Teacher's Guide

Rethinking Reconstruction: Black Community and Political Organizing

Illustration from Harper's Weekly of the Colored National Labor Union convention in Washington, D.C.
Photo caption

Illustration from Harper's Weekly of the Colored National Labor Union convention in Washington, D.C., February 1869.

The Colored Conventions Movement was a series of political conventions held across the country in the decades preceding and following the Civil War. Gathering in local, state, regional, and national conventions, free and formerly enslaved Black people called for emancipation and deliberated issues like voting rights, educational equality, and emigration. This Teacher’s Guide provides information and resources for using a place-responsive framework to teach the connected histories of Reconstruction and Black freedom struggles.  

This guide uses the Colored Conventions Movement as a historical case study and the NEH-supported Colored Conventions Project as a pedagogical model. By teaching the history of the seven-decades-long convention movement through place-based approaches, students can gain an understanding of the relationship between local, regional, and national struggles for civil rights and Black freedom in the United States. In focusing on the local gatherings that made up the national convention movement, students can develop a sharper sense of where and how political change is produced. Incorporating local histories of time and place into lessons on slavery, emancipation, and Reconstruction can support students in understanding how the centuries-long struggle for civil rights and equality has shaped the communities they live in today.  

Guiding Questions

What methods have Black people used to secure emancipation and equality in the U.S.?

Why is location significant to the study of Reconstruction? 

How can the histories of convention organizing be incorporated into lessons on the Civil War, emancipation, and Reconstruction? 

What roles can students play in producing more accurate and representative narratives of history? 

About the Colored Conventions Project

In this video, directors of the Colored Conventions Project, Dr. P. Gabrielle Foreman and Dr. Jim Casey, introduce the scholarly impact of studying the Colored Conventions Movement and how this project changes "what we thought we knew" and "what it will be possible to know" about the African American past.


Colored Conventions Project YouTube Page: The CCP’s YouTube page includes several short video overviews of the project, as well as Colored Convention history itself. 

North American Teaching Partners Webpage: The CCP’s Teaching Partners page offers resources and modules for teaching the conventions. 

CCP Teaching Guides: The CCP Curriculum Committee offers 16 free teaching guides that can be taught in conjunction with the essays in The Colored Conventions Movement: Black Organizing in the Nineteenth Century, edited by P. Gabrielle Foreman, Jim Casey, and Sarah Lynn Patterson.

Researching the Conventions

The Colored Conventions Project offers a wealth of resources for teaching historical inquiry and research skills in the classroom. The website’s digital records house hundreds of collected documents from conventions held between the 1830s and the 1890s. The records are searchable by year and designation as state or national convention. The CCP website features digital exhibits exploring individual conventions and themes such as education rights, emigration, and print culture. The CCP Curriculum Committee offers sixteen free teaching guides that can be taught in conjunction with the project’s digital exhibits and edited volume.   

Black and white engraving of large, crowded hall at the National Convention of Colored Citizens
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National Convention of Colored Citizens, in the House of Representatives, at New Orleans, April 10, 1872. 

Colored Conventions and the Black Press

In addition to publishing convention proceedings, Black newspapers and other publications circulated calls for conventions, agendas, and information about the individuals and places that made up the movement. While much of this material is accessible through the CCP’s digital records, digitized Black newspapers offer another trove of resources for teaching convention history. Chronicling America’s collection of digitized African American newspapers is one place to start. The Race and Ethnicity Keyword Thesaurus for Chronicling America and the African American Keywords in Chronicling America media resources can support students in navigating this database. 

Newspapers often contained not only convention proceedings but biographical details on the delegates who attended, who they traveled with, and how they traveled. The CCP’s The Early Case for a Black National Press digital exhibit explores the connections between Black print culture and activism. Newspaper records offer clues about where delegates boarded and ate during conventions, how the local community received them, and who carried out the objectives and demands leveraged by delegates after conventions concluded.  

Black Church and Community Building

The organizers, agendas, and places that made up the Colored Conventions Movement compel us to reconsider where and how political change has been produced throughout history. The convention movement intersected with the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) churchbuilding movement. One of the first conventions, held in 1830, took place at Philadelphia’s Mother Bethel AME church. Bishop Richard Allen founded the church in 1794 in protest of the white Methodist denomination’s segregationist practices. The convention movement espoused the legacies of protest, political thought, and autonomy begun by the AME churchbuilding movement, and the two movements shared meeting spaces, leaders, and objectives.  

Color photo of red brick church with cars and shoveled snow in parking lot
Photo caption

Mother Bethel AME Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Mother Bethel AME Virtual Walking Tour:  

In this video from the Museum of the American Revolution, African American Interpretive Fellow, Michael Idriss, leads a tour of Mother Bethel AME Church at Sixth and Lombard streets in Philadelphia. Idriss points out where Reverend Richard Allen and his wife Sarah are buried, the church’s original pulpit and pews, the old ballot boxes used to elect church officers, and muskets from when Allen assembled Black troops during the War of 1812. 

AME Churchbuilding History and Black Parallel Politics 

When we look for the intersections between churchbuilding and other forms of political thought and organizing, we uncover an expansive set of historical actors, places, and dynamics. We can interpret these through the framing of “Black parallel politics.” CCP organizers coined this term as a descriptor for the collective and participatory activism of the seven decades-long convention movement. Black parallel politics in the nineteenth century encompassed: 

  • Petitioning, protesting, and otherwise organizing to secure racial equality in law and policy 
  • Building schools, churches, meeting halls, and other spaces for education and civic action 
  • Founding newspapers, holding conventions and conferences, and otherwise developing, debating, and circulating political ideas outside of the avenues of mainstream politics 

Guiding Questions: 

  • How did AME church and convention organizing shape abolitionist movements in the decades preceding and following the Civil War?  
  • How does studying conventions help us to understand where and how Black freedom was envisioned and pursued before, during, and after the Civil War?  
  • Where did Black organizing take place in your community, state, or region? Are there churches, meeting halls, or other physical structures that once served as meeting spaces for conventions? Did you know or learn anything about these places before now? 
Recovering Women's Activism

If Black political conventions were studied through convention proceedings alone, we would overlook a significant number of the people who shaped the movement. Women are largely absent from official proceedings. These documents primarily recount male delegates’ deliberations over the course of the convention.  

Recognizing that the convention movement required women’s ideological and material labor, the CCP has made it an ethical imperative to center Black women. Their research demonstrates how recovering women’s labor and leadership enables us to understand the larger vision and scope of activist cultures. By researching the women who belonged to churches where conventions were held, who waged campaigns for desegregation and suffrage, who accompanied male delegates to conventions, and who operated boardinghouses and restaurants, we can uncover how women built the institutional and ideological infrastructure that propelled the convention movement.

Biographies of these women can be found throughout the exhibits. See the Delegates and Their Families section of the Black Organizing in Pre-Civil War Illinois exhibit and the Black Women Reformers section of the Colored Conventions and the Carceral States exhibit for examples.   

Our closer readings commentary Activist Constellations: Recovering Black Women’s Labor and Leadership considers the importance of recovering Black women’s activism in greater depth.  

Guiding Questions: 

  • What does the omission of women from official convention records suggest about how history is recorded? 
  • How can we use place-based inquiry to recover women’s roles in the movement? 

Case Study: Mary Jane Richardson Jones 

The Illinois exhibit’s biography of Mary Jane Richardson Jones offers a helpful example for how researching and writing women’s biographies can serve as a strategy for: 

  • Recovering women’s roles 
  • Conducting deeper histories of the places and spaces that made up the convention movement 

Mary Richardson Jones was an abolitionist and women’s rights activist in Chicago. Born free in Tennessee in 1820, she moved to Illinois by 1837. Mary married John Jones, and the couple had their first child and moved to Chicago by 1845. There, the couple took in fugitives from slavery. Mary was active in Black Chicago’s civic circles, serving as president of the Colored Ladies’ Freedmen’s Aid Society of Chicago during the Civil War and later leading the Prudence Crandall Literary Club.  

Photograph of Mary Richardson Jones
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Photograph of Mary Richardson Jones taken by Baldwin & Drake sometime after 1883.

Mary Richardson Jones’s full biography is accessible in the Illinois exhibit. The biography’s content, as well as the research that produced it, can serve as a model for teaching students to conduct their own biographical research on the women of the convention movement.

The biography includes the following components: 

  • Age, name, occupation 

  • Family relationships 

  • Place of birth and chronicling of migration throughout lifetime 

  • Status at birth and throughout life as enslaved or free

  • Connection to the convention (married to delegate John Jones) 

  • Details indicating social and economic status  

  • Club and organization membership and leadership roles 

It draws from the following sources: 

  • Records from a local historical archive 

  • Digital records like findagrave.com  

  • Secondary sources like an academic article 

  • Newspaper records (namely from the Chicago Defender, the Chicago Tribune, and the Chicago Inter-Ocean

Classroom Research Activities

The following activities are designed to engage students with the Colored Conventions Project archives, historical newspapers, and consideration of time and place when studying Reconstruction. The activities can be adapted for multiple grade levels and used in connection with other resources provided on this page.

Activity: Mapping Mobilities   

This activity invites students to conceptualize the connections between local conventions and broader developments in the abolitionist and civil rights movements organized across the country. Local newspapers offer a means for tracing these connections. Students will read convention proceedings as they were printed in a newspaper and then contextualize these proceedings in the broader reporting and readership of the newspaper.   

Guiding Questions: 

  • How did the printing and circulation of convention records contribute to Black institutions and community building?  

  • Who were delegates trying to reach as they formulated calls for equality? Who were newspapers trying to reach as they circulated these calls? 

Activity: Collaborative Annotation: Contextualizing Conventions  

Collaborative annotation is an effective tool to help students draw connections between primary sources and prior knowledge. This activity entails using a free annotation tool such as Perusall, Google Drive, or Zoom Annotation (see Amherst College’s Collaborative Annotation Tools guide for further instruction) to review the convention proceedings included in the document pairings section. Encourage students to underline and highlight dates, names, places, and other aspects of the text that stand out to them for their familiarity or for the questions they raise. 

Guiding Questions: 

  • Why did Black newspapers choose to circulate calls for and news of conventions?  

  • How did the convention movement intersect or interact with the Underground Railroad? 

  • How did delegates decide which issues to deliberate? Where did the ideas and language they took up during conventions come from? 

Activity: Reading Between the Lines  

This activity invites students to expand their sense of the people and places that made up the Colored Conventions Movement. By considering the places and the labor that made the physical gathering space of the convention possible, students will gain a broader understanding of the relationship between community organizing and political action.   

Guiding Questions: 

  • Who labored to make the visions and demands laid out by convention delegates real? Where did conventions begin and end? 

  • How did women’s labor and activism influence the political ends that delegates pursued during conventions? 

Activity: Mapping Activist Communities  

This activity invites students to contemplate where and how politics have been practiced outside of designated gatherings. Students will read convention proceedings alongside the newspapers in which they were printed. This document pairing will enable students to interpret the convention’s attendance, issues, and demands in the broader context of the community. By considering the relationship between a Black political convention and the community in which the convention gathered, students will gain a fuller sense of how political and social change has been effectuated throughout history. 

Guiding Questions: 

  • What else was happening in the community at the time of the convention?  

  • How did the gathering of a convention affect the rhythms and concerns of everyday life in the community?  

  • Who might have read news of conventions in the newspapers? 

Case Study: Bethel AME Church in Muscatine, Iowa 

The connections between churchbuilding and convention movement histories in Iowa offers a useful case study for rethinking the arc, concerns, and influence of antislavery and civil rights politics. Iowa’s AME churchbuilding and Black political convention movements followed parallel tracks from the 1840s to the end of the nineteenth century. AME churchbuilding in the state began in 1848 when Black Methodists founded Bethel AME church in the river town of Muscatine, Iowa. Just under a decade later in 1857, this church served as the meeting space for one of the state’s first conventions. The churchbuilding and political convention movements overlapped in the following decades, with around twenty congregations and seventeen political conventions organizing by the turn of the century. As was the case for the convention held in Muscatine in 1857, churches often provided the meeting space for conventions, AME pastors presided as convention presidents, and delegates drew upon religious language and rituals as they called for suffrage, citizenship, and education rights.  

1857 Muscatine Convention Proceedings

Text with red annotations from convention proceedings as printed in The Provincial Freeman
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Annotated Proceedings from the 1857 Muscatine Convention

Download pdf of Annotated Proceedings 

Guiding Questions: 

  • To what extent do local historic sites of Black organizing and protest change your view of the history of slavery, emancipation, and Reconstruction in the United States? 
  • What people, organizations, and causes intersected in their struggle to end slavery and secure Black freedom?  

  • How did these different groups of abolitionists and freedom strivers diverge in their philosophies and strategies? 


The Meeting That Launched a Movement: The First National Convention: This CCP exhibit examines the 1830 gathering at Philadelphia’s Mother Bethel AME church that is considered to be the inaugural Colored Convention. 

Brief History of Mother Bethel A.M.E. by Richard Newman: In this video, scholar Richard Newman introduces the history of the Mother Bethel AME church while leading a tour of its surrounding neighborhood.