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In the early months of 1830, a young freed man from Baltimore named Hezekiel Grice was not satisfied with life in the North because of the "hopelessness of contending against oppression in the United States."
Grice wrote to a number of African-American leaders asking if freedmen should emigrate to Canada and, if a convention could be held to discuss the issue.
By September 15, 1830 the first National Negro Convention was held in Philadelphia.
The First Meeting
An estimated forty African-Americans from nine states attended the convention. Of all the delegates present, only two, Elizabeth Armstrong and Rachel Cliff, were women.
Leaders such as Bishop Richard Allen were also present. During the convention meeting, Allen argued against African colonization but supported emigration to Canada. He also contended that, "However great the debt which these United States may owe to injured Africa, and however unjustly her sons have been made to bleed, and her daughters to drink of the cup of affliction, still we who have been born and nurtured on this soil, we whose habits, manners, and customs are the same in common with other Americans, can never consent to take our lives in our hands, and be the bearers of the redress offered by that Society to that much afflicted country."
By the end of the ten-day meeting, Allen was named president of a new organization, the American Society of Free People of Colour for improving their condition in the United States; for purchasing lands; and for the establishment of a settlement in the Province of Canada.
The aim of this organization was two-fold:
First, it was to encourage African-Americans with children to move to Canada.
Second, the organization wanted to improve the livelihood of African-Americans remaining in the United States. As a result of the meeting, African-American leaders from the Midwest organized to protest not only against slavery, but also racial discrimination.
Historian Emma Lapansky argues that this first convention was quite significant, citing, "The 1830 convention was the first time that a group of people got together and said, "Okay, who are we? What will we call ourselves? And once we call ourselves something, what will we do about what we call ourselves?" And they said, "Well, we're going to call ourselves Americans. We're going to start a newspaper. We're going to start a free produce movement. We're going to organize ourselves to go to Canada if we have to." They began to have an agenda."
During the first ten years of the convention meetings, African-American and white abolitionists were collaborating to find effective ways to deal with racism and oppression in American society.
However, it should be noted the the convention movement was symbolic to freed African-Americans and marked the significant growth in black activism during the 19th century.
By the 1840s, African-American activists were at a crossroads. While some were content with the moral suasion philosophy of abolitionism, others believed this school of thought was not heavily influencing supporters of the slave system to change their practices.
At the 1841 convention meeting, conflict was growing among attendees--should abolitionists believe in moral suasion or moral suasion followed by political action. Many, such as Frederick Douglass believed that moral suasion must be followed by political action. As a result, Douglass and others became followers of the Liberty Party.
With the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, convention members agreed that the United States would not be morally persuaded to give African-Americans justice.
This period of the convention meetings can be marked by participants arguing that "the elevation of the free man is inseparable (sic) from, and lies at the very threshold of the great work of the slave's restoration to freedom." To that end, many delegates argued over voluntary emigration to not only Canada, but also Liberia and the Caribbean instead of solidifying an African-American sociopolitical movement in the United States.
Although varied philosophies were forming at these convention meetings, the purpose--to build a voice for African-Americans on the local, state and national level, was important. As one newspaper noted in 1859, "colored conventions are almost as frequent as church meetings."
End of an Era
The last convention movement was held in Syracuse, NY in 1864. Delegates and leaders felt that with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment that African-Americans would be able to participate in the political process.