The Freedmen’s Conventions

Written By Jonathan Martin

Following the conclusion of the Civil War, black North Carolinians emancipated by the Thirteenth Amendment.  However, many rights allowed to the white population, particularly voting and trial rights, had not yet been extended to black freedmen and women. Only five months after the War Between the States, the “Convention of the Freedmen of North Carolina” opened in Raleigh on September 29, 1865, just a few days before the North Carolina Constitutional Convention of 1865.

Before the Freedmen Convention, several black ministers and property owners met in New Bern and discussed the opportunity for a statewide convention for freedmen before the upcoming constitutional convention. No blacks had been selected as delegates to serve during the constitutional convention, and the Freedmen Convention was staged in response to this discrepancy. Over 100 men from thirty-four eastern counties were chosen to meet in Raleigh, and James W. Hood was selected as the presiding officer of the Freedmen Convention.  With James City in its borders, Craven County provided the largest number of delegates at the convention.

On September 29, 1865, numerous African American men from the eastern section of North Carolina assembled at the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Raleigh. The mainstays of the convention wanted blacks in North Carolina to the constitutional rights to be able to testify in court, vote in elections, and serve on a jury. Several delegates made speeches including Horace Greeley. In his speech to the convention, Greeley proclaimed that the delegates needed to remain “hopeful, patient, peaceful, and diligent, to respect themselves, and to stay in North Carolina, ‘a noble state, with her resources mainly undeveloped’” (Powell, p. 474).

Before the end of the Freedmen Convention, the delegates issued a written document to the white  Constitutional Convention that was meeting in the General Assembly. Although the communique did not address suffrage or adjudication rights, the delegates were respectful in their address and they regarded the importance of maintaining a sound relationship with white North Carolinians:

“Born upon the same soil, and brought up in an intimacy of relationship unknown
to any other state of society, we have formed attachments for the white race which must
be as enduring as life, and we can conceive of no reason that our God-bestowed freedom
should now sever the kindly ties which have so long united us” (Written Dec.).

In addition, the document remarked about the importance of just compensation for labor, education of black children, and the reuniting of black families that had been split apart during the Civil War.

Another Freedmen’s Convention took place on October 2, 1866, at the exact location it had met the year before. Delegates from both the western and eastern sides of North Carolina assembled, and convention speakers included former governor William H. Holden and acting Governor Jonathan Worth. Again, the same themes of education, peaceful relations between blacks and whites, and other equal rights were professed at the second convention.

The Freedmen’s Conventions of 1865 and 1866 were the first of their kind in North Carolina. Delegates proclaimed the need for black inclusivity in the political and judicial processes. In addition to voicing the goals of blacks in North Carolina, delegates such as James H. Harris, James E. O’Hara, and John Hyman all continued the push for total equality under the law in subsequent years. These two conventions, although diluted by later race relations in North Carolina, writes historian William S. Powell, “reflect a period of relative goodwill between the races” after the contentious Civil War.