The Library Focuses on Neglected History of Black Activism in Colored Conventions Project

New! The Library offers access to the Colored Conventions digital humanities project (CCP), a research hub that gathers primary resources and recent scholarship shedding light on a neglected chapter of Black activism that began decades before the end of slavery.

Bishop Richard Allen, founder of the Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Philadelphia

In the 1830s — before Frederick Douglass stole himself out of bondage and when Abraham Lincoln was eking a living from manual labor in the Illinois backwoods — African Americans came together to advocate for their rights as U.S. citizens.

The Colored Conventions resource takes researchers from when a white mob in Cincinnati drove more than 2,000 free people of color from Ohio for violating a law that imposed the burden of proving they were not slaves as a condition of employment, to 1830 when the “Constitution of the American Society of Free Persons of Colour” convened in Bishop Richard Allen’s Mother Bethel AME church in Philadelphia to discuss the possibility of establishing a settlement in upper Canada, to subsequent meetings that brought together prominent Black writers, organizers, church leaders, newspaper editors, educators, and entrepreneurs yearly in a campaign for civil and human rights. Tens of thousands attended more than 200 state and national conventions held between 1830 and the 1890s.

The CCP Digital Records website features hundreds of primary sources — proceedings, newspaper articles, speeches, letters, transcripts, and images — organized by year, type, and region, showing, for example, the belief expressed following the Civil War by Mr. Peter K. Jones in the “Convention of the Colored People of Va,” attended by a Charlottesville delegation in the city of Alexandria, Aug. 1865, that “we will have our rights … and the Government on the other side of the Potomac will back us up in what we do.”

Mary Ann Shadd, educator and publisher, and the first woman delegate recognized by a national Colored Convention (1855)

The website also presents exhibitions highlighting significant events and themes, such as the story of Mary Ann Shadd (1823-1893), the first Black female editor of a North American newspaper, the “Provincial Freeman,” and the first woman to be seated as a delegate in a national convention in 1855. Shadd, who moved from the United States to Windsor, Ontario in 1851, was a confidant of Frederick Douglass and the second Black female lawyer in the U.S., a graduate of Howard Law School in 1883.

Most of all, the CCP shows that convention participants were never marginalized to each other, and understood what whites apparently did not: that they were Americans claiming American rights. As Bishop Richard Allen said in his address to the first convention in 1830:

Not doubting the sincerity of many friends who are engaged in [the African Colonization Society]; yet we beg leave to say, that it does not meet with our approbation. However great the debt which these United States may owe to injured Africa, and however unjustly her sons have been made to bleed, and her daughters to drink of the cup of affliction, still we who have been born and nurtured on this soil, we, whose habits, manners, and customs are the same in common with other Americans, can never consent to … be the bearers of the redress offered by that society to that much afflicted country.

You can find the Colored Conventions Project in the A-Z Databases list on the Library’s Research page. For the Library’s latest online resources, visit the New Resources at the Library guide.

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