MARY ANN SHADD CARY’S HERSTORY IN THE COLORED CONVENTIONS
1869 COLORED NATIONAL LABOR CONVENTION
In 1869, Shadd Cary and four co-authors prepared a report on women’s labor for the Colored National Labor Convention. Well before this convention, however, Shadd Cary had already begun to analyze Black people’s labor in the US and Canada. As Nneka Dennie has established, Shadd Cary “frequently argued that emigrating would empower Black people to control their labor and achieve economic independence from racist communities” . For example, in “A Plea for Emigration” (1852), Shadd Cary framed Canada as a safe haven for Black laborers. She insisted that “…no man’s complexion affect[s] his business. If a colored man understands his business, he receives the public patronage the same as a white man. He is not obliged to work a little better, and at a lower rate—there is no degraded class to identify him with, therefore every man’s work stands or falls according to merit, not as is his color” . Shadd Cary also explained that Canada would offer abundant labor opportunities. She states, “To enumerate the different occupations in which colored persons are engaged, ever in detail, would but fatigue…It will suffice that colored men prosecute all the different trades; are store keepers, farmers, clerks, and laborers” . Shadd Cary continued to discuss Black labor in various editorials published in The Provincial Freeman during the 1850s; she had a longstanding interest in Black economic self-determination. Therefore, Shadd Cary’s 1869 report is best understood as the natural extension of her earlier work, as well as a response to Black people’s shifting socioeconomic status after the Civil War.
The Civil War transformed the grounds on which Shadd Cary defined her political and personal agendas. Then, the passage of the 14th amendment, which purportedly made African Americans full citizens, effectively ended activism around abolitionism and emigration–causes she centered her career around. Despite her deep ties to Canadian resettlement projects, Shadd Cary shifted her focus to the new needs and conditions of life for Black people in America, in the wake of purported emancipation and full citizenship. This period called Reconstruction, from 1865 to 1877, is marked by the federal government’s efforts to rebuild the South to reconcile with former Confederates while failing to protect newly-freed African Americans from new forms of exploitation and racial violence. Shadd Cary responded to the pressing need for education and labor organizing among the masses of African Americans, moving back to the U.S. in 1867 and getting work as a labor activist and school teacher briefly in Detroit, and, then, for the rest of her life in the nation’s capital.
The Proceedings of the 1869 Colored National Labor Convention offer one index for the complexities of debating and addressing labor issues among African Americans. However, Shadd Cary’s report within the proceedings reveals that concerns women laborers deemed urgent were not treated as a priority for the male-dominated meeting. The record captured the lengthy speeches and resolutions dedicated to labor’s place in Christian theology and concepts of democratic citizenship, histories of labor organizing, racially-integrated labor unions across trades, temperance, peonage, support for the National Freedman’s Savings Bank and the New Era newspaper, and several other topics that convention leadership devoted time to debate.
Early in the convention’s agenda, we find evidence that male delegates were not likely to considering or inviting Black women’s interests, even when they were present as delegates. The images on the left are from the minutes of the 1869 convention. The first mention of women comes on the second day, out of the question of whether to charge female delegates the same $2 membership tax that it levies on male delegates. The men participating in this debate and their positions on the topic are all recorded, without noting any doubt as to whether women delegates would be granted the same powers, privileges, or representation as men in exchange for paying dues.
The findings of contributors to the Colored Conventions volume confirm women’s financial and domestic support of the conventions, noting that they were welcomed from the very start of the movement, even when their status as delegates or their interests were excluded and minimized. In the evening session of the same day, delegate James Rapier of Alabama, a lawyer and later congressman from Alabama, rounds out the day’s comments by noting his hope that the subject of women’s rights “would be confined north of the Ohio River.” Research by volume contributors Erika Ball and Jewon Woo, and our exhibit “Colored Convention Heartland” by Christine Anderson, her students at Xavier University, and Nancy Yerian explain this affront to women’s rights as a response to the prominence of women agitating for civil and voting rights in Ohio, including at Colored Conventions in the state. The proceedings note that Shadd Cary responded to Rapier’s comment, hopefully delivering the swift rebuke he deserved, but of which there is no direct quote.
Shadd Cary and the members of the Committee on Women’s Labor presented their report at the end of the third day of the convention, pressed to make their case for the particular needs of Black working women. Her skill as a writer and speaker is made obvious by the way she lays out her case, first by painting a picture of Black women’s access to a limited number of industries due to a lack of training opportunities and unions. She points to exceptional Black women professions, specifically sculptor Edmonia Lewis and doctor Sarah Mapps Douglass, to demonstrate that women are interested in work other than domestic labor, and can be successful if Black men support their needs as workers. Shadd Cary concludes by reminding the convention that empowering women laborers repairs the gaping hole they created in Black mutual aid organizing, which results in the effective uplift of the race, economically and morally. The proceedings offer a single word to encompass the other delegates’ response to her report; “Adopted.” The single document perhaps fails to capture the complexity and diversity of opinions on the issue of women’s rights held by the delegates present. But if Shadd Cary’s choices around activism after this convention are a reflection of its accuracy, then it is likely this record adequately depicts the challenges Shadd Cary faced in making a straightforward request to extend the kinds of labor and economic organizing efforts to women that had already been created for men. After decades of participating in and speaking directly to the movement through her newspaper writings, the 1869 labor convention was the last Colored Convention Shadd Cary attended and wrote on. Her focus turned to addressing Black women’s place in D.C. labor and politics at large, writing for The New National Era, forming her own organization, and pushing for the inclusion of Black women in the suffrage movement.
 Dennie, Nneka D. “‘Leave that slavery-cursed republic’: Mary Ann Shadd Cary and Black feminist nationalism, 1852–1874.” Atlantic Studies, vol. 18, no. 4, 2021, pp. 478-493, DOI: 10.1080/14788810.2020.1799707.
 Shadd Cary, Mary Ann. A Plea for Emigration, or, Notes of Canada West, in Its Moral, Social, and Political Aspect, With Suggestions Respecting Mexico, West Indies, and Vancouver’s Island, For the Information of Colored Emigrants. George W. Pattison: 1852.
 Colored National Labor Convention (1869: Washington, D.C.), “Proceedings of the Colored National Labor convention: held in Washington, D.C., on December 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th, 1869.,” Colored Conventions Project Digital Records, accessed December 10, 2020, https://omeka.coloredconventions.org/items/show/591.
 Colored National Labor Convention (1869 : Washington, D.C.), “Proceedings of the Colored National Labor convention : held in Washington, D.C., on December 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th, 1869.,” Colored Conventions Project Digital Records, accessed February 6, 2023, https://omeka.coloredconventions.org/items/show/591. p. 13.
 Ball, Erika. “Performing Politics, Creating Community: Antebellum Black Conventions as Political Rituals.” The Colored Conventions Movement: Black Organizing in the Nineteenth Century, edited by Gabrielle Foreman, Jim Casey, and Sarah Patterson, UNC Press, 2021, pp. 154-166.
 Woo, Jewon. “Deleted Name But Indelible Body: Black Women at the Colored Conventions in Antebellum Ohio.” The Colored Conventions Movement: Black Organizing in the Nineteenth Century, edited by Gabrielle Foreman, Jim Casey, and Sarah Patterson, UNC Press, 2021, pp. 179-192.
 “Home.” Colored Convention Heartland: Black Organizers, Women and the Ohio Movement – Accessed December 10, 2020. https://coloredconventions.org/ohio-organizing/