The Black Convention Movement and the Debate on Black Emigration

A small convention in Philadelphia in 1830 helped to initiate the black convention movement in the United States. One of the reasons black abolitionists gave for needing such an annual convention was to contest the growing prestige of the American Colonization Society--a white organization founded in Washington, D.C., which hoped to forcibly ship blacks to Africa and thus make the U.S. into a white nation. Nearly every year between 1830 and 1864, black leaders gathered to develop strategies for contesting slavery and racism in the U.S. During the 1850s there were two particularly important black conventions: A convention in 1853 in Rochester, New York, presided over by Frederick Douglass, and a convention in 1854 in Cleveland, Ohio, presided over by Martin Delany. James Whitfield attended both conventions and would seem to have been inspired by both, though he ultimately chose to work with Delany to forward the emigrationist mandate of the Cleveland convention.

Rejecting the pessimism that followed the Compromise of 1850, and a fierce opponent of African Colonizationism, Frederick Douglass and his fellow delegates met in Rochester, New York, to express their renewed optimism that blacks could one day achieve political equality in the United States. Over the course of the three-day convention, the delegates formulated plans to turn this possibility into a reality. Their optimism was buoyed by their excitement at northern whitesí enthusiastic responses to Stoweís Uncle Tomís Cabin; most participants were relatively unconcerned that the final chapters of the novel seemed to endorse Liberian colonization. (In fact, just a few months before the convention Stowe sent a letter to a New York meeting of the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society to express her regrets about the novelís ending, saying that if she were to rewrite the novel she would not have sent George Harris to Liberia.) The participants resolved to attempt to establish black mechanics schools and other institutions to help the free blacks to improve their situation. Their hope was that a thriving community of free blacks would demonstrate to whites that blacks could prosper in the United States, and that proslavery ideologues were wrong in arguing that blacks were happiest on the plantation. Douglassís hopes for the convention can be discerned in the "Call" and "Resolutions".

As coeditor of the North Star Martin Delany worked with Frederick Douglass to encourage moral reform and black elevation in the United States. But he broke with Douglass in the late 1840s, and two key events during the fall of 1850 contributed to his disillusionment with the possibilities of black elevation in he U.S. and to his development of a more confrontational stance. First, after having been admitted to Harvard Medical School during the summer of 1850, Delany was abruptly asked to leave in the fall by the dean, Oliver Wendell Holmes, who caved in to studentsís demands that Harvard remain an all-white institution. At around the same time, Congress approved the Compromise of 1850, with its infamous Fugitive Slave law. Delany subsequently began to explore the possibility of black emigration, and in response to Douglassís 1853 Rochester national black convention, he convened a rival National Emigration Convention of Colored Men in Cleveland. His "Call for a National Emigration Convention," which some historians believe was authored by James Whitfield, conveys his hopes for the convention. At the 1854 convention itself Delany delivered the keynote address, "Political Destiny" which counseled African Americans to emigrate to Central or South America on the grounds that white racists would never allow blacks to become U.S. citizens. Though Douglass argued that black emigration was not all that different from the forcible colonizationism championed by the American Colonization Society, Delany in this famous speech insisted on the differences. For Delany, emigrationism was a political act that forged black community and challenged the slave power. His speech has emerged as the antebellum periodís most powerful statement of the value of black emigrationism. A few years after delivering this speech, Delany called for black emigration to Africa. His emigrationism influenced the Haitian emigration movement of the late 1850s and early 1860s. However, during the Civil War both Delany and Whitfield supported the Unionís cause and abandoned their emigration plans. By the 1870s, Delany was disillusioned by the failure of Reconstruction and sought to help blacks emigrate to Africa. Whitfield died in 1871, and so unlike Delany, did not have to confront the failures of Reconstruction.

return to Contexts page

Introduction Biography Poems Critical Voices Teaching Approaches Bibliography