Frederick Douglass’s Black Activism

*This post is part of the online forum on The Futures of Frederick Douglass. The contributions in this forum each highlight innovative approaches to the study of Douglass’s life and works.

Statue of Frederick Douglass outside of the New York Historical Society building (Can Pac Swire, Flickr).

When Frederick Douglass attended his first “Colored Convention” in 1843, he was just twenty-five; the publication of his famous narrative was still two years into the future. The delegates and attendees included seasoned activists, local citizens, and many who would soon make up the pantheon of nineteenth-century Black leadership. Douglass would spend the next forty years meeting at Black conventions, working collectively for dignity, freedom, and justice.

The Colored Convention Movement began in 1830, while Douglass was still enslaved in Baltimore. Black conventions preceded the founding of the organizations he would later join: the Massachusetts, New England, and American Anti-Slavery Societies (1831, 1832, 1833). Likewise, Black editors launched Freedom’s Journal (1827) four years before the Liberator’s first issue. Convention leaders echoed Freedom’s Journal’s pronouncement that “we wish to plead our own cause.” Douglass affirmed this directive for Black-led organizing with his feet; he attended every national convention through the Civil War save one. Black delegates and attendees met, as Douglass later put it, “because there is a power in numbers and in union; because the many are more than the few; because the voice of a whole people, oppressed by a common injustice, is far more likely to command attention and exert an influence on the public mind than the voice of single individuals and isolated organizations.”

By 1883, when Douglass presided over the convention where he made those remarks, he was one of the most famous orators, newspaper editors, and reformers of the nineteenth century. Attending his first Black convention four decades before, he was just two years into his antislavery career. He peeled off of an antislavery tour in Buffalo where, over several days, anemic audiences swelled into crowds that numbered “four or five thousand persons.”1 On the heels of those speeches, he says, his “colored friends, Charles L. Remond, Henry Highland Garnet, Theodore S. Wright, Amos G. Beman, Charles M. Ray, and other well-known colored men, held a convention here.”2 In sessions that were “largely attended by the citizens generally, without regard to class or rank,” Douglass and other young lions of the nineteenth century sharpened their teeth in debate and advocacy.3 Over the next half century, these men (delegates and speakers were almost exclusively men with the notable exceptions of Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and a handful of others) would work collectively—and sometimes at odds—for Black voting and legal rights, for educational access, for labor justice and fair wages, and for freedom from state-sanctioned or state-generated violence.4

Though tomes have been written about Douglass’s interracial antislavery career, we understand too little about Douglass’s Black activist worlds. Indeed, the New Yorker review of David Blight’s 2018 bestselling Douglass biography proclaimed that “four relationships—three with white American men, one with a European woman—shaped Douglass’s mature life and mind.” Placing such figures at the center of Douglass’s activist and professional development routinely obscures Black agency, organizing, and communities. Douglass shared multidirectional relationships with Black colleagues and peers; he enjoyed formative relationships with Black mentors and mentees in print, politics, and “agitation.”

Douglass spent decades arguing about ideology and tactics with other Black thinkers and reformers. He named his youngest son after Charles Remond. He replaced William Lloyd Garrison’s introduction to his Narrative with one by James McCune Smith in My Bondage and My Freedom. He co-founded the North Star, the newspaper that would launch his editing career, with Martin Delany and William Cooper Nell. The great debates that marked his life went well beyond his differences with Garrison and John Brown.

Over decades, Douglass was enmeshed in Black-led advocacy and collective practices. At the 1843 convention, debates raged and sparks flew over tactics. Garnet intended the “Address to the Slaves” to be composed and endorsed collectively. Douglass led the charge to vote that endorsement down—by just one vote. He “wanted emancipation in a better way, as he expected to have it.” The convention president tasked Douglass to join Garnet and others on “the committee on the address” before they submitted it to the entire delegate body for further discussion and a revote. In 1847, Douglass read a report “on behalf of the committee” on the “Best Means to Abolish Slavery and Caste in the United States” responding to objections from the floor on specific language. He served on the 1848 committee “appointed to prepare an Address to the Colored People of the United States.” The minutes report that “the Committee had appointed one of their number from the various abstracts to put together an address. F. Douglass . . . read . . . the different abstracts, that the Convention might know the substance of the address.” Countless national and state conventions authored addresses and reports collectively. Alongside tens of thousands of others, Douglass was both a witness and participant in the process of Black collective authorship over and again.

Writing and traveling were expressions of citizenship. Much has been said about Douglass’s relationships with his mostly white travel companions on the antislavery circuit—but what about his Black compatriots? Douglass traveled with Remond; he made his way to the 1848 National Convention with Martin Delany, and they stayed with John Malvin, who attended at least eight Black conventions. Afterwards, they toured with Charles Langston raising subscriptions for the North Star. Langston (whose grandson Langston Hughes would share the commitment to Black people) and his brother, John Mercer Langston, together served as Black convention delegates at least thirty-five times; Douglass was named president of conventions in 1864, 1872 and 1883.5 His sons were delegates to postwar conventions too. For decades, he worked intensively in multi-day meetings with such Black editors, writers, educators, religious activists, business people, and politicians as William Wells Brown, Henry Bibb, James W. C. Pennington, Charles Ray, William Howard Day, William Cooper Nell, George T. Downing, and George Ruffin. They discussed the possibility of a Black bank years before Douglass led the Freedman’s Bank, debated creating a national Black press as he was launching the North Star, raised the creation of Black statistical records as the census disparaged Black people, and discussed relations with Haiti, Jamaica, and Canada decades before Douglass became the U.S. Minister and Consul to Haiti.

Such Black-led activism rarely serves as a principal focus in Douglass biographies. William McFeely hardly foregrounds Douglass’s Black circles and connections. His discussion of the highly political 1848 convention, for instance, is incidental to Douglass’s concern about his daughter Rosetta’s experience when a white teacher separated her from her class. “Her father was in Cleveland at the National Convention of Colored Citizens during the first days of school” is the extent of his coverage.6 Conventions and ongoing Black-led national efforts barely show up in the index of recent and highly lauded tomes. There’s at least one thing we can say definitively: there is room for more work.

In 1883, forty years after his first Black convention, Frederick Douglass delivered a powerful speech at the National Convention in Louisville. His thunderous rhetoric, delivered with force and irony, resonates today: “We are asked not only why hold a convention, but, with emphasis, why hold a colored convention?” Douglass proclaimed. “It is argued that, if colored men hold conventions, based upon color, white men may hold white conventions . . . and thus . . . keep alive a prejudice which we profess to deplore.” All lives matter they say, not just Black lives. Answering these complaints, Douglass declared: “No reasonable man will ever object to white men holding conventions in their own interests, when they are once in our condition and we in theirs, when they are the oppressed and we the oppressors. In point of fact, however, white men are already in convention against us in various ways and at many important points. The practical construction of American life is a convention against us.” These are prophetic words worth heeding. They were uttered in Black contexts worth heeding as well.

  1.  Frederick Douglass, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Written by Himself (Hartford, CT: Park Publishing Co., 1881), 233.
  2.  Ibid.
  3.  See Henry Highland Garnet’s “Address to the Slaves,” an online exhibit by Harrison Graves and Jake Alspaugh based on Derrick Spires’s essay “Rereading Henry Highland Garnet’s ‘Address to the Slaves’ through Reception History and Print Culture,” in The Colored Conventions Movement: Black Organizing in the Nineteenth Century (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, forthcoming). Spires and the exhibit highlight Julia Garnet’s partnership in this convention speech.
  4.  For Black women’s role in the infrastructure building that made Black conventions possible, see Psyche Williams-Forson’s essay “Where Did They Eat? Where Did They Stay? Interpreting the Material Culture of Black Women’s Domesticity in the Context of the Colored Conventions” and Gabrielle Foreman’s introduction to the forthcoming The Colored Conventions Movement. See also the exhibits on women’s economic support to the movement in What Did They Eat? Where Did They Stay? Black Boardinghouses and the Colored Conventions Movement by Jenn Briggs and Anna Lacy and Black Women’s Economic Power and the 1830s Colored Conventions in Philadelphia by Samantha de Vera.
  5.  Findings from a name index and dataset compiled by Jim Casey and the Colored Convention Project team.
  6.  William S. McFeely, Frederick Douglass (New York: W. W. Norton, 1991), 160.
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P. Gabrielle Foreman

P. Gabrielle Foreman is Professor of African American Studies at the University of Delaware. She is the author of several widely known books and editions including Activist Sentiments: Reading Black Women Writers. She is the founding faculty director of the prize-winning and NEH supported Colored Conventions Projects. Follow her on Twitter @profgabrielle.