FOR GENERATIONS TO COME: SOUTHERN HBCUS AND THEIR COLORED CONVENTIONS ROOTS
Colored Men’s Convention, Mobile Alabama, 1865
THE FIRST COLORED CONVENTION IN ALABAMA
Six months after the Confederate army surrendered, formerly enslaved persons William Savery and Thomas Tarrant traveled almost 300 miles from Talladega to Mobile. They did not travel for leisure or to look for work; instead they had seen a call for a convention, likely the one printed on The Nationalist, the local Black paper. They came with a mission in mind: to build an educational institution.
300 miles was a long way to go and the path ahead was certainly dangerous as armed bands of white supremacist terrorists—many of them former soldiers of the Confederate army—roamed the South to terrorize and kill Black southerners and their allies with impunity. Nevertheless, Tarrant and Savery went to Mobile and “joined with others to secure the use of a room in a residential building and to engage one Leonard Johnson, who had in some ways acquired the rudiments of learning, to start a school.” . In 1832, Alabama passed a law that forbade free Black Alabamians from getting an education, but free Black Alabamians protested and won the right to education for the next three decades although their enslaved counterparts were still forbidden. Tarrant, Savery, Johnson, and others were laying claim to a right and privilege that they had been deprived of for decades.
Although technically free, Black Alabamians immediately found that Democrats, with explicit instructions from President Andrew Johnson, were expeditiously working to reduce their new status to virtual slavery. Johnson’s appointed governor of Alabama thus “proclaimed that though slavery is dead the civil law in force prior to secession, and which protected, created and constituted slavery, is still in full force” . In September 1865, white Alabamians drafted a new constitution to be readmitted to the Union, but it was designed to be wholly inadequate to protect Black Alabamians’ rights. For one, it did not confer the right to vote to Black men, only mandating that “That the right of suffrage shall be protected by laws regulating elections, and prohibiting, under adequate penalties, all undue influence from power, briber, tumult, or other improper conduct” . The provision’s imprecise language was intentional; it does not indicate who had the right to vote thus eliding any specific protections for African Americans.
It was clear that white Alabamians were only willing to declare African Americans as nominally free persons to be readmitted to the Union. Black Alabamians thus strategized on their own. On November 22, 1865, they held the state’s very first Colored Convention. William Savery and Thomas Tarrant were among the convention’s 56 official delegates; together they addressed issues of education, housing, legal protections, and other conditions plaguing newly freed Alabamians.
William Savery and Thomas Tarrant were among the Convention’s 56 official delegates; together they addressed issues of education, housing, legal protections, and other conditions plaguing newly freed Alabamians. The Nationalist reported the highlights of the convention, including the ninth resolution:
As Judy LeForge notes, “Although Alabama’s first Colored Convention stressed conciliation rather than confrontation, delegates clearly understood the impor- tance of educating their children and regarded it as vital to the preservation of their liberties. African Americans considered education their key to the future, and, as such, it was a critical responsibility of government” . However, Colored Conventions in Alabama grew more radical in the following years.
IN THE THROES OF RECONSTRUCTION
In December 1865, ex-Confederates who now represented the state tried to take their seat in Congress, only to be blocked by Republicans. Republicans then began their plan for Congressional Reconstruction. Alabama’s reconstruction began in 1867 and ended in 1874. Without coincidence, Black Alabamians held conventions in Mobile in May 1867 and in Montgomery in 1874. At the 1867 convention, delegates declared themselves allied to the Republican Party and condemned Andrew Johnson. In terms of education, the delegates called for “the establishment of schools, supported by a tax on property” . Perhaps without coincidence, Swayne School, “the state’s first private, liberal arts college dedicated to servicing the educational needs of blacks,” opened the same year . It eventually became chartered as Talladega College.
Speaking too soon, the delegates concluded in the 1867 convention that “Hereafter, there will be no Colored Conventions in Alabama. Color will be regarded as an unnecessary prefix when bodies having political objects in view, or any other public bodies are to be designated. The Republican Party of Alabama will meet often but “colored” or “white” conventions belong to the past” . However, several more Colored Conventions were held thereafter, as white terrorism ensued in the state and throughout the South and Black lives were repeatedly threatened. Talladega College, therefore, emerged at a moment when Black Alabamians were facing the wrath of ex-Confederates. In a period when fleeing white violence or to migrate elsewhere appeared a viable option, Black Alabamians instead staked a claim in Alabama. However, in a matter of over a decade, James T. Rapier and many other delegates would change their views; Rapier would lead the Exodus Movement to Kansas at the end of Reconstruction, seeking a safer haven where Black liberation could be had.
 Drewry, Henry N., et al. “Talladega College: A Case History (1867 to 1975).” Stand and Prosper: Private Black Colleges and Their Students, Princeton University Press, 2001, pp. 132,
 “The Situation in Alabama,” Chicago Tribune, August 15, 1865.
 Alabama Constitution of 1865, Alabama Department of Archives and History, accessed November 15, 2021, https://digital.archives.alabama.gov/digital/collection/constitutions/id/32.
 “Alabama Colored Convention,” Colored Conventions Project Digital Records, accessed November 4, 2021, https://omeka.coloredconventions.org/items/show/1690.
 LeForge, Judy Bussell. “Alabama’s Colored Conventions and the Exodus Movement,” The Alabama Review, vol. 3, no 1, 2010, p. 7.
 “Our History,” Talladega College, accessed November 4, 2021, https://www.talladega.edu/our-history/.
 State Convention of the Colored Men of Alabama (1867 : Mobile, AL), “State Convention of the Colored Men of Alabama, Mobile, May 4, 1867,” Colored Conventions Project Digital Records, accessed November 4, 2021, https://omeka.coloredconventions.org/items/show/565.
Written by: Samantha de Vera, University of California, San Diego, and Rachel Nelson for ENGL/HIST 677, taught by P. Gabrielle Foreman, University of Delaware, Spring 2019.
Edited by P. Gabrielle Foreman.
Acknowledgements: Samantha de Vera and Michelle Byrnes for further edits, visualization contributions, and technical assistance.