This paper will explore the relationship between black conventions and the personal politics embraced by an emerging black middle class in the 1840s and 1850s. Beginning from the premise that convention proceedings must be read as civic rituals and public performances as well as discursive evidence of black political engagement, this paper examines the ways that gender and class-specific conceptions and performances of ideal citizenship shaped the planning, staging and viewing of black conventions before the Civil War.
Focusing primarily on the Proceedings of the State Conventions of New York and Ohio in the 1840s and 1850s (two key regional centers for antislavery activity in the period), the paper will read the behavior of delegates and audience members against antebellum black conduct discourse. It will analyze the ways that participants in black conventions used the space of the convention as a public forum to perform the classical republican and middle-class domestic virtues that African American writers, editors and activists like Samuel Ringgold Ward, Charles B. Ray and Sarah Stanley understood to be essential for free blacks who sought to live “antislavery lives.” It will argue that while displays of oratorical brilliance and debating prowess allowed African American men to showcase their classical and early American republican virtues, conventions also thoroughly relied upon African American women, whose invaluable role as hosts, organizers and observers in the audience infused the events with the emerging middle-class ideals of virtue required for mainstream political legitimacy in the decades before the Civil War. Ultimately, the paper will demonstrate that conventions not only provided crucial spaces for elite and aspiring free blacks to embody their personal politics in a public, explicitly political forum, but that they also enabled antebellum free blacks to reframe the civic rituals of the early republic and antebellum eras for more expansive and radical abolitionist purposes.