The Meeting that Launched a Movement: The First National Convention

Emergency in Cincinnati

Historical plaque at the Wilberforce Settlement

An historical marker of the Wilberforce Settlement, a Black community in Canada that developed as a direct result of the riots in Cincinnati. Black citizens of Cincinnati moved to Canada as refugees from racial violence.

In Cincinnati in the late 1820s, racial tensions that had been developing for several decades finally culminated in the form of anti-Black race riots that plagued the city for several days and gained national attention. The city had abolished slavery in 1803. Its free Black community had been rapidly expanding throughout the 1820s, and by 1829, the official state census counted ten percent of its population as “blacks and mullatoes”.[1]

These citizens were excluded from employment opportunities, education, and public life in general. An African American could not be held in slavery or indentured servitude in Ohio, but also could not vote, hold public office, or serve in the militia. Even so, the growing population of free African Americans led to white fear, hostility, and eventually violence.

White mobs broke out in the “riot of 1829,” and assaulted many African Americans. Carl Woodson described this event years later in The Journal of Negro History:


“…bands of ruffians held sway in the city for three days, as the police were unable or unwilling to restore order. Negroes were insulted on the streets, attacked in their homes, and even killed. About a thousand or twelve hundred of them found it advisable to leave for Canada.” [2]


Minutes and Proceedings of the First Annual Convention of the People of Colour, 1831

Page 13 from Minutes and Proceedings of the First Annual Convention of the People of Colour, 1831. Source: Bell, Howard H., ed. (1969) Minutes and Proceedings of the National Negro Conventions, 1830–1864. New York: Arno Press.

The minutes of the 1831 convention estimates an even larger figure, “two thousand of them have left the soil of their birth…”[3] Cincinnati represented a city wherein both slavery and black citizenship were made illegal.

African American communities in northern cities grew concerned that similar riots would break out and laws be passed or enforced in other areas. These concerns were given voice in print in the 1830 convention minutes, which states, “Much anxiety has prevailed on account of the enactment of laws in several States of the Union, especially that of Ohio, abridging the liberties and privileges of the Free People of Colour, and subjecting them to a series of privations and sufferings… a course altogether incompatible with the principles of civil and religious liberty.”[4] The events in Cincinnati appear to have heightened the level of urgency felt by leaders of the Black community to organize and debate about the proper course of action on a national level.


[1] Wade, Richard C., “The Negro in Cincinnati, 1800-1830,” The Journal of Negro History, no. 39, Association for the Study of African American Life and History, Inc., (1954): 43–57.

[2] Carter G. Woodson, ” The Negroes of Cincinnati Prior to the Civil War,” The Journal of Negro History, I (1916), 6-7.

[3] Convention of the People of Color, First Annual (1831 : Philadelphia, PA), “Minutes and Proceedings of the First Annual Convention of the People of Colour, held by adjournments in the city of Philadelphia, from the sixth to the eleventh of June, inclusive, 1831.,”, accessed May 25, 2016,

[4] “Constitution of the American Society of Free Persons of Colour, for improving their condition in the United States; for purchasing lands; and for the establishment of a settlement in upper Canada, also, The Proceedings of the Convention with their Address to Free Persons of Colour in the United States” Philadelphia, PA.