COLORED CONVENTION HEARTLAND: BLACK ORGANIZERS, WOMEN AND THE OHIO MOVEMENT
PETER HUMPHRIES CLARK
Abstract: Peter Humphries Clark was born in Cincinnati, Ohio. He was a free Black man who worked as a barber, abolitionist, publisher, editor, orator, principal, and teacher. Clark was important to the 1858 Cincinnati Colored Convention because he spoke at the convention on a multitude of issues concerning African American’s political role and the Abolition movement. Clark served on several of the convention’s leadership committees, including the Committee on Finance and a committee to report business to the convention (Convention, 1858). In these leadership roles, Clark had significant influence over the topics, discussion, and outcomes of the 1858 convention. He argued that Black people should achieve rights on their own instead of relying on the Republican Party.
Like many other delegates of the convention, Clark had deep roots in Ohio’s African American community and many personal and even family connections to other convention leaders. He was a childhood friend of John Mercer Langston and the nephew of John Isom Gaines.
Born March 29, 1829, in Cincinnati, Ohio, Peter Humphries Clark was the son of Michael Clark and Ann Humphries, making him the grandson of Elizabeth Clark Gaines. Unfortunately, Peter Clark’s mother died in 1833 due to cholera. By the time Clark was born, both of his parents were free individuals of mixed racial heritage in the Cincinnati area. However, this did not prevent the Clark family from experiencing the violence and harshness of discrimination. The constant violence and repression in the Cincinnati area sparked Clark’s determination to affect change for African Americans.
When he was only twelve years old, Clark witnessed the Cincinnati anti-Black riots of 1841 where over three hundred Black men were arrested, between fifteen and twenty people wounded, and according the mayor of Cincinnati’s statistics, four people killed (Hand, Cheek & Cheek). Another witness of this riot was Clark’s childhood friend John Mercer Langston. This event drew both of these men together to eventually battle the discrimination against African Americans – Langston also attended several conventions, including the 1858 convention in Cincinnati. Clark and Langston were also united by family ties because Clark’s older sister, Ann, was married to Langston’s older brother, Gideon Langston (Taylor 28).
Clark gained skills through education and his family to subvert slavery and help improve the civil conditions of Black people. Clark attended a private elementary school where his first teacher was an antislavery activist who taught him “the elements of a plain English education” (Taylor 29). Clark went on to attend high school, a rare opportunity for African Americans. The private Cincinnati High School was funded and led by Hiram S. Gilmore and taught a classical college preparatory curriculum (Taylor 30). The school educated several of the most prestigious and influential members of the city’s Black middle and upper class.
In school, Clark gained “oratorical and rhetoric skills” (Taylor 30). He was also exposed to socialism for the first time in high school by his principal, Gilmore, an early follower and advocate of socialist philosophies (Taylor 30).
While Clark received a great education that prepared him for college, he did not pursue a degree. Eventually, Wilberforce University granted him an honorary master’s degree, but Clark’s main goal was to avoid getting a job that would make him “subservient to white men” (Taylor 33). In 1849 Michael Clark died, and Peter Clark had to take over his father’s successful barbering business for some time, which was just the kind of job he loathed. Around the same time, his political career began to surface.
In 1849, 19-year-old Peter Clark attended his first Convention of Colored Citizens, where the topic of African American emigration and colonization was discussed at length. At the convention, he heard many speakers including his longtime friend, John Mercer Langston. Clark heard Langston’s argument that Blacks should remain open to the possibility of emigration since they were denied rights and full citizenship in the United States (State Convention, 1849). Langston maintained that in order to become a political force, African Americans had to be united as a nationality in order to claim their place as an independent people. By the end of the convention, Clark believed that Black people should emigrate to Africa so that they could establish a political system that was not held down by the U.S. government (Taylor 43).
That convention compromised – resolved to stay in the U.S. as long as Blacks were enslaved, but that in the case of emancipation, “we are willing, it being optional, to draw out from the American government, and form a separate and independent one, enacting our own laws and regulations, trusting for success only in the God of Liberty and the Controller of human destiny” (State Convention 1849).
After the convention of 1849, Clark pursued emigration schemes (although never got further than New Orleans) and sought to gain support for emigration to Africa to fulfill this vision of Black self-determination. At the 1852 Convention of the Colored Freemen of Ohio held in Cincinnati, Clark led a sub-committee discussing emigration. Under Clark’s leadership, the committee voted 3-2 in favor of emigration. When the convention delegates voted on the issue, however, support for emigration was defeated 36 votes to 9. Although he was in a small minority, the 1852 convention marked the beginning of Clark’s role as a political leader (Convention, 1852).
Clark’s own political journey reflects many of the philosophical conflicts taken up by the Conventions in the 1850s. By 1854, Clark’s vision of Black self-determination had shifted from emigration to establishing self-sufficient Black institutions within the US. Clark’s goal was to enhance African American cultural capital through these institutions.
Clark’s most significant impact on Black institutions in Cincinnati came through his work as an educator. Clark began teaching fellow students while he was still attending Hiram S. Gilmore’s Cincinnati High School. When a public school system for African Americans in Cincinnati was established in 1849, Clark was the very first teacher appointed (Colored Public Schools).
Struggles over control of the schools between the white school board and the Black community meant his position was unstable for the first few years, then he was dismissed in 1853. Fortunately, by the 1858 Convention he had been re-hired as head teacher at the Western District Colored School. Several other delegates and attendees at the Convention were also involved with the schools, either serving on the Board of the Colored Common Schools, or teaching in them (Martin; Colored Public Schools).
Coming Into His Own
While his career as an educator was on hold in the mid-1850s, Clark’s political involvement gained steam. He attended several conventions, including some outside of Ohio. At the 1856 ocnvention in Columbus, Clark served as Chairman of the Committee on Address and architect of a lengthy and eloquent speech directed toward the State Legislature of Ohio. The address referenced works from Shakespeare to the Declaration of Independence and argued for African American humanity and entitlement to full civil rights in the state of Ohio and the U.S. (State Convention, 1856)
Clark even moved to New York in 1856 at Frederick Douglass’ invitation to serve as an assistant editor of Douglass’ autobiography (Taylor). While in New York, Clark worked with avant-garde antislavery activists like the Radical Abolition Party, formed after the Kansas-Nebraska Act to attain immediate abolition of slavery through political means (Taylor 88).
Similarities between the Party’s motives and Clark’s beliefs can be seen in his involvement in Cincinnati’s Underground Railroad network. It is highly likely that Clark and many other members of Cincinnati’s African-American community participated in extra-legal aiding and abetting of fugitives from slavery, although out of necessity, very little of this work was entered in the written record (Griffler).
Evidence of Clark’s involvement in aiding and protecting fugitives by legal means was documented in an account of a man in southwest Ohio named George “Wash” McQuerry. McQuerry had escaped to Troy, Ohio around 1849. Once McQuerry’s owner discovered his whereabouts in 1853, he traveled to Troy to seize McQuerry under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. McQuerry was handed over to a US. marshal who transferred him to Cincinnati to be returned to Kentucky (Taylor).
In a rapid response to this emergency, Clark teamed up with local abolitionist lawyers to demand a writ of habeas corpus for McQuerry, ensuring that he would get a hearing before being returned to bondage. McQuerry’s hearing unfortunately did not result in his freedom, but this event illustrates Clark’s dedication to advocating for African American freedom and civil rights by any means necessary.
The 1858 Convention
Clark’s political views continued to radicalize, and by the 1858 Convention of Colored Citizens in Cincinnati, Clark was dissatisfied by moderate stances like that of the Republican Party, which advocated the containment of slavery (the idea that new states added to the Union would be free states) instead of its eradication.
In the 1858 Colored Convention, 29-year-old Peter Humphries Clark was one of the most important delegates. He served on no fewer than four committees, including those which determined how money would be spent (Finance Committee), what topics the delegates would discuss (committee to report business for the consideration of the convention), and how the discussions would be distributed after the convention (Publishing Committee). He also spoke on several subjects during the course of the convention.
One of those speeches makes clear Clark’s frustration with and distrust of the Republican Party. He “did not consider his rights any safer with Republicans than with Democrats. He believed slavery would be more secure with the Republicans than with Democrats” (Convention, 1858).
While the Republican Party expressed anti-slavery sentiments, Clark believed it was afraid to act aggressively to upset the status quo. Only a snippet of Clark’s speech made it into the official minutes of the convention. However, it was quoted at length in the Liberator, the newspaper of white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, shortly after the proceedings.
If there was any thing a Republican feared, it was to be called an Abolitionist. You might call him a thief, and it would not displease him half so much. When had the Republicans ever done any thing for the black man? When the Fugitive Slave Law was passed, the Republicans were going to repeal it; but when they got into Congress, they did nothing to bring this about. They had swallowed the law, and they were now contending that it was right… He [Clark] had about made up his mind never to petition for a right again; but if he could seize it, he would do so (The Liberator).
Clark put more stock in the Republican Party’s actions than their rhetoric, and those actions, or rather lack of action in the case of the case of the Fugitive Slave Law, convinced him that they were willing to compromise on the slavery issue in order to secure seats in government. Clark was the only delegate at the 1858 convention to go on record speaking out against the Republican Party, but he was in good company in his dislike for the pro-slavery Democratic Party.
He was also much more in line with the majority of convention-goers on most of the other issues discussed, although he seemed torn on the idea of establishing a state Anti-Slavery Society out of the convention. He both called for a committee to prepare a plan for a permanent organization, and “desired the Convention to pause before they added another to the long list of failed Anti-Slavery Societies, State Organizations, etc.” (Convention, 1858). No doubt he was thinking of his experience with previous conventions forming organizations that seemed to have limited impact after their incorporation (State Convention, 1856).
According to Clark, “The thing to be done was to get the colored people themselves, interested in their own welfare, and then would be time for the organization of societies, to operative upon Slavery in the South or caste in our own State.” (Convention, 1858) Although he did add his name and funds to the new anti-Slavery organization and continued to attend conventions after 1858, he also focused heavily on self-sufficient Black organizations, especially the schools.
Cincinnati’s First Black Principal
Influenced by his own experience at Gilmore’s Cincinnati High School, Peter Clark was a firm believer that African American children should have access to classical education (not just “industrial” or vocational education). Clark served as principal teacher in the Cincinnati Colored Schools’ Western District location from 1857 until 1865. In 1866, Clark realized one of his primary goals for racial uplift with the opening of Gaines High School. This first public high school for Black students in Cincinnati was named after former head of the Colored School Board, fellow 1858 convention delegate, and Clark’s uncle, John Isom Gaines, who had passed away in 1859. Clark was named the first principal of the school, where he taught students and trained new teachers until 1887. For nearly thirty years after the 1858 convention, Clark molded the young minds of Cincinnati’s Black middle class, leaving an indelible mark on the city and becoming one of the most distinguished educators in Cincinnati’s Black schools (Colored Public Schools, Taylor).
In 1887, Clark once again lost his teaching position for political reasons and left Cincinnati for good just as the city’s schools moved to a racially integrated system (Taylor).
As a witness of the 1841 Cincinnati race riots, Clark dedicated his life to making sure that African Americans, both free and enslaved, achieved rights in the United States. Through a diverse and challenging education, Peter Clark utilized his skills to become one of the most important abolitionists in US history. Through his many political shifts and transformed beliefs on the best way to secure rights for African Americans, Clark reached a platform in which he believed that African Americans should achieve their rights through expanding their cultural capital within the community without the help of the Republican Party. While Clark did agree with the motives of the Convention and willingly participated in spreading information on Black struggles in America, he disagreed that rights would be achieved through an alliance with the Republican Party.
After the 1858 convention, Clark continued to go through political transformations. By the 1870s, he was aligning himself more with white immigrant socialist politics than African American movements. After his time in socialist movements, he even became politically conservative and joined the Democratic Party. He took it upon himself to advocate for worker’s rights and expand the educational opportunities for African Americans even after he left Cincinnati in 1887. Peter Clark had a profound impact on the African American community all the way until his death on June 21, 1925.
Written by Matthew Gibson, Taught by Dr Christine Anderson, Xavier University, Spring 2016.
Edited by Nancy Yerian, Independent Historian.
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