National Colored Convention Movement


During the antebellum period, when Philadelphia was home to one the North’s largest free African American communities, the city’s Black leaders launched the national Colored Convention movement to address the hostility, discrimination, exclusion, and violence against African Americans by whites in northern cities. As national forums, the national Colored Conventions held from 1830 to 1864 brought together African Americans to debate and adopt strategies to elevate the status of free Black people in the North and promote the abolition of slavery.

The racial tensions in northern cities in this era can be attributed to Black migration from the South and the abolition of slavery in the North, which dramatically increased the free African American population in the early nineteenth century. Many whites viewed blacks as an economic threat, a burden for state and local poor relief agencies, and a source of crime.

The idea for a national Colored convention first emerged among Black leaders in response to events in Cincinnati, Ohio, during the late 1820s. Following Cincinnati’s enforcement of Ohio’s “Black laws” in 1829 and subsequent violence unleashed by white mobs against the city’s Black community, in the spring of 1830 Hezekiah Grice (1801-?), a Baltimore activist, appealed to African American leaders throughout the North to devise a plan for emigration to Canada. His appeal went unanswered for several months until Richard Allen (1760-1831), minister and founder of Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church in Philadelphia, called a national meeting of Black leaders to address this issue.

Plans for a Settlement in Canada

Portrait of Richard Allen
Richard Allen was born a slave in Philadelphia in 1760. After gaining his freedom and becoming a Methodist preacher, Allen began the Free African Society and helped the African American community of Philadelphia into the 1830s. Late in his life, he became president of the American Society for Free Persons of Color, whose aim was to establish an African American settlement in Canada. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

The delegates who gathered in Philadelphia at Bethel Church from September 20-24, 1830, selected Allen as president of the newly formed American Society for Free Persons of Color. The purpose of this organization was to establish a settlement in Canada, viewed as preferable to the United States because of its lack of institutional racial discrimination, similar climate, and shared language with the United States. (Canada later fell out of favor among most blacks in part because of white hostility that blacks encountered and their conviction that they were due rights in the United States.) Before returning home from the 1830 Philadelphia meeting, though, delegates adopted a resolution that called for a general convention the following year in Philadelphia, thus launching the national Colored Convention movement.

In addition to the first gathering in 1830, Philadelphia hosted the conventions in 1832, 1833, 1835, and 1855. Guided by middle- and upper-class Black delegates, the conventions adopted a philosophy of respectability centered on education, temperance, and thrift. Black leaders believed this strategy would dispel popular stereotypes that portrayed African Americans as lazy, ignorant, and susceptible to vice. By demonstrating economic independence and success, convention delegates hoped that whites would see Black people as responsible and productive citizens worthy of equal rights. They also believed that respectability would lead to greater support for immediate abolitionism among moderate white reformers. Delegates also used the egalitarian rhetoric of the American Revolution, arguing that slavery and discrimination were incompatible with the nation’s founding documents.

Although strategies of respectability and moral persuasion dominated, a younger generation of activists in the 1840s and 1850s began to endorse more militant solutions. Black nationalism was one option, a controversial position that called for African Americans to establish a separate colony in Africa, the Caribbean, or Central America. Many Black Philadelphians rejected this strategy, believing that respectability and interracial cooperation were the best route to ending slavery and securing equality.

A Stronger Collective Voice Emerges

Launched during an important period of Black political activism, the national Colored Convention movement created a stronger collective voice among African Americans and a forum for devising national strategies to confront the growing racial hostility. Although the convention movement did not end slavery or gain equal rights for African Americans, by the outbreak of the Civil War some other notable goals were achieved. Delegates established manual labor schools that trained a number of blacks in skilled trades. The convention also created the American Moral Reform Society (1835-1841), an organization headquartered in Philadelphia and led by local businessmen James Forten (1766-1842) and William Whipper (1804-1876). This group attempted to uplift Black communities through education and promoting moral behavior such as temperance. The conventions also united African American communities from across the country into a national network of political activism. Finally, delegates formed a coalition with radical white antislavery activists to oppose movements such as the American Colonization Society (ACS), an organization with ties to slaveholders that encouraged free Black people to relocate to Africa.

During the Civil War the convention delegates began to devise plans for the post-war Reconstruction period. At the October 1864 meeting in Syracuse, New York, delegates created the National Equal Rights League, a national forum to replace the Black convention movement, and lobby the federal government for full citizenship rights for all African Americans on the premise of Black service in the Union Army and the notion that all men were created equal. With numerous state and local chapters, the league’s members became active in northern and southern politics. Members of the Pennsylvania State Equal Rights League lobbied members of Congress to ratify a constitutional amendment in support of Black male suffrage. The league successfully pressured the Pennsylvania Republican Party in ratifying the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, while also continuing to demand protection of their civil and political rights in a new era in which white hostility increased and federal and state support for protecting Black rights waned.

Lucien Holness is a Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland-College Park. His research interests include African American and Atlantic history. (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2014, Rutgers University


Richard Allen (1760-1831)

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

In 1830, Richard Allen was selected as president of the newly formed American Society for Free Persons of Color, which wanted to to establish an African American settlement in Canada. Although that plan never came to fruition, Allen, who died the following year, had already secured his place as one of the era's most prominent African American leaders and an agent for change.

Born in 1760 as a slave to Benjamin Chew, Allen used his role as a Methodist religious leader to support abolitionism and assist the swelling African American community in Philadelphia from the 1780s through the1830s. Although born in Philadelphia, Allen and the rest of his family were sold to Delaware plantation owner Stokley Sturgis in the 1760s. While in Delaware, Allen began to attend weekly Methodist Society meetings and later became a Methodist preacher after he was able to purchase his freedom. The Methodist preaching circuit allowed him to attend Methodist meetings throughout Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. After preaching in Philadelphia numerous times, Allen accepted an offer in 1786 to be a weekly speaker at St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. Although St. George's was primarily a white church, it had services for the steadily growing African American audience.

Preaching at St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church was difficult for Allen and the growing African American congregation that prayed there weekly. Allen had to conduct his sermons at 5 a.m., so that he did not disrupt the service for the white congregation later in the morning. After multiple incidents of white church members forcing African Americans into segregated seating that did not allow room to kneel to pray, Allen and other local religious leaders began to plan churches specifically for the African American population. Their first step was to create the Free African Society in 1787 to support the local African American community and help recently freed slaves. The Free African Society offered financial assistance to families and educational services for children or adults seeking employment in Philadelphia. Over the next few years, a number of solely African American churches were built in Philadelphia. Allen was part of a council that purchased and renovated an old blacksmith's shop to become the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church (later known as Mother Bethel). He became the first African American Methodist minister in 1799 and the first bishop of the African American Methodist Episcopal Church in 1816. Until his death in 1831, Richard used his ties with his growing congregation and the Free African Society to support the city's African American community.

Mother Bethel

Partners for Sacred Places

Richard Allen founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church, whose mother church, Mother Bethel, stands here at 419 S. Sixth Street. This church was completed in 1890, becoming Mother Bethel's fourth incarnation. One of the earlier churches was the site in 1830 of a convention of the Allen-led American Society for Free Persons of Color, whose purpose was to establish a settlement in Canada. That gathering was the first of a series of meetings over the next twenty-five years that came to be known as the national Colored Convention movement.

Mother Bethel originated after a period in which the city's African Americans worshiped at St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church, holding their services very early, before the white congregation. Eventually, after an incident over seating arrangements escalated, the African American community began seeking funding to build its own church. Financial support came from congregants, as well as Dr. Benjamin Rush and President George Washington. The first church was dedicated in July 1794, and as the congregation grew, new, larger churches were built. Today, Mother Bethel's fourth church, dedicated in October 1890, is a National Historic Landmark with a congregation of about 700.

James Forten (1766-1842)

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

An offshoot of the national Colored Convention movement was the American Moral Reform Society, one of whose leaders was wealthy Philadelphia businessman James Forten. The Philadelphia-based organization's purpose was to advance black communities through education and promoting moral behavior such as temperance. It existed from 1835 to 1841.

Forten had made his mark earlier, in 1813, when Pennsylvania legislators proposed a law that would have required all African American migrants to register with the state. Forten argued against the proposal in an anonymously published pamphlet titled Letters From a Man of Color. Forten invoked language from the Declaration of Independence to make his argument and began the first letter: "We hold this truth to be self-evident, that GOD created all men equal, and is one of the most prominent features of the Declaration of Independence, and in that glorious fabric of collected wisdom, our noble Constitution. This idea embraces the Indian and the European, the Savage and the Saint, the Peruvian and the Laplander, the white Man and the African, and whatever measures are adopted subversive of this inestimable privilege, are in direct violation of the letter and the spirit of our constitution, and become subject to the animadversion of all, particularly those who are deeply interested in the measure ..."

Forten was born to a free African American family in Philadelphia in 1766. Forten's father had a successful career working at Robert Bridges' sail loft and Forten worked beside his father by the age of eight. Forten continued working for Bridges after his father's death, and only left his position to serve briefly as a privateer during the Revolutionary War in 1780 and apprentice in a London shipyard for seven months. Forten returned to Philadelphia as Bridges' apprentice and yard foreman. Forten was able to design a series of popular sails that increased the speed and maneuverability of ships. When Bridges retired in 1798, Forten took control of the business and was able to retain Bridges' customer base. Over the next forty years, Forten earned a substantial amount of wealth, some of which he used to fight for the social freedoms of African Americans.

Following his Letters From a Man of Color, Forten in 1817 joined with Richard Allen to organize the American Society for Free Persons of Color to support a settlement in Canada for fugitive slaves and other African Americans. Forten and Allen together believed that freed or fugitive slaves should not be relocated away from the North American continent and frequently allied together against the American Colonization Society (which argued that freed or fugitive slaves would have greater freedoms if they were sent to Africa). In 1831 when William Lloyd Garrison began The Liberator, a weekly newspaper that focused on information about abolitionist initiatives around the United States, James Forten wrote editorials and offered financial assistance to keep the paper in circulation. By his death in 1842, Forten had helped make Philadelphia a center for abolitionism.

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Related Reading

Ernest, John. A Nation Within A Nation: Organizing African-American Communities Before the Civil War. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2011.

Horton, James Oliver, and Lois E. Horton. In Hope of Liberty: Culture, Community, and Protest Among Northern Free Blacks, 1700-1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Kantrowitz, Stephen. More Than Freedom: Fighting for Black Citizenship in a White Republic, 1829-1889. New York: The Penguin Press, 2012.

Lapsansky, Emma Jones. “ ‘Since They Got Those Separate Churches’: Afro Americans and Racism in Jacksonian Philadelphia.” In African Americans in Pennsylvania: Shifting Historical Perspectives, edited by Joe William Trotter Jr. and Eric Ledell Smith, 93-120. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997.

Litwack, Leon F. North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961.

Nash, Gary B. Forging Freedom: The Formation of Philadelphia’s Black Community 1720-1840. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988.

Pease, William H. and Jane H. Pease. “The Negro Convention Movement.” In Key Issues in the Afro-American Experience, Volume I to 1877, edited by Nathan I. Huggins, Martin Kilson, and Daniel M. Fox, 191-205. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971.

Rael, Patrick. Black Identity and Black Protest in the Antebellum North. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

Additional Sources

Bell, Howard Holman, ed. Minutes of the Proceedings of the National Negro Conventions, 1830-1864. New York: Arno, 1969.

Ripley, C. Peter, Roy E. Finkenbine, Michael F. Hembree, and Donald Yacavone, eds. The Black Abolitionist Papers. 5 vols. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985-1992.

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