“Another Seams in the Fabric: Exploring Black Women, Domesticity and Material Culture in the context of the Colored Conventions of the Nineteenth-Century”

Self-determination persists as a theme of this history into the first third of the twentieth-century, and women’s suffrage… [is] merely one seam in the fabric of women’s political struggle.

Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, African American Women and the Vote

At the New York meetings held in Troy in 1858 to discuss the question of black suffrage in the state the women did not participate in the debate. They did, however, arrange “a table loaded with the most palatable refreshments, which were eaten during the recess, with a relish.”

James Hornton, “Freedom’s Yoke: Gender Conventions among Antebellum Free Blacks”

The varying roles of black women in liberation politics have been well established. Alongside Maria Stewart, Sojourner Truth and others, Mary Ann Shad Carey was tireless in her efforts and adamant in her beliefs in women’s equality, refusing to be silenced or relegated to the role of “helpmate” providing refreshments and entertainments for male repasts.

Yet, some women did perform these roles and perhaps were content to do so. What, then, do we do with their labor? Do we dismiss it as quotidian women’s work undeserving of attention and merit? Or, might we reconsider preexisting theoretical frameworks and read these instances for what they can also suggest about African American women’s contributions to the struggle of emancipation and liberation? Taking as a starting point this query, this paper seeks to explore another “seam in the fabric of women’s political struggle” by examining the domestic spaces, potentially inhabited by convention goers.

Antebellum urban blacks in the North actively took in boarders and lodgers, even sheltered fugitive slaves. For this reason alone, homes and parlors were intensely political spaces. Taken from a larger project that urges a retheorizing of black women’s pursuits of freedom and citizenship by reconsidering cultural symbols of domesticity and the tensions fostered by racial uplift ideology that accompanied these symbols, this paper argues for such an examination by considering the ways in which domestic spaces—advertised during conventions in papers like the Colored American and the Provincial Freeman—served as important political meeting places before, during, and after the convention day, were important sources of income and a means of contributing to anti-slavery efforts for the (largely female) enterprising keepers, served to document the “progress of the colored people,” and in all assumed the work of racial uplift.