Jim Casey ’08 is Assistant Professor of African American Studies and Managing Director of the Center for Black Digital Research at Penn State University. He co-edited the forthcoming book, The Colored Conventions Movement: Black Organizing in the Nineteenth Century, a collection of essays about the Colored Conventions movement, the nineteenth century’s longest campaign for Black civil rights. Here, he discusses early Black organizing in America and how history can inspire action in the modern age.
What does Black History mean to you?
Black History Month means a lot of things to a lot of different people, as it should. My own understanding of the meaning of Black History Month reaches back to its very origins around the turn of the 20th century.
The earliest versions of Black History Month began in the 1890s, right after the death of the great African American leader, Frederick Douglass. Shortly after he passed away, a group in Washington D.C., led by another great Black activist named Mary Church Terrell, began to hold annual celebrations of Douglass’s life. Terrell and others held these celebrations on Douglass’s chosen birthday of February 14. These celebrations soon spread across the country. They became known as “Douglass Day.”
Importantly, Douglass Day celebrations were not just idle events. Black communities across the country used this day to reflect on the past and to organize for community interests. Early Douglass Day celebrations helped to fundraise for schools, build historical monuments, and a whole lot more.
By the 1920s, an influential African American historian named Carter G. Woodson proposed to expand Douglass Day into an entire Black history week. Woodson’s idea inspired student activists in the 1960s and 1970s to push for an entire month dedicated to the remembrance of Black history. Their efforts lead to what we know today as Black History Month.
But there’s more! In 2017, a group of us then-based at the University of Delaware began to revive Douglass Day. Each year, my group and I organize an international gathering of people who help to commemorate the life and legacies of Douglass by joining forces on a crowdsourcing project. We help transcribe digitized materials from different chapters of African American history and culture. This year we were pleased to partner with the Library of Congress to feature the extraordinary papers of Mary Church Terrell. And we look forward to many more years of celebrating Douglass Days on February 14. We hold Black History Month as a time to reflect on the past and to use the energy of those reflections towards a greater collective goal. Simple ceremonial events are not enough. We encourage everyone to use these moments of thinking about Black history as a space for action and progress.
What fascinates you about your book topic?
The Colored Conventions Movement: Black Organizing in the Nineteenth Century (UNC Press 2021) tells the remarkable story of a seven-decade long campaign for racial justice. It’s an important, under-appreciated chapter in this nation’s history. Long before the founding of the NAACP or the Civil Rights Movement, the Colored Conventions were a nationwide fight for Black civil rights.
The phrase “Colored Conventions” refers to approximately five hundred state and national meetings held by free and formerly enslaved African Americans to debate their collective struggles for civil rights, citizenship, and justice. The conventions began in the 1830s and continued until the end of the century. The Colored Conventions drew more than ten thousand Black men and women from nearly every part of the country. At the conventions, they discussed issues that echo today. Conventions made plans and coordinated efforts to secure their civil rights, voting rights, access to education, labor rights, and so much more. It’s a vast, inspiring, and resilient history.
What fascinates me most is how little we really know about such a vast history of early Black community organizing and political activism. Certainly, specialists in these areas of our nation’s histories knew quite a bit about parts of the history of the Colored Conventions. But we don’t see any of these histories show up in popular understandings, textbooks, and so on. We hope that this book and the accompanying websites might help that begin to change.
This book emerges out of an effort to change broader public understandings using the technologies of the web. In 2012, my colleague P. Gabrielle Foreman and I founded a group called the Colored Conventions Project (CCP). The CCP seeks to bring new life to the records and stories of the Colored Conventions by building websites that offer access to primary sources, exhibitions, and curriculum.
The Colored Conventions Movement is a way to share what we’ve learned in nearly a decade’s worth of research about early Black activism in the Colored Conventions. We crafted the book to show the diversity of topics, people, and events. Different chapters cover the topics debated at the conventions, including education, religion, labor, citizenship, women’s leadership, and the press.
And for readers in San Diego, we’re also delighted to share the work by Jean Pfaelzer and others on the history of the Colored Conventions in California. It’s a fascinating part of the Golden State’s history — equal parts alarming and courageous. Many people might not know that California had a long and complicated history of slavery and civil rights in the decade before the Civil War. Parts of those histories are covered in one of our exhibits on Equality Before the Law: California Black Convention Activism, 1855-65.
What do you remember most about your experience at UC San Diego?
There are a couple of memories that stand out for my time at UC San Diego. It’s hard not to be nostalgic about the area. I remember my freshman and sophomore dorms in Eleanor Roosevelt College overlooking the Pacific Ocean. That’s quite a way from my current home in snowy central Pennsylvania. I remember wandering out from campus to the beach and the Gliderport. I rode the Hillcrest bus for a few years, too.
When I started at UCSD, I had planned to pursue a degree in creative writing. I got to take some great classes with people like Eileen Myles and others. Along with discovering that probably wasn’t the path for me, I got fascinated by the study of early American literature and culture far beyond the traditional canon. Along with several faculty, some of the grad students at the time were instrumental in helping me see the value of studying U.S. culture of the 19th century as a period that (for better or worse) bears directly on our moment today. Living in San Diego also made clear the importance of seeing the crosscurrents of imperialism, racism, class and culture that have defined so much of this nation’s history.
UC San Diego celebrates 60 years this year – in your perspective, what can history teach us moving forward into the next 60?
A lot of the historical people who show up in my research often asked the same question. And for so many of the people at the Colored Conventions, to pose the question about what history might teach us meant also asking a second question: what should history push us to do? History is not just the set of tired stories we tell ourselves about what came before us. Histories are stories about futures that never came to pass. Knowing more about what went right and what went wrong in the past leaves us with a set of obligations today, with challenges to redeem the promises of a country that has long struggled to put practice to its founding principles. When we find the Colored Conventions debating in the 1800s on how best to make sure everyone can vote, can attend good schools, or get a fair trial in a court of law—we are reminded that there is a lot of work left to be done. And that’s especially true at a university like UCSD.