Alabama's Colored Conventions and the Exodus Movement, 1871-1879
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Alabama’s Colored Conventions and the Exodus Movement, 1871–1879 DURING THE DECADE OF THE 1870S AFRICAN AMERICANS in the South struggled for their freedom to be recognized by the former Confederate states. Although slavery had been abolished and the Constitution now guaranteed their freedom and right to vote, the power of the newly “redeemed” Democratic southern governments still threatened their social, economic, and political independence. Some southern blacks questioned whether the federal government could end white intimidation and discrimination against them. Growing violence from vigilante groups convinced many African Americans to organize themselves in conventions, where they discussed redress of their grievances and sought ways to secure their civil rights. Toward the end of the decade, however, hope for a solution to their situation greatly diminished as Washington seemed no longer committed to enforcing Reconstruction legislation. By 1879, thousands of southern blacks believed Reconstruction had failed and that their only recourse was to leave the South and settle in the West. Historians call this nineteenth-century event the Exodus movement. LikeAfricanAmericansinotherformerConfederatestates,Alabama blacks hosted statewide colored conventions during Reconstruction to make Congress aware of their plight. In 1865 the state’s first convention met in Mobile and drew up resolutions with a conciliatory tone designed to appease the majority of white Alabamians. The next convention, held in Mobile in 1867 and characterized by growing radicalism, called for establishment of a public school system, JUDY BUSSELL LEFORGE Judy Bussell LeForge is an associate professor of history at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. The author sincerely appreciates the editorial staff and outside reviewers of the Alabama Review for their numerous helpful comments and suggestions. She also wishes to thank Teresa Coble and the reference staff at the Kansas State Historical Society for providing key census information for this article. T H E A L A B A M A R E V I E W 4 military protection from election-day abuses, and the right to hold office.1 The decade of the 1870s signaled a turning point whereby Alabama blacks took more decisive actions in their own interests. Some freedmen became disillusioned with conditions in Alabama and viewed emigration to the Midwest as the only alternative to remaining in the South and facing the wrath of whites. Yet most blacks in the state wanted to remain in Alabama and carve out a better way of life for themselves and their families. They decided to take a more active role in improving their circumstances when federal programs like the Freedmen’s Bureau, the Civil Rights Act of 1866, and the Homestead Act provided only limited aid. By1872,blackinterestinconventionsandemigrationhadincreased in Alabama.2 A well-educated black man, James Thomas Rapier, participated in these assemblies, believing that they provided a means of improving the lot of freedmen in his state. As the decade progressed and the failure of Reconstruction to guarantee civil rights became more apparent, Rapier eventually changed his mind and led the 1879 campaign for black Alabamians to settle in Kansas. Alabama’s postwar colored conventions and Rapier’s leadership were crucial to fueling interest in and making possible the Exodus movement. Conventions were not a new experience for black Americans. The first national colored convention met in Philadelphia in 1830 in response to the increasing efforts of the American Colonization Society to encourage free blacks in northern cities to “remove to Africa.” Delegates to this 1830 assembly established a precedent of calling conventions to discuss matters of concern for blacks; early meetings emphasized the use of moral suasion to alleviate the ills of slavery and discrimination. Thirty-five years later, southern blacks combined political and economic activity in such assemblies in an effort to bring an end to their ill treatment during Reconstruction.3 1 Philip S. Foner and George E. Walker, eds., Proceedings of the Black National and State Conventions , 1865–1900 (Philadelphia, 1986), 301. 2 Richard Bailey, Neither Carpetbaggers nor Scalawags: Black Officeholders during the Reconstruction of Alabama, 1867–1878 (Montgomery, 1991), 178–79. 3 Howard Holman Bell, ed., Minutes of the Proceedings of the National Negro Conventions, 1830– 1864 (New York, 1969), i, 5, 8. J A N U A R Y 2 0 1...