The NATIONAL EMIGRATION CONVENTION OF COLORED PEOPLE, led by early African American nationalist Martin R. Delany, was held in Cleveland from 24-26 Aug. 1854. It was called to discuss the merits of emigration and develop a practical plan for AFRICAN AMERICANS in the U.S. to emigrate to the West Indies or Central or South America. One historian has credited the meeting with giving birth “to a new concept of black nationalism never before allowed expression in America.” The call for the convention announced that discussions would be open “specifically by and for the friends of emigration and none others—and no opposition to them will be entertained.” Such strident language unleashed a heated debate and brought harsh criticism from some, particularly Frederick Douglass.
The call attracted 106 delegates to the Congregational Church on Prospect St. The largest delegation was from the Pittsburgh area; others came from Louisiana, Missouri, Kentucky, and Canada, as well as from the northern states. Cuyahoga County was represented by Stephen Jones, R. M. Johnson, William Dixon, MADISON TILLEY, and 5 women: Mary Davis, Nancy Williams, Sarah Graves, Louisa S. Brown, and Julia Williams, who were among 24 other women delegates. The convention denied Clevelander JOHN MALVIN’s request to speak in opposition to emigration. Delegates approved a series of resolutions and a declaration of sentiments, which stridently commented upon the political and social condition of blacks in the U.S. They also approved a lengthy document entitled “Political Destiny of the Colored Race,” which urged emigration to areas such as Central and South America, which provided opportunity for “the enjoyment of civil and religious liberty.” The convention established a Board of Commissioners, based in Pittsburgh. Delany was chosen as president, and along with fellow commissioners William Webb and Charles W. Nighten, he led the emigration movement until it peaked in 1861.
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Proceedings of the National Emigration Convention of Colored People
A Black Nationalist Manifesto, 1854
In 1854, a group of African Americans met in Cleveland, Ohio to discuss options for leaving America. The force behind the convention was Martin Delany (1820-1876), who many scholars call the foremost black nationalist of his day. Born into a free black family in Charleston, West Virginia, Delany moved to western Pennsylvania. There he learned the newspaper business, eventually becoming Frederick Douglass’s co-editor for a time. He also attended medical school at Harvard University, where white students rejected the presence of a black student, and forced him out. The black nationalism of the 1850s, which is expressed in this excerpt from Delany’s address to the convention, grew out of frustration with such prejudice. The new ideas stressed the need for black people to protect themselves from racism through the exercise of political power — in America, if possible, but elsewhere, if need be.
No people can be free who themselves do not constitute an essential part of the ruling element of the country in which they live. . . . The liberty of no man is secure, who controls not his own political destiny. . . . A people, to be free, must necessarily be their own rulers. . . .
But we have fully discovered and comprehended the great political disease with which we are affected, the cause of its origin and continuance; and what is now left for us to do, is to discover and apply a sovereign remedy—a healing balm to a sorely diseased body—a wrecked but not entirely shattered system. We propose for this disease a remedy. That remedy is Emigration. . . .
Our friends in this and other countries, anxious for our elevation, have for years been erroneously urging us to lose our identity as a distinct race, declaring that we were the same as other people; while at the very same time their own representative was traversing the world and propagating the doctrine in favor of a universal Anglo-Saxon predominence. . . . The truth is, we are not identical with the Anglo-Saxon or any other race of the Caucasian or pure white type of the human family, and the sooner we know and acknowledge this truth, the better for ourselves and posterity. . . . We have then inherent traits, attributes—so to speak—and native characteristics, peculiar to our race—whether pure or mixed blood—and all that is required of us is to cultivate these and develop them in their purity, to make them desirable and emulated by the rest of the world.
. . . The great issue, sooner or later, upon which must be disputed the world’s destiny, will be a question of black and white; and every individual will be called upon for his identity with one or the other. The blacks and colored races are four-sixths of all the population of the world; and these people are fast tending to a common cause with each other. The white races are but one-third of the population of the globe—or one of them to two of us—and it cannot much longer continue, that two-thirds will passively submit to the universal domination of this one-third. And it is notorious that the only progress made in territorial domain, in the last three centuries, by the whites, has been a usurpation and encroachment on the rights and native soil of some of the colored races. . . .
For more than two thousands years, the determined aim of the whites has been to crush the colored races wherever found. With a determined will, they have sought and pursued them in every quarter of the globe. The Anglo-Saxon has taken the lead in this work of universal subjugation. But the Anglo-American stands pre-eminent for deeds of injustice and acts of oppression, unparalleled perhaps in the annals of modern history. . . .
Should we encounter an enemy with artillery, a prayer will not stay the cannon shot; neither will the kind words nor smiles of philanthropy shield his spear from piercing us through the heart. We must meet mankind, then, as they meet us—prepared for the worst, though we may hope for the best. Our submission does not gain for us an increase of friends nor respectability—as the white race will only respect those who oppose their usurpation, and acknowledge as equals those who will not submit to their rule. This may be no new discovery in political economy, but it certainly is a subject worthy the consideration of the black race. . . .
source: Martin R. Delany, “Political Destiny of the Colored Race, on the American Continent,” Proceedings of the National Emigration Convention of Colored People, held at Cleveland, Ohio, August 24, 1854 (Pittsburgh, Pa.: A. A. Anderson, Printer, 1854).
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