Conventions and Black Print Culture

Closing out our blog posts for Black History Month 2021, the following excerpt by P. Gabrielle Foreman is taken from The Colored Conventions Movement: Black Organizing in the Nineteenth Century (available March 2021), edited by P. Gabrielle Foreman, Jim Casey, and Sarah Lynn Patterson

The Black press served not only as a conveyer of information but as a convener of audiences and ideas; such papers not only announced Black literary societies and convention events, but they functioned as a virtual meeting place. The Colored American (1837–41) reported on Black reading culture and societies with gusto and dedication, printing their constitutions and the discussions that occurred “as if the reader were a participant,” as Elizabeth McHenry points out, “reproducing the experience of being present at a meeting in its pages.” These papers both shared conventions’ content and happenings and offered another form of and forum for participation. They carried copious coverage of pre- and postconvention activities and featured commentary, critique, and encouragement by and for a much larger audience than those who attended the meetings themselves. In Frederick Douglass’ Paper alone, at least fifteen convention announcements and editorials appeared in the summer and fall months that preceded the mid-October 1855 national meeting in Philadelphia, as Carla Peterson’s essay in this volume reveals. Calls themselves could initiate debates that had a force and life of their own, appearing only in traces in the official proceedings, however robust they may have been in the press’s columns. As Peterson points out, though engaged in a vociferous newspaper debate before the convention, frustrated that his point might not carry an argument, James McCune Smith sat out the otherwise star-studded 1855 convention. If scholars consult the proceedings isolated from other materials, they risk muting the very loud debate that sometimes served as convention prelude. The print participants, or print attendees, as we might call them, may not have been in the physical spaces where the meetings took place, but to ignore their role is to diminish an understanding of conventions’ wider circuits and circles.

Black convention culture existed in close relation to nineteenth-century Black print culture; indeed, one could argue that conventions were held in the press as much as they took place in the halls, churches, and buildings in which delegates and attendees gathered. Control over the news and the need for a national Black press were on the agenda of multiple convention gatherings. The Colored AmericanFrederick Douglass’ Paper, the Christian Recorder, and the New Orleans Tribune, as well as many shorter-lived Black news organs, provided delegates and participants with a way to report on conventions and their concerns. They offered access to Black women and men from cities and hamlets alike. By extending the conventions’ geographic and temporal reach exponentially, these convenings were designed to inspire discussions and to spawn—even demand—action beyond the time and place of their occurrence. Organizers were keen to spread the word; as political tacticians, they were attentive to the dissemination and communication of their message and the role of the press in keeping their issues alive.

Attention to print was embedded in committee structures and taken up as a subject during the meetings themselves. Conventions were to include a “Committee on Printing” or a “Publishing Committee” to actualize and formalize strategies for reaching audiences beyond the convention halls over decades. It’s useful to take an in-depth look at the Troy, New York, 1847 national convention, where a proposal by the “committee on a National Press” elicited sustained discussion and spirited debate. The details of this meeting are illustrative. When Henry Highland Garnet called the meeting to order and read the convention call, he welcomed seventy-five delegates hailing from nine of the country’s twenty-nine states. The delegates filled the seats at Morris Place Hall, joining others for 9:00–1:00 and 2:00–6:00 sessions for four full days. Douglass, now an author just recently returning from England, joined William Cooper Nell, James McCune Smith, William Wells Brown, Alexander Crummell, Charles Ray, William Allen, Charles Remond, James Pennington, Amos Beman, and Thomas Van Rensselaer, among others, while W. E. B. Du Bois’s grandfather, Othello Burghardt, a Massachusetts delegate from Great Barrington, as we recall, took in the debate. They elected as the convention’s president Nathan Johnson, at whose home Douglass, as a fugitive nearly a decade before, had first begun “to feel a degree of safety” and where Johnson helped him choose the name by which he’d become so well known.

1869 National Colored Convention in Washington, DC. Sketch by Theo. R. Davis, Harper’s Weekly, February 6, 1869. Courtesy of personal collection of Jim Casey.

Though the discussion about the ability to launch and sustain a national Black paper in the 1847 convention was spirited, there was little debate about the importance of the Black press in advancing the work of equal justice. Garnet staked the claim that “the most successful means which can be used for the overthrow of Slavery and Caste in this country, would be found in an able and well-conducted Press, solely under the control of the people of color.” Establishing such a “National Printing Press would send terror into the ranks of our enemies, and encourage all our friends,” he averred.Douglass, on the verge of launching his own paper, spoke in opposition and was joined, as Garnet noted sarcastically, by other “editors, who are, or are to be.” After Douglass spoke, James McCune Smith, who had served for a short time as the editor of the Colored American, rose to declare that having a national press was necessary to amplify and connect state efforts for political rights. The debate was heated, but by the end of the four-day meeting, “a resolution was adopted recommending” a national press, alongside Black papers that included the “ ‘Ram’s Horn,’ ‘Nation Watchman,’ ‘Northern Star,’ ‘Disfranchised American’ and ‘The Mystery,’ as worthy of the encouragement and support of the people.” In the records of such debates, not only is the political necessity of a Black press made plain, but networks of Black editors and activists and the existence and contexts of scores of Black newspapers are preserved.