By Andy O’Brien
On a spring evening in May 1835, a group of Black Portlanders gathered at the Abyssinian Meeting House on Newbury Street for what they described as “a respectable meeting of colored citizens.” Its purpose was to choose delegates to send to the “Fifth Annual Convention of the Free People of Color” in Philadelphia the following month.
The attendees selected businessman Reuben Ruby and Baptist Preacher George H. Black, who owned a clothes cleaning business on Federal Street, to represent Maine at the national convention. Ruby, who had been involved in the founding of the Maine Anti-Slavery Society the previous fall, saw an opportunity to strategize and organize for racial justice with others who experienced prejudice and discrimination. Although the white abolitionists meant well, they had no idea of what it meant to live as a free Black American in the early republic. They held all the leadership roles, dominated meetings, and had little interest in developing Black leaders in the movement. They focused solely on freeing African Americans in the South from bondage, not on the struggles of their Northern free Black neighbors.
The “Colored Conventions” provided a unique opportunity for free African Americans from across the country to organize and build power to fight for educational opportunities, temperance, abolition, and equal rights. It was a chance to cultivate Black leaders in a society structured to prevent their achieving power and influence.
Like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Colored Convention Movement was founded in response to white violence. In 1829, white mobs of primarily Irish immigrants, who were competing with free Black workers for jobs, attacked Black residents in Cincinnati, Ohio. The violence forced more than 1,000 African Americans to leave the city. Many of them ended up settling in Ontario, Canada, to escape savage racism in the United States. The following year, the first national “Negro Convention” of free Black Americans was held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to discuss the Cincinnati riot and debate the merits of resettling in Canada to escape racism in the U.S.
At the same time, delegates bitterly condemned the white-led American Colonization Society and its scheme to entice African Americans to emigrate to West Africa. As the Black convention movement grew, it became primarily focused on strengthening African American civic participation and reforming racist laws that prevented their exercising full citizenship rights.
More than 200 state and national Colored Conventions were held at churches, city buildings, lecture halls, and theaters between 1830 and the 1890s, laying the groundwork for future civil rights struggles in the 20th and 21st centuries led by the NAACP, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Movement for Black Lives, to name a few. Thousands of free Black men and women – including church leaders, educators, doctors, newspaper editors, writers, and entrepreneurs – traveled to conventions in cities across the country to network, strategize, and organize for equal education, fair wages, and the right to vote. Author and historian William Wells Brown, abolitionist Charles Remond (who toured Maine in the 1830s), journalist Samuel Cornish, the anti-slavery orator Frederick Douglass, Othello Burghardt (grandfather of the great 20th-century intellectual W.E.B. Dubois), and Charles Langston (grandfather of the eminent poet Langston Hughes) all played leading roles at Colored Conventions.
Delegates encouraged the creation of Black newspapers to combat racist mischaracterizations in the white press. They even took steps to create a centralized, national Black media organization in the 1840s. These initiatives were inspired by Jamaican-born Mainer John Brown Russwurm and Samuel Cornish, co-founders of Freedom’s Journal in 1827, the first Black-run newspaper in the United States. It provided news coverage, African history, births and deaths, and analysis of current events and issues impacting the Black community from a Black perspective.
Reuben Ruby was an agent for Freedom’s Journal and distributed it around Portland’s Black community during its brief, two-year run. He likely identified with its focus on educational uplift, moral consciousness, and self-improvement, as he had co-founded Portland’s first Black church on similar principles. More than anything, the conventions and the emerging Black press were about building a community across geographic boundaries, creating a national dialogue about racial justice, and pushing the nation to live up to its founding principles of freedom and equality.
Next month’s column will cover the participation of Black Mainers in the Colored Convention movement and Ruby’s co-founding of the American Moral Reform Society, an organization that played a major role in Black politics in the late 1830s.