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Take Note: Gabrielle Foreman And Jim Casey On The Colored Conventions Project

Gabrielle Foreman and Jim Casey are co-directors of the Colored Conventions Project.

On this Take Note, we hear about the Colored Conventions Project. For much of the 19th Century, African Americans gathered in cities across the United States to participate in state and national-level political meetings that went far beyond slavery and conventional racial narratives to discuss education, labor, and what true equal citizenship would look like.

We’ll hear from Gabrielle Foreman and Jim Casey, two Penn State professors who’ve spent the past 10 years collecting the historical records of these meetings. They’re co-directors of the Colored Conventions Project and co-authors of the book “The Colored Conventions Movement: Black Organizing in the Nineteenth Century,” released in March 2021 by the University of North Carolina Press.

This interview is from the Democracy Works podcast, a collaboration between WPSU and the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State. The Institute’s Jenna Spinelle interviewed Foreman and Casey.

Here's the interview:

Jenna Spinelle:

Gabrielle and Jim, welcome to Democracy Works. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Gabrielle Foreman:

It's so good to be here. Thank you for the invitation.

Jim Casey:

Happy to be here.

Jenna Spinelle:

So, I'm excited to talk with you all about your new book, “The Colored Conventions Movement.” But I think this this concept of color conventions might be a new one to many of our listeners, and I want to talk with you about some of the reasons why that might be. But before we get there, I think it would be good to sort of set the table a little bit. So, if you wouldn't mind, can you give us kind of the 10,000-foot overview of what the Colored Conventions Movement was?

Jim Casey:

The Color Conventions were movement of conventions held by free and formerly enslaved African Americans across the 19th century, starting in 1830, continuing all the way just until the very sort of eve of the founding of the Niagara Movement, and NAACP. And the conventions, when we began learning about them, were relatively small, were oftentimes seen as a subset of the anti-slavery movement that were largely sort of clustered in the north before the Civil War. But in the work that we've done over the last nine years, I think now, we've worked with many partners and collaborators to start to piece together a history that tells us that there were at least 10,000 or so people, Black men and women, who attended these conventions across at least 35 different states. And they would. at these conventions, debate all manner of topics, not just the overthrow of slavery in the early decades. But things like labor, temperance, education, voting rights, freedom from state violence. And at these conventions, what we see more often than not are folks gathering and building communities. And so, for us, a major part of the conventions is both what happens on the podium, what happens where we put microphones today, but also on the spaces surrounding the conventions.

Gabrielle Foreman:

I think one of the things that's really important to remember about the convention movement is that it involved almost all of the important and well-known names of activists throughout the entire 19th century -- the most important ministers the most important writers, the most important editors, the people who broke through glass ceilings to become the first editors, the first professors and white institutions, the first professors in Black institutions. We’re talking about the finest orators, the people who were usually thought of as embedded in movements where they are one of the only African Americans. What this movement shows us in these multi-day meetings across the growing United States and also Canada is the networks of African American people influencing each other, mentoring each other throughout generations, so that you see families that are giving birth to people who then joined the National Association of Colored Women, the Niagara Movement, and beyond. And of course, the NAACP. The Colored Convention Movement, although it is little-known by so many people who are not scholars have a particular small area, right in the 19th century, was really the foundation for the NAACP. It’s the prequel to movements against Jim Crow and to the Black Lives Matter today.

Jenna Spinelle:

One of the things that that you talk about in in your book and, Jim, I think you mentioned this briefly as well is that the Color Conventions Movement kind of gets wrapped up in the narrative of the Underground Railroad and, you know, some of these other things. Can you talk more about that, and perhaps anything you've gleaned about why it's only been within the past decade that this has become something that that scholars have found and started to learn more about?

Jim Casey:

Sure. That's a great question that we can both probably answered together. The first thing that we should qualify is that we've collected records of, we think, most of the conventions of the past 10 years, and that process has been hugely generative as we just gather more documents, and that's a place where really the technology involved has been crucial just to be able to access these records. We found different records, articles, letters, all kinds of testaments about the conventions, and something like 110 different libraries and repositories. Probably somebody before the advent of the Internet could have gotten a Winnebago and spent 10 years going around to see all of these things. 

But that might not have been super practical for a lot of people. And so, a lot of the work that we've done is really fueling the need for access to these materials that have been scattered across so many different places. 

Gabrielle Foreman:

The other thing I wanted to say is that the convention movement predates the antebellum abolitionist movement, that the Massachusetts anti-slavery society, the New England anti-slavery society, and the American anti-slavery society. 

All are established after the inaugural convention meetings in Philadelphia that are started at Mother Bethel AME Church, the most important and long standing independent Black church of that time. And it starts, again, the convention movement is inaugurated before the antebellum convention movement. We often think about the ways in which Black abolitionists, as we call them, were influenced by anti-slavery. And we need to refigure this to think about the ways in which anti-slavery, both the press and the activism itself, are influenced -- and how constrained and narrow they look when compared to a movement that is advocating for full human rights and dignity, for full citizenship rights, for all of the democratic rights that should be imbued and endowed to full citizens, and which aren't. 

The anti-slavery movement does not advance that fully. The convention movement does in labor, in educational access and rights, in voting rights, and also in freedom for state from state-sanctioned violence. 

Jenna Spinelle:

The folks who were who are organizing these conventions, it seems they had this model to go off of that was, previously orchestrated by white men and still was, thinking about that the constitutional conventions and other things that were happening at that time. And I'm just wondering how much the was there a conscious decision to kind of follow in that, that precedent that was already there as far as how these things should run and be organized and be talked about after the fact and kind of cataloged? Or how much was it, you know, folks saying, “No, we see this way. It's been done before, but we're going to do something different”?

Gabrielle Foreman:

We talk about the ways in which there's a parallel politics that is occurring at the same time as African Americans are disenfranchised from the political sphere until the postbellum period, until after the Civil War, where you have the election of highly qualified people with a great deal of experience who are coming from the convention movement alongside formerly enslaved people moving into state legislatures. 

One of the things that is particularly interesting about the [Colored] Convention Movement is that it sometimes times its meetings to coincide with the legislative meetings of the state legislatures. And they do that so that their address addresses to the citizens of the state in which they are held, which is a convention of the conventions, these addresses to the Black citizens, and these addresses to the state citizens, can be heard and are resonant at the very same time that the officials of the state are creating law and policy.

Jim Casey:

The other really important thing to understand about the conventions, too, is that democracy was not an idle question for them. Many of the conventions across the entire century would begin with a call where a group of people would put out a document and say, “Here are some of the topics that we see as being pressing issues for our community. We think it would be better if we came together and talked in collective spaces.” And people were not sort of monolithic in their thinking. People were not always in agreement, and many of the debates about what topics should be talked about, where they should talk about them, how they should talk about them, would depend on which communities were willing to be represented in that kind of shadow politics. 

And we see this across the entire century, where we even see sometimes Black communities say, “We prefer not to be involved. We're working on local issues, and we want to be strategic about our relationships to formal instruments of government.” And so, it's not a sort of one-size-fits-all. And I think that some of the careful thinking that goes into that gives us many of these kinds of small lessons and lowercase, “lowercase D” democracy here.

Jenna Spinelle:

How did people organizing and going to the conventions, I mean, how did they think about citizenship, democracy, some of these big terms? Again, I think that it's often framed in what we know of popular history and things. It's just about, you know, not no longer being enslaved and that struggle, but as you said, it's about so much more. It's about labor. It's about education. And so, how did how were folks thinking about some of these higher-level concepts?

Gabrielle Foreman:

Stacey Abrams organizes like a direct descendant of the leaders of the Georgia Colored Conventions. In the convention for equal rights in the Educational Association of Georgia just after the war, they resolve that in regard to the franchise, we will never cease to protest against all partial legislation based on color, or race or other adventitious distinctions. They knew to think through issues of class, to think through partial legislation that rolled back and blocked their full rights and these full rights that other people enjoyed. And I think they would have supported the For the People Act, which regularizes and expands voter registration and also prohibits voter intimidation. They wanted to modernize voting in their own era. They wanted accountability. They actually protested long lines. They protested the fact that African Americans were voted for and then challenged over and over again before they were seated in state legislatures, and indeed, in national legislatures. We take the case of the first African American senator to be elected, Menard, who was never seated. 

We think about John Mercer Langston, who went to more conventions with his brother Charles Langston, in probably any other sibling group and as many probably as Frederick Douglass himself, who for four decades of convention organizing. And Charles Langston, John Mercer Langston’s brother, was the grandfather of Langston Hughes. So, you see this through lines from political organizing to cultural production, all in advocacy for full Black citizenship rights and Black people to be recognized as full people culturally, right, institutionally, educationally as well. And these methods of limiting voter turnout and communicating that Black people in other targeted groups are not citizen whose access to democracy is valued again was protested again and again in conventions. It is amazing how modern the conventions actually seem in the issues that they bring up and in the heterogeneity of thought, and strategizing, but the uniformity of belief that Black Lives Matter, then as now.

Jenna Spinelle:

Yeah, and I mean, I guess it's in some ways deeply, I don't know, depressing, upsetting, disturbing that here we are more than a century later still having some of these same conversations.

Gabrielle Foreman:

Right now, so many of us are experiencing the fact that Black mobility is a space that can be challenged, surveilled, and transformed into a deadly encounter at almost any time. And this is precisely what Black people were experiencing in the 19th century. When you think about Daunte Wright, or you think about an army officer who was held at gunpoint, handcuffed and doused with pepper spray, all during a traffic stop that shouldn't have happened at all, then we can see the ways in which Black mobility, the right to be in public spaces, can be challenged by individual whites in almost any moment and then enforced by the state when they call the police. 

And it's just been a several years of public instances of this over and over and over again that allow us to see the parallels between the moments when Frederick Douglass and Abner and Sydna Francis go down to protest the fact that they have not been able to have full access to transportation, for example, on their ways to national conventions, right, and this gets written into the record. We see people like Henry McNeal Turner, testifying in front of Congress about the fact that people have to travel under the cover of night to avoid state violence. More and more now, in these days, every Black mother and father are having conversations with their children about the fact that surveillance and violence is ever-present, and you always need to be on your guard against it. 

Jenna Spinelle:

Americans today tend to talk about individualism. We've certainly seen this during COVID, about “my rights,” “my freedoms” types of discussions. But the Colored Conventions, as you've described them and as you write about, seem to be more focused on more group-based, more focused on community-based politics, policy democracy. What can we take from that as we continue to navigate again, some of these same tensions today about individualism versus communities and these types of things?

Jim Casey:

This is a great question that occupied many of the conversations at the conventions themselves. Many of them, when they were trying to organize and build a coalition to hold a state, regional or national convention, would get questions back from local communities to say, “Well, why am I going to spend all the effort to travel to Chicago or Rochester or Raleigh?” And there were not always easy answers. But one of the most common ones is one that I think shows up in various forums that are newspapers today, which was that it was really important not just for people to agitate locally, but for a specific and intentional Black activism to be able to reach across many of the different communities, knowing that many of the questions can be solved locally, but some of them required a stronger national voice. 

Gabrielle Foreman:

African Americans in the 19th century, through the convention movement, really do constitute a different form of democratic ideology. Thinking through what it means to advance collective rights collectively, to write collectively. We think, and many people have posited, that the slave narrative is the foundation of the African American literary tradition. What does it mean to think about the writing that happens in the conventions, which is group writing. It's as close to a Google Doc as you get. Literally, you have people in a committee of the address, that's what they're called, getting together to write collectively, and then the group calls for edits. 

And they need to go back to the committee and produce something that is voted on by the collective and then published in the name of the collective. We think of one of the great political treatises of the time, Henry Highland Garnet’s “Address to the Slaves,” as Henry Highland Garnet’s address, but it's not. It comes out of the ‘43 convention where it's voted down. He brings it up, rather than publishing it himself at the ‘47 convention, four years later, so that he can get the collective sanction and vote of the group of people who are at a national convention and then publish it under their name as a collective document. What we see here is an alternative genesis of Black writing, and a Black advocacy for citizenship.

Jim Casey:

It was so important for Henry Highland Garnet to have the convention approve of his address, which we should say too, very briefly, was a call for enslaved people to rise up with violence, if necessary, to seek their freedom. And people were nervous about publishing something like that. And the convention has all of these heart-wrenching descriptions where he's standing and talking to a group of people, many of whom had been formerly enslaved themselves, about the need for people to take whatever means might be necessary. And the convention records, which are usually very kind of sterile and procedural, actually records, that there were lots of tears in the house, and that even as many people disagreed with him, they gave him lots of extra time to talk through what he was trying to convince them of. And he loses the – I should say, the address – loses the vote by a single vote. And, therefore, he chose not to publish it. He could have just as easily gone out the next day and raised a few bucks and been able to put out a pamphlet version. But it was so important to be able to do that in the collective voice. And when we look across the century, we see many of the conventions thinking about themselves not as individuals, but as trying to adapt and think collectively. 

Jenna Spinelle:

That actually leads me to another question I had, which was just how were delegates chosen, and you know, if you if there are any kind of commonalities to who they were, if it differed from community to community? I think you said it was it was mostly men from what we can tell, but were they young, older? Are there any other kind of characteristics or trends that we can draw about who these delegates were?

Gabrielle Foreman:

Some of the most recognizable names of the convention movements start when they are teenagers, and when they're in their 20s. And you see them as budding activists influenced by the people that they're meeting with, some of whom are from previous generations. Bishop Richard Allen, who is one of the most important names in the African American religious history, is in the last year of his life when he hosts the first Black convention in the 19th century.

But by the 1840s, you see the next generation of leaders -- Frederick Douglass, Henry Highland Garnet, John Mercer Langston -- coming out in their late teens and their early 20s. But they're also speaking to reverends who are 20 years their senior. And then, 40 years later, sometimes 50 years later, they are the seniors. As people from the south after the Civil War begin to come out in huge numbers, and the convention movement exponentially expands, both in the numbers of delegates and the numbers of conventions that are held. So, conventions are cross-generational, and they are also geographically diverse as well. And this seems to be extraordinarily important to me. 

The other thing that is critical as if they are cross-class. Maybe to New Orleans, for example, one of the Black newspapers, publishes the fact that mechanics are sitting next to educators, the illiterate are sitting next to those who have practiced the political conventions of movement building. And there's a gorgeous quote about the ways that the just-enslaved who are starting universities like delegate Talladega University, one of the important HBCUs, are months from being enslaved when they go to the conventions, which launch and initiate the beginning of some of these institutions, both institutions of higher education and newspapers. Black newspapers emerged from the conventions and are spoken about in the conventions over and over again and in various different states from California to upstate New York.

Jenna Spinelle:

Jim, I know we talked earlier about the technological challenges for why we don't know more about the conventions and why we have not been able to look at them comprehensively. But are there other factors that you think it's important to touch on there, culture or other politics, other reasons, why this this history might have been prevented from getting out there and in a broader way?

Jim Casey:

One of the questions that we've heard so often when we share this work with people is a very startling, “Why in the world didn't I know about any of this in any of the history classes that I ever took?” And there are, of course, lots of reasons. Partly, it's the archives and documents and so forth. But it's also because we don't have a lot of useful frameworks just yet, I think, for understanding Black activism as more than just pointing to singular figures in history. 

And thinking about people like Frederick Douglass, or John Mercer Langston, or [unintelligible] becomes all the richer when we can think about them as being embedded in these communities. And these communities are so important because they're not just sort of subsets of larger movements. They're not just sort of bystanders passively waiting for the often sort of made heroic white men and women of the same eras to figure things out and to say their pieces. And there's a really important distinction there between Black activism and the larger movements that they sometimes get collapsed in.

Gabrielle Foreman:

So many Americans are romanced by the seductive narrative of interracial collaborations with Black people being the junior partner in their own freedom struggles. And the abolitionist movement, the anti-slavery movement produces lots of white heroes and a religious organization, the Quakers, who are legitimately heroic. They're also legitimately partial in their commitment to Black freedom, to Black labor, to Black social integration, to full Black political rights. 

But it is a wonderful story to tell, and a neoliberal story to tell, that allows the country to think about Black people as being indebted to whites for their own freedom or to a subsection of whites for their own freedom. And not full adults. There's a wonderful line by June Jordan that says, “White people don't always like Black people who are fully adult.” They like to sponsor, right, Black folks they can infantilize. But they are not particularly enamored of empowered Black adults who might challenge them. And this is a movement corollary to June Jordan’s admonition that not only is this an individual admonition but a collective one, and that the country itself is not enamored of people who might challenge their concepts of democracy and point out how partial and inadequate those protections have always been.

Jim Casey:

And it helps us to see that the racial justice movements that are rightfully gaining more and more momentum in our present moment today are not recent endeavors. And in fact, don't just begin in the 20th century, but that Black people in the United States and beyond have always been agitating, have always been pressing for their claims for many of the principles that this country was not yet maybe ready to redeem, except in places where the conventions could model and show the kind of democratic practice that went so far beyond where the country was at in those times.

And in that push, if we were to think about how to translate a convention from the 19th century to today, I think it's worth us looking for the spaces where those same ideas continue to spread. A convention was not just what people said aloud. A convention was the space that group people created to have those conversations. And so, anywhere we see that people are making those conversations in Black communities to talk about not just being defensive about the incursions of state violence and the erasure of rights, but also in the positive development in the funding of schools in the supporting of different kinds of institutions. And so, if we see those conversations happen at a kitchen table or in a classroom, or in a church, or a classroom hallway after a meeting, then I think we can probably identify some of the similar impulses that drove the conventions as being fully alive and expanding today.

Jenna Spinelle:

Wonderful. Well, thank you both for your work. We will link to both the “Colored Conventions Movement” book and the Colored Conventions Project website in the show notes so listeners can go check out all of the resources there. Gabrielle and Jim, thank you so much for your time today.

Jim Casey:

Thanks so much.

Gabrielle Foreman:

Thank you.

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