Episode 57

57. The Colored Conventions Project Resurrects Disremembered History With Denise Burgher, Jim Casey, Gabrielle Foreman, & Many Others


January 28th, 2019

15 mins 48 secs

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About this Episode

In American history most often told, the vitality of Black activism has been obscured in favor of celebrating white-lead movements. In the 19th century, an enormous network of African American activists created a series of state and national political meetings known as the Colored Conventions Movement.

The Colored Conventions Project (CCP) is a Black digital humanities initiative dedicated to identifying, collecting, and curating all of the documents produced by the Colored Conventions Movement.

In this episode, two of the CCP’s cofounders and co-directors, Jim Casey and Gabrielle Foreman are joined by Project Fellow Denise Burgher to discuss how the Project mirrors the energy and collective commitments of the Conventions themselves, how to see data as a form of protest, and creating an a set of organizational principles.

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Topics and Links

00:00: Intro
00:15: Colored Conventions Movement
01:23: Gabrielle Foreman And Jim Casey
02:00: Colored Conventions Project
02:21: Denise Burgher
03:34: Data As A Form Of Protest
06:25: Terms Of Use For CCP’s Data
07:20: “To Respect, Not Just Collect”
09:20: “Celebratory History Of American Progress”
10:23: The Understudy Of The Colored Conventions Movement
11:25: Women's Centrality To The Movement
12:30: Getting People Involved
12:54: Douglass Day
14:15: Museums And Digital Spaces
15:00: Announcing Museum Archipelago Stickers


Below is a transcript of Museum Archipelago episode 57. Museum Archipelago is produced for the ear and the only the audio of the episode is canonical. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, refer to the links above.

In American history most often told, the vitality of Black activism has been obscured in favor of celebrating white-lead movements. In the 19th century, an enormous network of African American activists created a series of state and national political meetings known as the Colored Conventions Movement.

GABRIELLE FOREMAN: "The Colored Convention movement was Black-lead and Black organizers came together across so many of the states. Beginning in 1830 folks began to gather in Philadelphia, and there were both state and national conventions that discussed labor rights, educational rights, voting rights, violence against Black communities, the expulsion of people who were not considered residence and citizens.”

JIM CASEY: “The Conventions Movement was not just a single thing, where there was one issue that they were really dedicated to solving or figuring out. Conventions were held in at least 35 states. And keep in mind that this was the 19 century, so there weren’t 50 states even back then. That we really think there is a way, through this history, to rethink everything that begins far long before the Civil War and leads up into the 20th century.

GABRIELLE FOREMAN And JIM CASEY are two co-founders and two co-directors of the Colored Conventions Project, a Black digital humanities initiative focused on researching and teaching the Colored Conventions Movement.

GABRIELLE FOREMAN: "Hi, my name is GABRIELLE FOREMAN, and I teach at the University of Delaware, and I am one of the cofounders of the Colored Conventions Project, and the founding faculty director of that project.

JIM CASEY: “Hello, I’m JIM CASEY. I’m a researcher at the Center for Digital Humanities at Princeton University, and I am also one of the cofounders of the Colored Conventions Project, and also one of the co-directors.

The Colored Conventions project or (CCP) is dedicated to identifying, collecting, and curating all of the documents produced by the Colored Conventions movement, which started in 1830 and lasted until the 1890s. The project is much bigger than just Forman or Casey, and it includes graduate fellow DENISE BURGHER.

DENISE BURGHER: Hello, my name is DENISE BURGHER, and I am a team member of the Colored Convention Project housed at the University of Delaware. The significance of this collection is that none of these documents have been collected in the same place. It is a scattered archive, and so not even when the Conventions were going on were the proceedings and the minutes and the calls and the memorials all in one place for anyone to actually look at and see. So this is actually the first time that this archive will be collected. It allows us to see not only the issues that were facing African Americans but in particular, how to make more complex how we think the African American community and the civic, social, political activity that were taken up, not just in the United States, but across the diaspora.

So what we’re getting is a more complete idea of not only what took place then, but how these activists were able to influence, shape, and create contemporary civil rights, political action, and social justice organizations in our current moment.”

By studying the organizing principles of the Colored Conventions Movement, the Project reveals how data can be a form of protest.

JIM CASEY: “One of the things that we see in the Conventions most often is that they are responding to a lack of information about who they are, who their communities are, and what they’re doing. This is about a kind of form of protest where we are trying to combat against things like ignorance. And so many of these conventions would have formalized ways of gathering information, distilling them, and then preparing them to get published in all kinds of different ways.”

GABRIELLE FOREMAN: “And the conventions themselves have a longer life and a longer reach because the proceedings often appear in Black newspapers and in the antislavery press. But if you look for coverage of these conventions, then you understand this structural and strategized reach to make sure we get beyond the people who were actually in the meeting rooms themselves. That’s one of the things that the project has made central. To think not just about the podium. And not just about the podium and the pews, but to think through the ways in which Black infrastructure was built around Black convention organizing.

JIM CASEY: So I’ll give you and example. In the California convention, we have this very small, quickly growing group. And they get together for conventions a couple of times in the 1850s on into the 1860s, and what they do is they ask everyone to ask around, to do what effectively amounts to a census. And they want to gather information about who the population is that is being left out of the official records, that’s being left out of the government reports. We have all kinds of things happening in California where folks are being denied the right to testify in a court of law for example, where you’re not physically able to account for yourself. And so the Conventions compile all of these statistics, and they track everything that they can, with the idea that they’re providing a set of useful information for the writers in their ranks, but also the local politicians to know that the community is not just a couple of people living out in gold rush country, but stretches across a lot of territory and a lot of people. And then when they go to publish it, and this is an important part: is that they prepare some reports that go out to the people of the United States or the people of Canada, they mean the broad general public. And then, in many of the conventions, prepare more reports that are addressed to the People of Color in the state or in the country. And oftentimes, they are putting out the same message or the same set of ideas, but really gearing and prioritizing different kinds of arguments in different places. And so, when thinking about the conventions as a place to learn about recording keeping, it’s full of so many of these great examples of folks who were thinking in multiple directions at the same time.

And the co-founders of the Project purposely structured the initiative to mirror the energy and collective commitments of the Colored Conventions themselves. One of the first thing that struck me when I visited the project website was the terms of use for the project’s data: the data are freely accessible, but when you go to download, the site asks you to commit to the following principles:

GABRIELLE FOREMAN: “I honor CCP’s commitment to a use of data that humanizes and acknowledges the Black people whose collective organizational histories are assembled here. Although the subjects of datasets are often reduced to abstract data points, I will contextualize and narrate the conditions of the people who appear as “data” and to name them when possible.”

As Forman explains, principles like these reflect the wholeness of Black communities and is an example of one of the ways that the project intentionally, and in practice, continues the principles of the Colored Convention Movement itself: to respect, not just collect.

GABRIELLE FOREMAN: “Whenever possible, we try to intervene in the ways in which Black people are represented in academic language, in academic spaces, in ways that do honor the ways in which the delegates and the conventions were intervening about the ways in which Black people were represented in the larger press, in the Law, and in the exclusionary politics that try to erase them.

Big data sets call things items. Black people show up on ledgers as items. We have a whole history of being turned into objects, and objects and items are the nomenclature in libraries and in museums in ways that we talk about things that we curate. So we want to in all moments testify and witness to the humanity and the narratives of named people whose histories have been disremembered, and who can be turned to datasets in ways that are extraordinarily comfortable considering the history of objectification and ownership that is the legacy of Black people’s existence in these United States over the last 400 years.

So that’s I think what we’re trying to make sure does not happen: that people come to the use of data which is collected in a group of people who want to respect, not just collect the work of people who came before us and largely make our existence and study possible, and we want to do that in a way that’s humanizing not just to them, but to us.”

And as BURGHER points out, part of the Project’s purpose is to change the overall narrative of the most-often told version of Black American history in the 19th century.

DENISE BURGHER: “We have a very fleshed out and detailed notation of abolition in this country, but we don’t understand that the majority of Abolitionists were African American, nor do we then understand the ways that African American activism shaped contemporary quote unquote American notions of civil rights, of who gets to vote and why, of who gets to stand in the juror box. This erasure, this imbalance allows one story to dominate, but we lose the ability to actually see what happen and we lose the ability to understand what happens. And it also then leads us, I think, to create a kind of celebratory history of American progress and American race neutrality, what we call post-racal, that the truth belies. We’re much more interested in learning what African Americans are saying about African Americans who are involved in creating this movement.”

GABRIELLE FOREMAN: “And that’s one of the reasons that the understudy of the Conventions Movement is a particularly egregious disremembrance because the Movement speaks to the continuous targeting of Communities of Color in this country that has gone pretty much uninterrupted and documents a much longer history of organized protest and formal petitioning of fair and equal treatment of those communities.”

The Colored Convention Project’s is also studying the social network of the convention goers: when you list out who attended which conference, you begin to see patterns, not only of prolific delegates, but also the infrastructure around the conventions. The project has even organized records like reviews of boarding houses the conference-goers stayed in.

Another key principle of the Project is a commitment to resurrecting women’s centrality to the movement, records of which might not be as widely published.

GABRIELLE FOREMAN: “It took a great deal of energy to host these conventions. Those Conventions had hundreds and hundreds of people attending and that those people were men and woman and that women were responsible for the boarding houses and the feeding and the housing of the delegates and that so many conversations and political strategy sessions we know also happened in those informal places. So the Project has been committed to resurrecting women’s centrality in the history that they have been erased from or anonymized in in terms of the records themselves, but we know they were central in the actual historical moment. And we have strategies and protocols to make sure as we resurrect that history, that women are included in the history that they help to create.

CASEY makes the point that the original convention-goers were really good at getting lots of people involved in the movement, and this presents yet another opportunity for the Project to mirror the Movement.

JIM CASEY: “We know that if we do just enough to help get folks up and running and participating in different kinds of ways, then we can really expand the numbers of who can participate and preserve in creating access to this history. To that idea, we’ve created this annual holiday to celebrate the birthday of Frederick Douglass. And what we do every year is we get birthday cakes and we sing happy birthday and we get together with groups and we give out organizing kits to help folks at other locations and schools organize their own events. Together, all in one afternoon, we log online and we transcribe documents together with the idea that we are both celebrating something and we’re inviting folks to participate in building parts of the history that we’re talking about.

Douglass Day wasn’t created by the Colored Conventions Project, but is another example of resurrecting something that already existed before. The Read-A-Thons take place on Frederick Douglass's chosen birthday, February 14, and in 2019 will be held at University of Delaware Morris Library and the African American Museum of Philadelphia. They will be live-streamed over the internet.

I think the best way to describe the Colored Convention Project is as an open research framework with a very strong set of principles. It’s remarkable for me to see organizing tools that I think of as modern, or at least native to the internet, have their roots in this understudied movement of 19th century Black activism. It’s also interesting to think how other projects and institutions can contribute and follow some of the same organizational principles.

GABRIELLE FOREMAN: “There is a place for storytelling in the midst of all this data and in fact, that’s what tends to connect with people, and in fact, that’s something that’s shared between museum and digital spaces. Some of the very questions about accessibility, and participation that museums are attempting to grapple with finally at this stage, we’re also engaging as a project that creates digital content and digital stories about this incredible group of delegates and participates and hosts who made this movement possible.

You can learn more about the Colored Conventions Project by visiting coloredconventions.org.