The National Colored Convention in Session at Washington, D.C.

February 6, 1869, page 85

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Just as black slaves took the initiative to emancipate themselves when circumstances allowed, so free and freed blacks organized politically in order to secure their basic rights and liberties within American society. During the Civil War, in October 1864, a group of free black men met in Syracuse, New York. They passed resolutions endorsing the abolition of slavery, legal equality regardless of color or race, and black manhood suffrage. They also established the National Equal Rights League (NERL) to fight racial barriers in the Union states.

Although they faced an uphill battle, members of the NERL and other civil rights activists achieved some success. In 1865 John Rock became the first black lawyer admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court; Illinois repealed its black code; Massachusetts enacted the first law granting equal access to public accommodations; and a few cities desegregated their streetcar service.

After the war, this activism spread to the South. In 1865 and 1866, hundreds of delegates attended black conventions in the Southern states. The conventions demanded equal rights and condemned anti-black violence, but their central concerns, like the NERL, were on gaining equality under the law and voting rights. Southern blacks argued that those goals were in line with traditional American principles, particularly as embodied in the Declaration of Independence.

This illustration is of a session at the National Convention of Colored Men. Their stated purpose was "to inquire into the actual condition" of blacks in America. A committee of twelve called upon President-elect Ulysses S. Grant, offering their support and best wishes and urging him to continue to be vigilant in the fulfillment and administration of equal rights. Grant pledged to them the equal protection of the law.


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