In 1841, African American citizens in Troy, New York gathered to discuss their grievances and to strategize to improve their conditions. Among the injustices delegates and attendees talked about are the disproportionate and arbitrary arrests of African Americans by police officers. [1] Colored Conventions attendees recognized and understood the complicity of the justice system in impeding Black political, economic, and social mobility. Before and after slavery, they tackled the role of the police and courts in keeping African Americans from realizing citizenship. More than 50 years later, the Hampton Negro Conference echoed the 1841 Convention’s concerns:

The large number of young men in state prison is by no means the least of the heavy burdens. It is true that many of these are unjustly sentenced; that longer terms of imprisonment are given Negros than white persons for the same offences; it is true that white criminals by the help of attorneys, money, and influence, oftener escape the prison, thus keeping small the number of prisoners recorded, for figures never lie. [2]

The minutes of the Colored Conventions reveal the racialized penal habits of the US justice system. Delegates and attendees fought against state-sanctioned destruction of Black life, and their discussions serve as crucial resources for historians.

This exhibit looks at the lives of African Americans who were victimized by the penal systems of Georgia and California during the nineteenth century and the ways that the Colored Conventions Movement responded to this injustice. Georgia is known for virtually reinstating the conditions of slavery through incarceration after Emancipation. California, on the other hand, instituted a court system that served as a vehicle for eliminating non-white groups. While they are often unacknowledged, Black children populated prisons, were brutally punished, and forced to perform hard labor. Today, both states continue to spend more in juvenile incarceration than education. [3] Following the works of Kelly Lytle Hernández, Talitha Leflouria, and Sarah Haley, this exhibit seeks to complicate our conventional understanding of incarceration. Black women and girls experienced gendered and sexualized methods of punishment, the legacy of which are discernible today. By delving into how nineteenth-century prison systems denied and sought to destroy Black womanhood, childhood, and, ultimately Black life; we can begin to understand the weight of the conventions’ protest against the biased justice system and the ferocious resistance that Black women sustained after the Colored Conventions movement.


1. New York State Convention of Colored Citizens (1841 : Troy, NY), “New-York State Convention of Colored Citizens, Troy, August 25-27, 1841,”, accessed September 26, 2017,

2. Hampton Negro Conference (1899 : Hampton, VA), “Hampton Negro Conference. Number III. July 1899. ,”, accessed September 26, 2017,

3. Elizabeth Hinton notes this in her interview with Dissent (“Booked: The Origins of the Carceral State” by Timothy Shenk).  calculates that, in 2014, Georgia spent $9,202 per elementary/secondary student a year while California spent $9,595. Justice Policy Institute calculates that Georgia and California respectively spent $91,126 and $208,338 per incarcerated child per year in 2014.