Right here in Philadelphia exactly 186 years ago during September 20-24, 1830, a total of 40 Black delegates from seven states publicly held the first conference of its kind, thereby giving birth to what came to be known as the National Negro Convention Movement (NNCM). Its goal, as documented in The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, was “to address the hostility, discrimination, exclusion, and violence against African Americans by whites in northern cities.” Hmm, it’s 2016 now, so I guess it’s true that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Last week, I began a series about Jim Crow hostility, discrimination, and exclusion in the city’s major companies. And, as I mentioned then, I’m going to periodically “Show & Shame” those companies by putting each of them on blast with irrefutable facts, figures, and statistics exposing their racist employment practices. I wish I could say this idea- as well as the idea of battling racist violence- was all mine. But it wasn’t. It came directly out of the activism of ancestral giants like the Philly founders of the NNCM.
Here’s how it started. Hezekial Grice, founder of the Legal Rights Movement based in Baltimore, wrote a powerful letter in 1830 to prominent free Black men all across the country because, in his words, he was troubled by “the hopelessness of contending against oppression in the United States.” Also, he asked if Blacks should escape America’s racist hell by emigrating to Canada. He then suggested that a convention be held to discuss and debate this and other important cultural issues, Those prominent Black leaders- with Bishop Richard Allen at the helm- agreed to hold such a convention in Philadelphia.
Although it publicly began at 10 a.m. on September 20 at historic Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church, it privately began there on September 15. During the first five days, it had to be done secretly because, as noted in a 1946 edition of The Journal of Negro History, “Many delegates risked their lives to attend, for (racist Philadelphia) gangsters dogged their footsteps, and (racist Philadelphia) mobs were organized to break up the convention... (which) first met in secret sessions for five days, from September 15th to the 20th, and voted to hold open sessions, come what may.” With Allen as president, the newly formed organization gave itself a lengthy but accurate name: “The American Society For Free Persons of Color For Improving Their Condition In The United States... (and) For Purchasing Lands....”
The Society’s initial purpose was to create a settlement in Canada because it was viewed as preferable to America due to its absence of institutional racism, its similar climate, and its shared English language. The Society’s delegates later decided against leaving the U.S. for several reasons, not the least of which was the fact that they and their enslaved ancestors built this country. And if anybody was leaving, it should be the racist white folks going back to Europe where they came from before they invaded this land, slaughtered the Red folks, and enslaved the Black folks. Well, the Society’s delegates didn’t actually say that part about racist white folks leaving. But I just did. And meant it, too.
The delegates passed a resolution calling for a general convention elsewhere the following year, thereby officially giving rise to the NNCM. In addition to 1830, Philly hosted conventions in 1832, 1833, 1835, and 1855. Each of the conventions highlighted economic independence, employment, and education. They also became increasingly militant each year as younger activists began taking key roles. For more information about the NNCM in Philadelphia and elsewhere, read the actual minutes of the actual meetings by logging onto udspace.udel.edu/handle/19716/16737.
The NNCM succeeded in several important areas, including the establishment of manual labor schools that taught skilled trades. As an aside, I must say that maybe we should take a page out of that 1830-1855 playbook and develop our own skilled trade unions and stop begging Johnny Doc’s Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and his 40,000 member Philadelphia Building and Construction Trades Council for training and jobs. Or maybe we should become as militant as the NNCM was increasingly becoming and start demanding that his lily-white union finally become much more racially diverse. And we can do that by pressuring the “influential” Black Democratic elected officials in this city to stop kissing his ass and start saving ours. After all, Black folks put those Black city Democrats in office. I don’t wanna call out any local Black elected officials right now by naming names. But I will in future columns if they don’t start respecting our votes and demanding jobs and justice for us. Stay tuned.
I digress. So allow me to return to NNCM. This was truly a national initiative because one of its other major successes was that it united Black communities from all across the country into a tight network of political activism. Also, it collaborated with radical white abolitionists to defeat pro-slavery groups, including the notorious American Colonization Society, that tried to persuade Blacks to go back to Africa.
These brothers in the NNCM were courageous and revolutionary. But it wasn’t just brothers. Although sexism (which I and other Black men today must acknowledge and end) caused Black women to be generally ignored in the NNCM, two of them stood fast and demanded that their voice be heard and their presence be felt. Elizabeth Armstrong and Rachel Cliff, alone amongst the 38 male delegates in Philadelphia in 1830, were powerful and heroic forces in the movement’s activism and successes. Clearly, more Black women should have been invited and permitted to actively participate because they had already proven themselves as leaders in the forefront of the abolitionist, nationalist, human rights, and civil rights movements.
Following the first NNCM here in Philly from September 20-24, 1830, exactly 186 years ago, the final national “colored convention” was in 1887 in Indianapolis. But they led to the founding of the National Afro-American League in 1890, W.E.B. DuBois’ Atlanta University conferences from 1896-1914, the National Afro-American Council from 1898-1907, DuBois and William Monroe Trotter’s Niagara Movement in 1905, and finally the NAACP in 1909.
Here in Philly, we’re still suffering from the very same “hostility, discrimination, exclusion, and violence” that our activist ancestors railed against in 1830. It’s 2016. What we gonna do now, y’all?
The spirit often moves me to end my weekly columns, whenever appropriate, with a particular inspirational quote from both David Walker’s Appeal, published in 1829, and Christopher James Perry Sr., founder of the Tribune in 1884. But the spirit has recently moved me to add a more updated particular inspirational quote that also will be included whenever appropriate. And it’s from one of the greatest rappers in Hip Hop history. In his song entitled “1-9-9-9,” Common said and I’m now saying “Check it. It’s like I’m fightin’ for freedom, writin’ for freedom.... My ancestors, when I’m writin’ I see ‘em and talk with ‘em. Hoping in the promised land I can walk with ‘em.”