Justice  /  Retrieval

"Though Declared to be American Citizens"

The Colored Convention Movement, black citizenship, and the Fourteenth Amendment.
Theo R. Davis/Wikimedia

The struggle of African Americans to establish their claims on the United States stretched back to the very origins of the nation itself. It unfolded side-by-side with the struggle against slavery, in every public forum that African Americans could turn to the purpose, but one particularly important arena in the early nineteenth century for the African American struggle to make black citizenship imaginable was the Colored Convention Movement. In the decades before the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, these national conventions (along with a host of similar state conventions) served as a forum in which black leaders, often driven from public spaces and legally denied most of the rights and privileges they considered rightly theirs, enacted black citizenship and helped to forge a national black community. These black leaders elected officers, established rules to govern their organization, provided for state and local auxiliaries, and generally addressed the issues facing African Americans across the nation. The minutes of these conventions, published and then reprinted in abolitionist newspapers, served to demonstrate and publicize this public service, providing witness to this long struggle for citizenship.

The convention movement arose at a time when many white Americans sought to deny free black people the very right to live in the United States. The first colored convention, in 1830, was called in response to a vicious anti-black riot in Cincinnati, in which white mobs had burned black homes, schools, and churches, in an effort to drive free blacks out of the city. The convention was forced to consider in a literal sense whether there was a place for African Americans in the United States. Some concluded that there was not, and the convention resolved to support the establishment of a colony in Canada. At the same time the convention delegates asserted, “we who have been born and nurtured on this soil, we, whose habits, manners, and customs are the same in common with other Americans,” making it clear that this was a matter of practicality rather than a rejection of their claims to their native land.

This tension, between those who advocated emigration outside of the United States and those who rejected this option, would persist, though most often the conventions forcefully called for African Americans to stay in the United States and fight. “We are Americans, and as Americans, we would speak to Americans,” read a typical convention address, from 1853. “We address you not as aliens nor as exiles, humbly asking to be permitted to dwell among you in peace; but we address you as American citizens asserting their rights on their own native soil.”