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History Matters: Colored Conventions

In this month’s History Matters, we examine a University of Delaware interdisciplinary academic project called Colored Conventions.

It's an effort to digitize the meeting minutes of the nation's first black meetings, conventions which took place between 1830 and until after the Civil War.

These minutes provide a glimpse into black leadership and life that has traditionally been hard to access – and just last weekend there was a symposium at the University of Delaware that brought together several different academics who study race, literature and American history to talk about it.

Dr. Gabrielle Foreman and her graduate students, Jim Casey and Sarah Patterson, created an online archive that highlights early black organizing.

The Colored Conventions Project is a digital humanities project that brings buried, 19th century African-American history to digital life for large audiences," said Foreman.

In the 1800s, Delegates met in national and local conventions to discuss a plethora of issues that worried and mobilized them. Issues like education, legal restrictions on black populations and labor. Up to 2,000 people could be in attendance. Many of the meetings were held in African Methodist Episcopal (AME) and Baptist churches.

The first convention took place in Philadelphia in 1830, and the last one happened in Macon, Georgia in 1888. The movement began when a group of around 1000 black people traveled from Ohio to Canada after facing violence from the local community. In Canada, planning began for the first convention.

It’s a wide swath of communication in the 1830s that allowed people in Philadelphia to say we’ve got to address the violence against African American communities," said Foreman. "Delegates were chosen from local communities. So, they represented those local churches, those local organizations, those local literary societies."

The meetings were open to the public, and posted about beforehand in newspapers. All that is left from these meetings today are their written minutes. But Foreman says historians and the public can deduce quite a lot from those records.

A notable convention took place in Delaware in 1873.

"The 1873 Delaware convention is an educational convention, it speaks about educational injustice.. the ways in which African Americans pay taxes but don’t have access to schooling. And we know from our Delaware history, particularly in Southern Delaware, where this was posted, that there were not publicly available high schools to African Americans until the 1950s," said Foreman. "So, we have people living today who are in their 80s and 90s who are not able to go to high school without paying to do so at Del State’s Academy. So that kind of disenfranchisement educationally is ongoing in Delaware’s history. But in 1873 you have the delegates coming together to discuss this."

An exhibit on that particular convention is in the works. But no other scholars had written about the Delaware convention until the Delaware Historical Society brought it to Dr. Foreman’s attention. Even though famous abolitionist and writer Frederick Douglass spoke at several conventions, and the grandfathers of Langston Hughes and WEB Dubois were delegates, Foreman says the movement has remained fairly invisible in popular history.

It’s a hidden movement that hasn’t reached the kind of predominance, the kind of stature, that the abolitionist movement and the anti-slavery and the underground railroad movement has," said Foreman. "One of the reasons we might argue that that is the case, is because there’s an interracial partnership both in the abolitionist movement and in the underground railroad. Which sometimes gets represented as white allies and supporters who, through noblesse oblige and the largesse of their generosity, helped victims. But the colored conventions project really highlights black agency, black leadership, black organizational power."

Although the movement has struggled to find a place in history books, the conventions made things happen. In Mobile, Alabama for example, delegates helped form Talladega College. Other conventions worked to gather crucial population data.

They reported out Census like data before the Censuses were taking data on African Americans," said Foreman.  "So, we have for example charts and graphs that highlight black occupations. We know about barbering, we know about preaching, we know about a select number of black occupations, but the breadth and the width of the labor that was being done. And the capital production, the amount of money that they were worth, which they were also reporting out on, is really pretty breathtaking. "

Now Dr. Foreman’s graduate students are trying to illustrate these early data gathering techniques through charts and graphs.

Foreman says echoes of these minutes can be heard in the sociopolitical discourse of today. She says one can see antecedents of the black lives matter movement in conversations of convention-goers who were concerned about police presence and legal constrictions on African Americans. 

"This movement speaks to the ongoing issues, what is often considered to be the changing same, as the saying goes in African-American communities," said Foreman.  "They speak literally to today.  Freddie Gray is being buried after being killed in a police car because he looked at an officer before he ran away.  There's no reason that we know why he was actually arrested.  This speaks to the 19th century, to impudence, and the charges against black agency and black presence that were criminalized.  So there's this kind of resonance between the 19th century and today, between organizational history and today' impetus for organizing in black communities.   

The Colored Conventions Project engages undergraduates to create pages about certain historically overlooked people of color whose presence impacted the social landscape of the time. Elizabeth Gloucester, for example, was one of the richest women in the 19th century, but she’s a little known figure. At last weekend’s convention, an entire presentation was devoted to her life and influence.

And while many of the minutes are still in the process of being transcribed by members of the AME Church and other community stakeholders, the Colored Conventions Project is working to make all the information they’ve gathered fully searchable.

"Transcribes Minutes is one of the initiatives of the project. What it does is it allows us to have the minutes that we have listed to be fully searchable," said Foreman. "So, if you interested in let’s say an ancestor or a historic figure, you would be able to search through all of the minutes that we have put up in order to find that history, or if you’re interested in a building for example, or music. You can search for those things."

Colored Conventions is also creating a church curriculum, resources for schools and looking to further their partnerships with national organizations. Ultimately, the project’s huge database has the potential to enable a multitude of people to understand black history in a different way.

But perhaps the most important mission of the project is offering historical context - showing that black organizing and activism dates back to a time when slavery was still legal in the US.


History Matters: Colored Conventions

Delaware Public Media examines UD's Colored Conventions project." target="_blank">

History Matters digs into the archives of the Delaware Historical Society, Delaware Public Archives, Hagley Museum, and Lewes Historical Society archives each month to explore connections between key people, places, and events in history and present-day new

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