P. Gabrielle Foreman ’86 MAJOR: American studies.

A digital humanities project co-founded by P. Gabrielle Foreman ’86 is teaching the 21st-century public about 19th-century African-American activism.

From the 1830s through the 1890s, free and formerly enslaved black people organized political conventions throughout the United States and in Canada to strategize ways to protect and expand their rights. These “Colored Conventions” addressed such vital issues as abolition, labor laws, education and land use, with delegates and keynote speakers including Frederick Douglass, Henry Highland Garnet and Bishop Henry McNeal Turner, among thousands of other writers, business owners and religious leaders. Out of these conventions grew other organizations and efforts, including W.E.B. DuBois’ Niagara Movement and the NAACP.

In 2012, while researching novelist and entrepreneur Harriet Wilson, Foreman assigned her graduate students at the University of Delaware to use Facebook’s social network mapping technology to trace the connections among delegates at an 1859 convention. Until then, Foreman says, she—like most other scholars—had “failed to realize the breadth and range of the movement,” but her team soon saw the potential for a much larger project about all of the Colored Conventions. Jim Casey (now a researcher at Princeton) suggested moving it from Facebook to a scholarly platform, and Sarah Lynn Patterson (now an assistant professor at UMass) called for greater emphasis on the activism of black women of the era, such as newspaper editor Mary Ann Shadd Cary and Dr. Sarah Loguen-Fraser.

P. Gabrielle Foreman ’86

“The class voted, and the Colored Conventions Project was born,” Foreman says, noting that it was not “the idea of an individual scholar, but was born of collective ideas and efforts that mirror the convention movement itself.”

The NEH lists the Colored Conventions Project among the 50 most essential endeavors it has ever supported.

In the six years since, about 3,000 university librarians, graduate students, undergraduate researchers and community members have contributed to ColoredConventions.org. The site features a growing archive of minutes from hundreds of conventions (many transcribed by volunteers from the general public), as well as historical photos, explanatory videos and exhibits like What Did They Eat? Where Did They Stay?: Black Boardinghouses and the Colored Conventions Movement and Equality Before the Law: California Black Convention Activism. The National Endowment for the Humanities lists the Colored Conventions Project among the 50 most essential endeavors it has ever supported. Through a network of teaching partners, more than 1,500 undergraduates at 20 institutions across North America have done interdisciplinary research and analysis of the conventions.

This illustration, from an 1869 Harper’s Weekly, depicts a national convention in Washington, D.C., that year. The 14th Amendment had extended citizenship to former slaves, but various states were keeping them from the vote.
This image, from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, shows an 1876 Nashville convention.

As the Ned B. Allen Professor of English at the University of Delaware, and the author of the book Activist Sentiments: Reading Black Women in the Nineteenth Century, Foreman is passionate not only about representations of African-Americans in history but also about current underrepresentation. She cites a 2009 statistic from The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education: “At the current rate of progress, it will take nearly a century and a half for the percentage of African-American college faculty to reach parity with the percentage of blacks in the nation’s population.”

Now, Foreman and her colleagues have a forthcoming collection of essays about the conventions. Titled The Colored Conventions Movement: Black Organizing in the Nineteenth Century, it will be complemented by online exhibits and videos. One early reviewer anticipates that “the overall effect of the volume for many scholars will be, ‘Why haven’t I paid more attention to the Colored Conventions before?’”