The roster of participants at the October 1864 National Convention of Colored Men at Syracuse, New York, reads like a Who’s Who among Black male activists: Frederick Douglass, Henry Highland Garnet, John S. Rock, George Boyer Vashon, Christian Recorder editor Elisha Weaver . . . the list goes on. The 62-page Proceedings lists no credentialed women delegates—there were none—but does briefly note speeches by Edmonia Highgate, “an accomplished young lady of Syracuse,” on the evening of 5 October and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, who, the next evening, “spoke eloquently and feelingly of our hopes and prospects in this country” (15, 25). This paper pieces together bits from press accounts and diverse other sources beyond the brief Proceedings references to more fully explore Highgate and Harper’s participation.
In some ways, the two women seem a study in contrasts: comparatively-unknown but fascinating because of her thinking about American Transcendentalism, Highgate probably garnered an invitation because of local connections; the now almost-canonical Harper, though early in her career, was already a respected national figure in both Black activism and literature. But both Highgate and Harper were thinking actively about the ways women’s voices and efforts could aid (and already had aided) the convention movement, both recognized crucial questions tied to public performances of (Black) identity and citizenship, both had complex senses of the geographies and temporalities surrounding their convention moments, and both understood the complex work of language in convention settings. While this paper performs—and analyzes questions tied to—initial recovery of Highgate and Harper’s appearances, it also makes larger arguments on the uses and limits of convention proceedings for contemporary scholars of literature and history, on the importance of conventions as venues for Black cultural production, and on the roles of free Black women in the Civil War era writ broadly.