MARY ANN SHADD CARY’S HERSTORY IN THE COLORED CONVENTIONS
1855 National Convention of Colored People held in Philadelphia, PA
“Center City Philadelphia.” Courtesy of the National Park Service. https://www.nps.gov/places/center-city-west-commercial-historic-district.htm
Tracing Mary Ann Shadd Cary’s earlier leadership in Black organizing and newspaper publishing offers a new frame for understanding her participation in the 1855 National Convention of Colored People held in Philadelphia. By this time, Shadd Cary had witnessed the birth of the movement through her father’s participation and had spent years as editor of her own newspaper. Her published writings demonstrated her expertise in emigration and racial uplift work as an educator and organizer in Black resettlement communities. Shadd Cary’s participation in the 1855 convention was far from her debut; rather, it was a strategic move to elevate herself and her cause to new heights on one of the most important stages available to Black organizers. As a woman, she faced barriers to her campaign that have taken years to clear of misrepresentations and archival obstructions, to get a better view of her achievements finally.
Documentation and resulting studies of Mary Ann Shadd Cary’s role as a delegate in the 1855 National Convention have been fraught by the movement’s scattered archive. While Howard Bell’s 1969 book, Minutes and Proceedings of the National Negro Conventions, 1830-1864, published by Arno Press, included the proceeding to the 1855 convention, Mary Ann Shadd Cary’s presence in the record was not noted by scholars for many years. Instead, scholars turned to an article on November 20th, 1855, in The British Banner, in The Black Abolitionist Papers collection. The article, cited first by historian Shirley J. Yee in her 1992 book Black Abolitionist Women: A Study in Activism, 1828-1860, significantly differs from the proceedings around the story of Shadd Cary’s delegacy and agenda. In the proceedings, Shadd Cary’s nomination to be a delegate is presented as a point of procedure and, consequently, the cause for a “spirited discussion,” presumably about the appropriateness of allowing a woman to be a delegate. Following some debate, the question was resolved by a simple vote–a vote that was unique among the conventions. Thirty-eight men supported her inclusion, and twenty-three opposed it; notably, Frederick Douglass voted in the affirmative.
The British Banner makes clear exactly what that opposition was about: a woman’s place was ostensibly not in the public, political arena of the convention movement. The author begins by claiming her very presence, by definition, signals Shadd Cary’s intention to take over the convention and turn it into a meeting on women’s rights and suffrage. He, then, misgenders her as a way to assert that she is socially dysfunctional and shame-inducing, which he concludes is a serious threat to the success of the convention movement and can only be rectified by putting her in “her place” as an example to all. Shirley Yee’s writing on this convention does mention the author’s attack on Shadd Cary, but it does reproduce an error from the poor quality microfilm facsimile: a tally of the delegate votes that suggests Shadd Cary did not get enough votes (23 nays and only 3 yays) and was denied from becoming a delegate.
Jane Rhodes’ 1998 biography of Mary Ann Shadd Cary cites the convention proceedings from Howard Bell’s book and correctly identifies Shadd Cary as a delegate without referencing the British Banner article. Historian Martha Jones incidentally reproduces Yee’s error in her 2007 book, All Bound Up Together, using Shadd Cary’s exclusion as the frame for her chapter’s argument that public discourse and conventions slid back into its old practice of excluding and silencing women. Yee’s and Jones’ arguments remain superbly supported despite the misreadings of the British Banner article. However, the conflicting information from the available primary sources, nevertheless, highlights how disconnected archival records have influenced the telling of Shadd Cary’s history with the Colored Conventions. Bringing these records together and explicitly connecting them through our archive is one of the ways the Colored Conventions Project supports scholars working to bring women of the movement like Shadd Cary to the fore.
Recent efforts to recover Shadd Cary’s importance to Black activism have led to new understandings of her role in the conventions movement. For example, Derrick Spires’ 2019 book, The Practice of Citizenship: Black Politics and Print Culture in the Early United States, not only correctly reports Shadd Cary’s delegate status, but exemplifies what we gain by connecting and comparing the records. Spires located a letter from the writer, William J. Wilson, under his pen name Ethiop, to Frederick Douglass, printed on November 9th, 1855, in The Frederick Douglass Paper, reporting on the convention. Wilson reveals that Shadd Cary has given a powerful speech advocating for African Americans to emigrate to Canada and soliciting funding for existing resettled families. He illustrates that her manner, intelligence, and style of speech made her an oratorical peer of other leading men who had spoken on the subject and won her extra speaking time from her captivated audience–even on such a controversial topic as emigration. Shadd Cary’s success, albeit stricken from the convention record, is amplified by her win in a public debate on emigration the week after the convention at Philadelphia’s Banneker Institute against Isaiah Wears, one of the delegates who had voted against her delegacy, which she reported in her newspaper The Provincial Freeman.
Ultimately, the records for the 1855 National Conventions reveal as much about Mary Ann Shadd Cary as they do about her struggles with the gender politics of Black organizing and its scattered archive. She came to the convention with substantial expertise and experience with emigration, which should have been universally acknowledged. Nevertheless, she already had a public audience (live and in print) she had earned the right to address and make her case for relocating the project of Black nationalism, civil rights, and dignity to Canada. She succeeded in the face of opposition, but the intentional erasure, silencing, and attacks by those who wrote the proceedings and by others who reported on the convention made the task of telling this story fraught. It is only by her practice of recording her own story in the pages of her newspaper and calling on her allies to do the same, that it is possible to read the convention records against the grain and reveal the limits of their representation of convention events, and especially of women’s roles in the movement.
 Colored National Convention (1855: Philadelphia, PA), “Proceedings of the Colored National Convention, held in Franklin Hall, Sixth Street, Below Arch, Philadelphia, October 16th, 17th and 18th, 1855.,” Colored Conventions Project Digital Records, accessed December 10, 2020, https://omeka.coloredconventions.org/items/show/281.
 Bell, Howard. Minutes of the Proceedings of the National Negro Conventions, 1830-1864. Arno Press, 1969.
 Yee, Shirley J. Black Women Abolitionists: A Study in Activism, 1827-1860. Univ. of Tennessee Press, 1992.
 British Banner. “American Slavery.” Nov. 20, 1855. Black Abolitionist Papers, reel 6.
 Jones, Martha. All Bound up Together: the Woman Question in African American Public Culture, 1830-1900. University of North Carolina Press, 2007.
 Frederick Douglass Paper. “Letter from Ethiop to Frederick Douglass.” Nov. 9, 1855. Black Abolitionist Papers, reel 9.
 Spires, Derrick R. The Practice of Citizenship: Black Politics and Print Culture in the Early United States. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019.