The Declaration of Sentiment adopted at the Fourth Annual Convention for the Improvement of the Free People of Colour announced delegates’ commitment to reform endeavors “without distinction of caste or complexion.” (31) At the next convention, delegates reportedly voted to eschew the term “colored.” (14- 15) These incidents signal broader challenges to the concept of race that comprised a critical dimension of national and state conventions. This paper analyzes such challenges and explores how they reflect contested interpretations of American reform. It maps their place in a largely overlooked tradition of race resistance that extended through the nineteenth century.
The paper grounds its analysis in the ideas and activity of William Whipper, a native of Columbia, Pennsylvania. He was the only person to serve as a delegate to all six of the initial national colored conventions, and he participated in state and national forums that resumed in 1840s and 1850s. He initiated opposition to race in the conventions. The paper situates him within a broad assortment of reformers who questioned the validity and logic of race constructions. Their perspectives reveal new ways of understanding the meaning and place of race in nineteenth-century colored reform endeavors. It counters the popular assumption that race is a self-evident, trans-historical site of identity for Black Americans that expressed itself most clearly in collective religious and reform endeavors.