan. Write a comprehensive call and brief version of it (see examples in separate tabs above, EXAMPLE: Full Convention Call and EXAMPLE: Brief Convention Call). Prepare to address the following questions:
1) How would your convention be organized?
2) What organizations and which leaders would be invited? Who are the non-famous people who would need to be there and from what communities/entities would they draw? Consider how an unprecedented number of Black women participated in the 1854 Emigration Convention and how their presence informed the issues that were discussed and the resolutions that were passed.
3) What objectives do you think most attendees would agree on?
4) What major differences in approaches do you think delegates might have?
5) How do you think it would be covered by the press?
From the Colored Conventions Project’s Digital Records – view
A CALL FOR A CONVENTION OF THE COLORED INHABITANTS OF THE STATE OF NEW YORK.
Fellow Citizens, – We issue this call, to invite you to attend a State Convention , to be held in the city of Albany on Tuesday, the 18th day of August next.
The primary object we have in inviting you to assemble is, to take in to consideration the political condition of our people in this State, and to adopt such measures as can be simultaneously carried out by our brethren, in every section of the State, to obtain a relief from those political disabilities under which we labor.
The principal legal disability which affects us is, our deprivation of the free exercise, in common with other men, of the elective franchise. A free suffrage is the basis of a free government, the safe-guard of a free people, the strength of the strong, the defence of the weak, a powerful auxiliary to respectability, wealth and usefulness; – and just in proportion as men are deprived of this, they are shorn of their strength, and are subject to poverty, disgrace, and abuse.
We are convinced, fellow citizens, that not only our political, but our depressed condition in all other respects in the State, owes itself, not in the least sense, to the fact that we are politically weak, not possessing the unrestricted use of the elective franchise. The body politic see in us, therefore, no favors to court, and nothing to fear. It is to them a matter of no concern, what may be the abuses we suffer, or how unhappy our condition.
You are aware, that while other citizens have a free and unrestricted use of the elective franchise, a property qualification is required on our part, in order for us to exercise this right, so important to a free people, and without which, a man cannot be considered, in a democratic sense, a freeman. This invidious requisition to the exercise of a birth-right privilege, weakens our standing as citizens of the State, and subjects us to all consequent inconveniences. It also degrades our population, because it virtually lowers us in the scale of humanity, and reflects disparagingly upon our character. To seek a removal of this radical evil, is the object of calling you together in convention .
There has been no time so favorable for us to meet for the above object, as the present season. There is evidently a redeeming spirit abroad in our State – an increasing disposition to stand by, and defend the weak against the strong, as the noble acts of the Legislature regarding our protection as citizens, clearly indicate. Ought we not, then, to avail ourselves of this favorable indication, and come together to take some decisive measures to lay before the next Legislature our grievances, with a view to produce further action on their part, for our political disenthralment?
To facilitate the business of the convention , it will be necessary that statements setting forth the legal and other disabilities of our people in different parts of the state, be presented at the Convention . To further this object, we invite all who expect to be present, to collect such statements, and also statistical accounts of the property, real and personal, public buildings, with their value, &c., owned by our people, and the condition of the people in morals, as compared with former times.
We therefore urge upon colored men in all sections of the State – men in all circumstances – if you possess self-respect – if you love liberty – if you appreciate your own rights – if you wish for political and moral elevation – if you have any interest in the prosperity of our people – if you have any regard for the welfare of your children – for the welfare of the State and of the Nation, to assemble at Albany on the 18th of August next.
We call upon the farmer to leave for a while his harvesting, and repair to the assemblage of his brethren. Let the mechanic leave his workshop, to share the toils of a general council. Let the laborer and the workingman be seen crowding the avenues that lead to the place of assemblage. Let every portion of our great and growing State, where lives a single object of oppression, be represented. We call upon the people in every city, town and village to represent themselves in that Convention . Let the aged and the youth – all – all – be found at the above place, on that day. Come up, fellow citizens, from Suffolk to Erie, from Clinton to Steuben, and let us engage together in a common interest.
NEW YORK CITY – Chas. B. Ray, Theo. S. Wright, John J. Zaille, Chas. L. Reason, Timothy Seaman, Wm. P. Johnson, Philip A. Bell, Henry Stoughtenburgh, D. Elston, Thomas Downing, Thos. S. Sidney, Frederick Olney, P.H. Reason, Z.S. Barbary, T. Van Rensalaer, Pres. of the Long Island Convention .
BROOKLYN – Augustus Washington.
JAMAICA – S.V. Berry, Wm. Ranty.
FLUSHING – Aaron Wood, Rev. Mr. Moore.
KINGSTON – Wm. Hansbrouck,
ALBANY – Rev. J.T. Raymond. R. Thompson, Jr.
TROY – W. Rich, Henry H. Garnett, A. Theuay, Jacob Brown, Wm. S. Baltimore, Geo. B. Morton, Marshall Jones.
GENEVA – Rev. John Niles, J.W. Duffin.
ROCHESTER – Rev. Thomas James, W.L. Brown.
BATH – Rev. John Tappan.
COMMITTEE OF CORRESPONDENCE.
The committee take the liberty to appoint the following persons, as a committee of correspondence, and to adopt such measures in their own city and town, as will further the object of the convention . If they are not willing to serve, they will please address a note to the chairman of the committee, (post paid none other will be taken from the office) to that effect. If no reply is made we shall regard it as accepting the appointment, and also as consenting to have their names attached to the call for the convention . We shall wait a few weeks for a reply,
NEWBURGH – C. Payne, I. Allen, J. Ray, T. Kendall.
POUGHKEEPSIE – J. Gray, M. Francis, U. Boston, H. Johnson.
KINGSTON – T. Harley, W. Hasbrouck.
CATTSKILL – M. Cross.
HUDSON – W. Van Alstine.
ALBANY – Rev. J.T. Raymond, R. Thompson, Mr. Pogue, Top & Van Vrankin, C. Morton.
TROY – Wm. Rich, A. Theuay, G. Baltimore.
WEST TROY – Wm. Stewart, Wm. King.
SCHENACTADY – R.P.G. Wright, Thomas Jackson, F. Thompson, John Wendall, Mr. Simpson, Mr. Dana.
UTICA – G.L. Brown, James Fountain, B.S. Anderson, Peter Freeman, R. Paul.
WHITSBOROUGH – J.W. Logan, E.P. Rogers, J.M. Brickers.
LITTLE FALLS – Wm. Jackson.
NEW HARTFORD – R. Wells, Mr. Brewster.
SYRACUSE – Rev. Mr. Chester, P. Jackson, Wm. Jenkins, A. Dunbar.
OSWEGO – T.E. Grant, D. Pease.
VOLNEY – Silas Slater, Mr. Slater.
GENEVA – J.W. Duffin, J. Bland, A. Freeman, S. Condall.
CANANDAIGUA – D.H. Ray, R. Valintine.
PALMYRA – P.B. Lee.
ITHACA – H. Jackson.
BATH – E.L. Platt, Rev. J. Tappan.
ELMYRA – Wm. Johnson.
ROCHESTER – A. Stewart, J. Brown, W.L. Brown, A. Williams, J.H. Bishop.
LEROY – O. Wood.
LOCKPORT – Wm. Brumley, Geo. Miller, W. Miles, J. Morgan, J. Robinson.,
BUFFALO – A.H. Francis, J.L. Lincheum, J. Garritt, J. Walker, P. Harris, H. Hawkins, B. Lincheum, Geo. Ware, Wm. Qualls.
SACKETTS HARBOR – Julias Ferrill.
FISHKILL – A. Adkins.
Convention of the Colored Inhabitants of the State of New York (1840 : Albany, NY), “A Call for a Convention of the Colored Inhabitants of the State of New York,” Colored Conventions Project Digital Records, https://omeka.coloredconventions.org/items/show/596.
From the Colored Conventions Project’s Digital Records – view
“Colored Convention. Bishop Turner of Atlanta Calls the Meeting to Order in Cincinnati.,” Colored Conventions Project Digital Records, https://omeka.coloredconventions.org/items/show/1656.
This teaching guide was created in spring 2021 by Samantha De Vera in collaboration with P. Gabrielle Foreman.
Hunter, Tera W. To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors After the Civil War. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1997.
Jones, Jacqueline. Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family from Slavery to the Present. New York: Basic Books, 1985.
Santamarina, Xiomara. Belabored Professions: Narratives of African American Working Womanhood. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2005.
Williams-Forson, Psyche A. Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2006.