TO STAY OR TO GO? THE NATIONAL EMIGRATION CONVENTION OF 1854

INTRODUCTION

Black activists fiercely resisted the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law, which forced states to participate in recapturing alleged fugitives. The law preyed not only on formerly enslaved persons but also free African Americans. Activists responded in various ways: they took slave catchers to courts, harbored fugitives, held meetings, and so forth. At the height of the law’s enforcement, many African Americans saw that their future in the United States was bleak. Emigration, therefore, became an alluring, possible solution.

Whether it was best for African Americans to stay in the US or to seek a better life elsewhere was the central question of the 1854 National Emigration Convention held in Cleveland, Ohio. Prominent Black Ohioans took the stage to express their support for and opposition to emigration. Mary Bibb, a staunch emigrationist who moved to western Canada upon the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, served as delegate and Third Vice President in the Convention. Numerous other African American women held official positions in the convention. These women’s delegacy marked a shift in convention culture.

This exhibit looks at the debates and discussions within—and that surrounded—the convention. Sections of this exhibit also explore Black women’s participation both in the emigration movement. We drew upon many nineteenth-century Black newspapers to examine the role of Black press in furthering the reach of Colored Conventions. The exhibit, therefore, tackles the ways the North Star, Frederick Douglass’ emerging prominent paper, covered the reports and debates in the 1854 Convention. While the goals of nineteenth-century Black activists unified many of them, consensus was not always within reach.