COLORED CONVENTION HEARTLAND: BLACK ORGANIZERS, WOMEN AND THE OHIO MOVEMENT
CATHERINE “KITTIE” DORAM
Abstract: Catherine Doram was born in Kentucky. She was an enslaved woman of mixed racial heritage who escaped bondage at the age of 12. Doram was not directly associated with the 1858 Colored Convention, but was a close colleague of Rev. Wallace Shelton, pastor at Union Baptist Church and giver of the invocation at the Convention.
Catherine “Kittie” Doram was an African American seamstress born into slavery in 1790 in Kentucky. At the young age of 12, Catherine escaped from slavery with minimal education, and although she wasn’t able to read or write, she would go on to a prestigious career as a seamstress.
White abolitionist and Underground Railroad operator Calvin Fairbanks in his (somewhat sensationalist) narrative of rescues he staged painted a larger-than-life picture of Doram:
She was a large, tall old black woman who had escaped from slavery in her thirteenth year with thirty-six cents, with which she bought some shirting, got some one to cut it out and start her at sewing, made up the garments, sold them, bought more cloth, made it up and sold the garments until, in 1864, she had accumulated a good property. She was rich (Fairbanks 153).
Doram’s entrepreneurship appears to have served her well. According to the 1860 census record, by the age of 70 she was able to amass a fortune of $10,000 – $5000 in cash and $5000 in real estate holdings (US Census 1860).
Her wealth is even more impressive considering the limited economic opportunities for Black women in the antebellum period, particularly those who were illiterate and had been born into slavery. The majority of Black and formerly enslaved women made their living doing menial labor and spent much of their lives in poverty. Even the famed Harriet Tubman had to support herself as a cook, laundress, and scrubwoman between her trips back into Maryland (Tucker).
Doram used her wealth and success to help other struggling African American slaves who yearned to be free. She took on the task of sheltering fugitives within her own home and as time progressed she became known as “Cincinnati’s most accomplished female operative” in Underground Railroad work and aiding fugitives (Fairbanks; Griffler).
It is possible Catherine Doram was also a member of the Anti-Slavery Sewing Society of Cincinnati, Ohio. The society existed from 1847-1861 and was made of members who constructed new clothing for slaves escaping through the Underground Railroad. Although primarily composed of white women, Doram’s wealth, prominence, and sewing skills may have gained her entrée.
Providing respectable clothing to fugitives (and others) was something Doram was known to have done. Calvin Fairbanks told another story of her generosity in his memoir. At a gathering at Union Baptist Church, Fairbanks was giving a speech after being released from prison. His “freedom suit” was very ill-fitting, revealing his skin between the pants and waistcoat. Kitty Doram would have none of that in her church. She called him out in the middle of his speech, and took up a collection for him. The collection resulted in over 100 dollars, at least ten of them contributed by Doram herself. She, Levi Coffin, and Union Baptist Church Reverend Wallace Shelton then formed a committee of three to use the money to select and purchase a suit for Fairbanks (Fairbanks 154).
The anecdote not only tells us of Catherine Doram’s philanthropy, but also indicates her standing in her church and the local community. Doram had the social clout to stop Fairbanks in the middle of his speech, convince her congregation to donate 100 dollars, and work closely and directly with Levi Coffin and the leader of her church, Wallace Shelton.
This relationship with Shelton and the Baptist Church also draws a connection between Catherine Doram and the 1858 convention in Cincinnati. Rev. Shelton’s church, Union Baptist Church or Baker Street Baptist Church, served as the home of the 1858 convention. Reverend Shelton presided over the spiritual needs of attendees and commenced each of the convention’s sessions with an invocation and prayer (Convention, 1858).
Given Doram’s active participation in Black freedom movements and her association with the church, it is very possible that she was among the “great many females” whose presence at the evening sessions was recorded in the Liberator’s coverage of the convention (Liberator). The convention minutes also note a $1 contribution to the new Anti-Slavery Society by a Mr. Thomas Doram. It is possible Thomas was related to Catherine Doram, and even that the donation came from her but was recorded in his name (Convention, 1858).
Written by Tyler Fields and Chloe Motley, Taught by Dr Christine Anderson, Xavier University, Spring 2016.
Edited by Nancy Yerian, Independent Historian
Convention of the Colored Men of Ohio (1858 : Cincinnati, OH), “Proceedings of a Convention of the Colored Men of Ohio, Held in the City of Cincinnati, on the 23d, 24th, 25th and 26th days of November, 1858.,” ColoredConventions.org, accessed October 3, 2017, https://omeka.coloredconventions.org/items/show/254.
Griffler, Keith P. Front Line of Freedom: African Americans and the Forging of the Underground Railroad in the Ohio Valley. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2004.
Rev. Calvin Fairbank during Slavery times : How He “fought the Good Fight” to Prepare “the Way” Web. 06 May 2016. https://archive.org/details/durringslavery00fairrich Internet Archive, Book Contributed from University of California Libraries
“State Convention of the Colored People of Ohio.” The Liberator (Boston, MA), Dec. 3, 1858.
“The Kentucky African American Encyclopedia.” Google Books. Web. 06 May 2016.
Tucker, Veta Smith. “Secret Weapons : Black Women Insurgents on Abolitionist Battlegrounds.” In Gendered Resistance: Women, Slavery, and the Legacy of Margaret Garner, edited by Mary E. Frederickson and Delores M. Walters. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013.
“United States Census, 1860,” database with images, FamilySearch(https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33SQ-GBSD-9KYV?cc=1473181&wc=QZ2C-YGM%3A1589432777%2C1589423456%2C1589433479 : 8 April 2016), Ohio > Hamilton > image 22 of 141; from “1860 U.S. Federal Census – Population,” database, Fold3.com (http://www.fold3.com : n.d.); citing NARA microfilm publication M653 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.).