The 1850 National Woman’s Rights Convention and People of Color

The first National Women’s Rights Convention began on October 23, 1850, in Worcester, Massachusetts in the USA.

The National Women’s Rights Convention became an annual series of meetings that increased the visibility of the early women’s rights movement in the United States.

Parker Pillsbury

Parker Pillsbury

The National Women’s Rights Convention combined both male and female leadership, and attracted a wide base of support including temperance advocates and abolitionists. Speeches were given on the subjects of equal wages, expanded education and career opportunities, women’s property rights, marriage reform, abolition, racial equality, and temperance.

Chief among the concerns discussed at the convention was the passage of laws that would give suffrage to women.

A letter in a Pittsburgh newspaper criticized the convention for statements made for the record to include people of color in the demands for equality.

This is Parker Pillsbury’s response to that criticism. It appeared in the December 5, 1850 issue of Frederick Douglass’s newspaper, The North Star. This paper can be found in Accessible Archive’s African American Newspaper Collection.

Parker Pillsbury (1809-1898) was an American minister and advocate for abolition and women’s rights.

DEAR MRS. SWISSHELM: – In the last Visitor, you say of a resolution relating to people of color, offered by Mr. Wendell Phillips in the late Convention of Women, at Worcester, Mass.

“We are pretty nearly out of patience with the dogged perseverance with which so many of our Reformers persist in their attempt to do everything at once.”

And again:

“In a Women’s Rights Convention , the question of color had no right to a hearing.”

It seemed as though the usually kindly spirit and good judgment of the Visiter were a little wanting in these two utterances. I should not have noticed it at all in most of the public journals – indeed, I neither know nor care what but few of them do say; for I should no more think of having them in my house, political or religious, than I would of inoculating the family with the foulest leprosy that ever unjointed the bones of a son of Abraham. But your Visiter finds a ready entrance and cheerful greeting so that we are a little solicitous about its bearing towards the few other … we have invited.

“Dogged and perseverance ” are two ugly words standing together, and Mr. Phillips has ever been very watchful to prevent any other topic from creeping to whatever platform he occupied, devoted to any particular reform. And those two words look strange indeed to some of us, standing in connection with his name and the resolutions to which you have taken exception.

This item, and others like it, can be found in Accessible Archive’s African American Newspapers Collection. This enormous collection of African American newspapers contains a wealth of information about cultural life and history during the 1800s and is rich with first-hand reports of the major events and issues of the day.

But by way of explanation, (or if you please, apology,) permit me to say that colored persons are held in such estimation in this country, that you must specify them whenever or wherever you mean to include them.

Lyceums, circuses, menageries, ballrooms, billiard-rooms, conventions, everything, “the Public are respectfully invited to attend.” But whoever dreamed that “the public” meant anything colored? From church and theatre; from stagecoach, steamship and creeping canal-boat; from the infant school, law school and theological seminary; from museum, Athenaeum and public garden, the colored race are either excluded altogether, or are admitted only by sufferance, or some very special arrangement, and under disadvantages to which no white person would or should submit for a moment.

Free Masons must be white – both face and apron. Odd Fellows, too, must be constitutionally light of skin; and even the Sons of Temperance, and Daughters likewise, must be bleached to the popular complexional standard, or they are beyond the reach of salvation.

The Methodist Discipline provides for “separate colored Conferences.” The Episcopal church shuts out some of its own most worthy ministers from clerical recognition, on account of their color. Nearly all denominations of religionists have either a written or unwritten law to the same effect. In Boston, even, there are Evangelical churches whose pews are positively forbidden by corporate mandate from being sold to any but “respectable white persons.” Our incorporated cemeteries are often, if not always, deeded in the same manner. Even our humblest village graveyards generally have either a “negro corner,” or refuse colored corpses altogether; and did our power extend to heaven or hell, we should have complexional salvation and colored damnation unless we could first blot the unfortunate, unfashionable race altogether and forever out of existence.

We have striven to separate the Ethiopian from all claim to human recognition and human sympathy. Nobody but abolitionists ever mean colored people, no matter how often they speak of “the public,” or of their “fellow-citizens,” or “fellow-sinners.”

We have proscribed our colored brethren every way – everywhere; and under the late Fugitive Slave Law, every colored man is to be presumed a slave, unless there is proof positive to the contrary; and if anyone is only claimed and sworn to as a slave, such proof is at once made impossible. Before this law was enacted, his life was a lingering torture – before, we were killing him by exclusion and oppression; now we are murdering him with fear. We have barbed the iron arrows that pierced him. We have poisoned the fangs which were already tearing him in pieces – we have heated red hot the chains that bound him as adamant before. We have separated him from us by a gulf which has neither shore nor bottom. So far as human sympathy and regard are concerned, almost everywhere the horse and hound are as human as he.

And his race knows it and feel it, as we cannot. Even the women’s Convention demonstrated this, for scarcely a colored person, man or woman, appeared in it.

On the large committees appointed to carry out the plans of the Convention, embracing many persons in all, not a single colored member was placed. It is to be presumed that nobody thought of it, for we are not expected to think of colored people at all.

Under such circumstances, is it strange, is it an unpardonable sin, is it “dogged or perseverance,” to declare in a Convention called to demand and extend the rights of women, that we mean women of sable as well as sallow complexion? of the carved in ebony as well as the chiseled in ivory? If we did thus mean, the Convention should not have been held or being held, it would only deserve the scorn and contempt of every friend of God and his children. Color was not discussed there – it need not have been. But it was needed that the declaration be made in regard to it. That ANY women have rights, will scarcely be believed; but that colored women have rights, would never have been thought of, without a specific declaration.

Most truly yours,
Concord, N.H., Nov. 18.

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