Black and white image of the riverfront on the Ohio River

Cincinnati Riverfront 1848, seen from Kentucky. From the Collection of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.

Delegates to the Convention of the Colored Men of Ohio had reason to be discouraged and angry when they convened in Cincinnati in November of 1858. As the national debate over slavery intensified, African Americans in Ohio could see the tangible effects of slaveholders’ struggle to retain their grip on those they held in bondage. Yet the seasoned activists in attendance refused to yield to pessimism. They had long engaged in building institutions of mutual support reflected in Cincinnati’s African American schools, churches, and philanthropic organizations. Debates and resolutions at the convention focused on strategies for moving forward under difficult political conditions.

Located on the Ohio River, Cincinnati, Ohio was a goal of fugitives from the slave state of Kentucky, implicating Black Cincinnatians in their struggles to escape bondage. Not surprisingly, the 1858 convention petitioned the federal government to “immediately and unconditionally abolish that essence of infernalisms—American Slavery.” The convention also addressed the United States Supreme Court ruling in Dred Scott only a year earlier that the Constitution prohibited Congress from banning slavery from territories and that people of African descent could not be citizens and had no right to sue in a court of law. In a resolution that occasioned no debate, delegates voted that “colored men are absolved from all allegiance to a government that withdraws all protection” from them.

Delegates also opposed Ohio’s discriminatory Black Laws, but they debated whether the state “forefeit[ed] her claim to be called Christian or Republican.” Some delegates did not feel justified in denying the “Christian character” of the state, and others feared the words were a “covert attack” on religion. Baptist pastor Reverend Wallace Shelton may have been responsible for the resolution’s success when he stated he “thought that if to love impartial justice and mercy was an attribute of a Christian State, then a state against which such charges as were made in the resolution could lie, was surely not a Christian State.” Another contested question centered on the merits of emigration from a country that professed to value liberty but protected slavery. The resolution opposing emigration apparently passed largely because of the argument that the labor and sacrifice necessary “to founding a home elsewhere” could be better spent securing African American rights in the United States.