While scholars have long cited documents associated with such conventions--which were held across the North and, after the Civil War, across the South, too--it has been especially exciting to see renewed and richly interdisciplinary attention being paid to the “Colored Conventions.”
A significant portion of that attention can be traced to the wonderful Colored Conventions Project at http://coloredconventions.org/. Led by folks at the University of Delaware (with special praise to P. Gabrielle Foreman), the Project sponsors a website rich in primary texts, works for deep community engagement, and recently sponsored an exciting symposium, “Colored Conventions in the Nineteenth Century and the Digital Age,” in April 2015. (More information on the symposium can be found at http://coloredconventions.org/ccncda, and a video clip of part of my talk there can be found at http://coloredconventions.org/symposium-abstracts/#gardnervideo.)
My study of the Recorder has included rich reading about several conventions, with the 1864 National Convention of Colored Men remaining one of my favorite subjects. Its title aside, this Syracuse convention featured speeches by two women critical to Black Print Unbound, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and Edmonia Goodelle Highgate; this was also the convention George Boyer Vashon indirectly referenced in a recently rediscovered Recorder poem he wrote in memory of one of his children (more on this in a later post and in the upcoming issue of American Periodicals).
To give you a bit of the flavor of that specific meeting and the rich and complex networks at and surrounding Black conventions, here’s a 15 October 1864 piece on the Syracuse meeting written by Elisha Weaver, the Recorder’s editor and a convention participant:
NATIONAL CONVENTION OF COLORED MEN IN AMERICA.
We left Philadelphia in company with the delegates from our city for the National Convention, which was appointed to meet in Syracuse, N.Y. We arrived in New York a little after 2 o’clock, P.M., and remained in the city until 6 o’clock, P.M., at which time we took the finest boat we were ever on, for the city of Albany—and we must say that we were treated with all the respect and consideration that every traveller is alike entitled to—that is, in other words, we were treated as white men have always been treated, and were awarded the pleasure of enjoying all that we paid for. The state-room given us was as fine as the prided parlor of many a lady.
We arrived in Albany at about half-past four the next morning, and we all dropped in at an eating-saloon in that city. Well, the person in charge probably did the best he could in the way of furnishing the table, but we had to pay dearly for the whistle—in fact, we had to pay for looking at the table. We thought it was an outrage, but we found that it was the usual way all along that route to charge people for looking at the table.
We arrived in Syracuse at about two o’clock, P.M., and your humble servant stopped there with one Mr. Lianord, until we met with the Rev. J.W. Log[u]en, a man full of soul and benevolence, and he assigned us to a place where he desired us to stop, the house of one Mr. De Forest.
While at the residence of this brother we had the pleasure of meeting the Rev. Mr. Gibbs, Rev. Mr. Reeves and Professor Bassett. We all stopped there together, and our readers may well imagine how much we enjoyed each other's society.
At this Convention we met with a large number of our old friends, whose company we much like to be in.
Among other distinguished individuals, we met with no less a personage than the gentlemanly editor of the Colored Citizen, Mr. Sampson, Mr. Langston, Esq., Rev. John Peck, of Pittsburg, Professor Vashon, and many other persons of considerable note. Among the lady portion, we met Mrs. [Frances] Ellen Watkins Harper, who is celebrated for her wonderful eloquence and powers of diction, and Miss Edmonia G. Highgate, who had just returned from Norfolk, Virginia, where she had been acting in the capacity of teacher among the freedmen. We also met another very interesting young lady, whose name was, we think, Miss C.C. Duncan, also a teacher among the freedmen. These ladies left our much esteemed friend, Miss Sallie Daffin, of Philadelphia, most busily engaged in teaching the freedmen.
The Convention passed off pretty well, at least as well as could have been expected under the existing circumstances. In regard to capability, there never was so much genuine talent brought to bear at any former Convention in this country as at the one held in Syracuse, of which we speak.
There was generally a good feeling existing among the delegates. A number of excellent resolutions were passed at the Convention in regard to the rights of the colored man, and referring to the great importance of forming a compact and permanent union among ourselves as a people divided.
A vote was passed by unanimous consent that an address should be delivered or forwarded to the President of the United States in regard to having at once instituted a proper acknowledgment and enforcement of the rights of our race.
It was also determined to send an address to Congress. Very high compliments were passed upon the Hon. Charles Sumner, of the United States Senate, Major-General Butler, and some others.
At night, while the Convention was in session, we would have three or four very able speakers to address the audience, which, by the way, never numbered less than two thousand. The hall was a very ample and commodious one, being, without doubt, the largest and finest one in the city.
The Convention held two sessions each day, and we always had a large and respectable concourse of hearers. The addresses were generally pithy and very acceptable to the people. The Convention established a Bureau, having its headquarters in the city of Philadelphia, Pa. Mr. John Langston, Esq., was elected Chairman, and Rev. John Peck, of Pittsburg, was appointed as first Vice-President. Mr. Turner, of Philadelphia, was made the Secretary of this great Union League Company of the colored citizens of the United States—a league whose name shall spread throughout the length and breadth of this great nation.
Now, upon the whole, we had a very good and promising time at this Convention. All that we now hope for is that a great and permanent benefit may result from this wide assembling of our people, and most earnestly do we pray that we may not be disappointed, and that a more stringent and concentrated effort should be made by us as a race and people earnestly seeking after the proper path to moral and intellectual advancement. Let this Convention be the guide-post to fame and fortune. The ball has been set in motion. Shall we keep it moving on? We shall see that.
Beyond those listed—Jermain Loguen, John Mercer Langston, and Vashon, just for three examples—the convention featured Henry Highland Garnet, William Wells Brown, and, presiding, Frederick Douglass.
Think of the intellectual and moral power in that hall!
You can find the proceedings at the Colored Conventions Project here: http://coloredconventions.org/items/show/282
A small selection of the massive number of Recorder articles about various Black conventions includes:
* “Convention of the Colored Men of New Jersey,” 12 August 1865
* “Colored Convention in North Carolina,” 28 October 1865
* “National Convention of Colored Soldiers and Sailors,” 3 November 1866
* “The Colored Convention,” 23 January 1869
* “Bishop Payne’s Letter to the National Convention,” 13 February 1869
In my common refrain, I’ll end by again observing how much more attention these subjects deserve. In my next, more on one of the convention speakers, a figure who continues to amaze me, Edmonia Highgate.