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Participants from UD and the community gather in Morris Library to celebrate Frederick Douglass Day.
When the national Colored Conventions Project
(CCP) was launched at the University of Delaware in 2012, the 19th
century movement in which African Americans organized for racial justice
was not widely known.
More than 200 state and national conventions were held from 1830
through the 1890s, drawing tens of thousands of attendees including
well-known writers, church leaders, educators and entrepreneurs. But
because the records of the proceedings were scattered and not easily
accessible until the CCP began transcribing them in digital form, the
names of convention participants and details of their advocacy seemed
lost to history.
One exception: Frederick Douglass, the famed activist, author and
orator whose lifetime of advocacy for civil rights included tireless
participation in Colored Conventions across the U.S.
“Douglass not only attended, he
presided over, [many of] these conventions,” said Gabrielle Foreman,
founding faculty director of the CCP, at a Feb. 14 celebration of
Douglass’ birthday in UD’s Morris Library.
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Gabrielle Foreman, founding faculty director of the Colored Conventions Project, speaks to the audience at the Douglass Day celebration.
Douglass attended his first convention even before publishing his autobiography in 1845, Foreman said, and he delivered an iconic speech
some 40 years later, at the 1883 National Convention of Colored Men in
Louisville, Kentucky. She encouraged those gathered for the Douglass Day
celebration to consider the importance he ascribed to the conventions.
“All of us know about the power of groups working together,” said
Foreman, who is also the Ned B. Allen Professor of English and professor
of history and of Africana studies at UD.
The event was the third consecutive year that CCP has
commemorated Douglass’ legacy on the day he chose to celebrate his
birthday. Born into slavery, he was never certain of his exact date of
In previous years, the UD event has featured the opportunity for
volunteers to join in transcribing minutes and other records from
Colored Conventions, learning how to enter them into the CCP’s database
for use by scholars and other researchers. But this year, the organizers
focused instead on expanding the understanding of Douglass’ life and
Participants were encouraged to read one of Douglass’ speeches, as well as a poem about him written by Robert Hayden and a tribute to his wife,
Anna Murray Douglass, that was written by their daughter, Rosetta
Douglass Sprague, in 1900.
Hassan El-Amin, an actor with the UD REP company, delivers a dramatic reading of Douglass' 1883 Louisville address.
Discussion groups shared their thoughts on
the readings at the UD event and at a related “read-a-thon” held that
evening at the African American Museum of Philadelphia.
In addition to the discussions, UD’s celebration included a dramatic
reading of Douglass’ 1883 Louisville speech by Hassan El-Amin, an actor
with the University’s Resident Ensemble Players.
Speakers from UD and the community
paid tribute to Douglass, and members of the Sanctuary Choir from Bethel
AME Church in Wilmington, Delaware, sang the spiritual “Ride On, King
Jesus.” The festivities also featured a cake for Douglass’ 201st
Similar events were held at 55 other locations, as far away as Turkey, with the CCP event shared via livestream.
“To me, Douglass Day is about community,” said Carol Henderson, UD’s
vice provost for diversity and professor of English and of Africana
studies. “When we elevate one community, we elevate us all.”
Faculty, students and staff who work with the CCP continued the
Douglass Day celebration at the African American Museum of Philadelphia.
The event was described as an evening to celebrate Black love stories and to celebrate love and perseverance through struggle.
The well-attended event drew participants from throughout the area
and featured a read-a-thon, with multiple discussion groups taking part
in intergenerational conversations. A focus of much of the discussion
was on ways to apply Douglass’ 19th century philosophies to the
struggles of today.
In addition, the museum hosted winners of the "Frederick Douglass Day
Words of Influence Contest" for ages 10-13 and 17-21, who wrote poems,
and ages 14-16, who wrote essays. Contest winners received gift cards
and were invited to publicly present their work.
Article by Ann Manser, with information from UD doctoral student Adam McNeil; photos by Evan Krape