The Colored Conventions Movement
Starting in 1830 and continuing until well after the Civil War, free, freed and self-emancipated Blacks came together in state and national political conventions. Tens of thousands of Black men and women from different walks of life traveled to attend meetings publicly advertised as “Colored Conventions.” where they strategized about how they might achieve educational, labor, and legal justice.
The first Colored Convention was held in Philadelphia in 1830 in response to Ohio’s 1829 exclusionary laws and a wave of anti-Black mob violence that had forced two thousand Black residents to flee the state. That first meeting brought Black leaders together to contest widespread discrimination against Black communities. Their gathering activated a movement.
The Colored Conventions movement took place during critical decades which witnessed devastating anti-Black race riots and the growing popularity of the American Colonization Society; the Fugitive Slave Law and the proliferation of derogatory representations of Blacks; the Civil War and Reconstruction; and the return of Black disenfranchisement in legal, labor, and educational spheres in the late nineteenth century. Speakers at conventions responded to these events by calling for community-based action that gathered funds, established schools and literary societies, and urged the necessity of organizing in what would become a decades-long campaign for civil and human rights. The convention minutes illustrate the immense struggles and the profound courage of those who made it a point to organize and stand for what was rightly theirs.
Providing a powerful structure and platform for Black organizing, more than 200 state and national Colored Conventions were held. Filling churches, city hall buildings, courthouses, lecture halls, and theaters, the recods of these well-attended Colored Conventions demonstrate the diversity of cultural life and political thought among Black communities and their leaders. The meetings included the most prominent writers, organizers, church leaders, newspaper editors, educators, and entrepreneurs in the canon of early African American leadership—and tens of thousands more whose names went unrecorded. While most delegates were male, Black women participated through their newspaper work, entrepreneurial activism, political commitments, and especially their presence. They embodied the movement’s core values and challenged traditional beliefs about women’s place in public society.
The Colored Conventions reflect the long history of collective Black mobilization before, during, and long after the end of the Civil War. As empowering hubs of Black political thought and organizing, the Colored Conventions provided space for informed public audiences to develop political plans and community-building projects, celebrate racial unity and protest state violence, and work tirelessly to secure Black people’s civil rights.
[Editor’s note: Richmond, Virginia, where the Social Welfare History Project is based, was the site of the Virginia State Convention in 1869 and the National Afro-American Press Association Convention in 1894. John Mitchell, Jr., editor of the Richmond Planet, was president of the Afro-American Press Association at the time of the September 11-12, 1894 convention. Newspaper accounts in both the Black and white press report that Virginia Governor Charles Tripplett O’Farrall was invited to address the assembly. The governor declined in opposition to the Afro-American Press Association’s endorsement of Ida B. Wells, whose investigative reporting publicized the horrors of lynching. O’Farrall’s letter was printed in numerous papers, occasionally with local commentary. The convention again endorsed Wells.]
The Colored Conventions Project
The Colored Conventions Project (CCP) is an interdisciplinary research hub that uses digital tools to bring the buried history of nineteenth-century Black organizing to life. Mirroring the collective nature of the nineteenth-century Colored Conventions, CCP uses innovative, inclusive partnerships to locate, transcribe, and archive the documentary record related to this nearly forgotten history and to curate engaging digital exhibits that highlight its significant events and themes. Emerging from a graduate class taught by MacArthur Fellow P. Gabrielle Foreman at the University of Delaware, the CCP launched and was cultivated at the University of Delaware from 2012-2020. Currently, CCP’s team includes Foreman, Jim Casey, Lauren Cooper, Denise Burgher, and others, and its work is among the flagship projects of the Center for Black Digital Research, #DigBlk, at Penn State University. The CCP has been supported by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Mellon Foundation.
In October 2022, the Colored Conventions Project and Mural Arts Philadelphia dedicated a public mural painted over two walls by Ernel Martinez. Philadelphia hosted at least nine conventions throughout the movement’s history, and generations of Pennsylvanians participated in gatherings held across the nation. Martinez’ “The Colored Conventions Movement and Beyond in Philadelphia” honors and commemorates the movement’s Philadelphian origins, and recognizes activists today who are the legacy of the movement.
The Colored Conventions Project https://coloredconventions.org/ (used with permission)
Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress.
For further reading:
The Colored Conventions Movement: Black Organizing in the Nineteenth Century (2021). Edited by Gabrielle Foreman, Jim Casey, and Sarah Patterson. University of North Carolina Press.
The Colored Conventions Project includes an extensive bibliography https://coloredconventions.org/bibliography/