Part Two

The Organized Educational Activities of
Negro Literary Societies, 1828-1846


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There was provided for the members a series of lectures on literary and historical subjects, which took place twice a week. The services of the outstanding men in the fields of science and literature were secured for these lectures, An admission fee was charged. The programs were arranged by a Board of Associates. The chairman of this board was Phillip A. Bell and the secretary was Thomas Jennings, Jr. The society had the following officers: Ransome F. Wake, Prefect; George W. Moore, Scribe; William Garribrance, Treasurer; James Fields, Librarian; Timothy Seamon, Recorder; Henry Williams, Curator.

The society which exerted the widest influence and which had the largest membership was the Phoenix Society, organized in New York City in 1833.44 The Negroes in New York City had been spiritually and educationally helped by the ministers and by the establishment of Sabbath and day schools; but the Negro population which numbered about 20,000 was excluded from "instruction in its popular and inviting forms." A pamphlet containing the history and describing the animals in the Zoological Institute in New York City was distributed in 1834. This pamphlet included the following statement: "the proprietors wish it to be understood that the people of color are not permitted to enter except when in attendance upon children and families. "45 The colored people felt that until they were able to attend public meetings and places of interest that they should provide a building and appropriate means for self-improvement.

The above type of prejudice toward the Negro was one of the causes for the organization of the Phoenix Society. It was composed chiefly of young colored men, but it had some white members who gave whatever assistance they could. The society was "designed to be the soul of the entire population and their friends in the city." Its primary object was "to promote the improvement of the coloured people in morals, literature, and the mechanical arts." All persons who wished to promote the objects of the society and who were of good "moral character" could become members by paying one dollar joining fee and twenty-five cents quarterly. The applicants had to be accepted, however, by the board of directors. Many prominent men, white and colored were officers of the society. Some of these persons were also members and officers of the various anti-slavery societies. The constitution and by-laws, published in

Arthur Tappan, The Life of Arthur Tappan. New York: Hurd and Houghton, 1870, p. 158.

45 Emancipator, op. cit., v. 1 (new series) March 9, 1837.

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1835 listed the officers at that time: Rev. Christopher Rush, President; Rev. Theodore S. Wright, 1st VicePresident; Thomas L. Jennings, 2nd VicePresident; Rev. Peter Williams, Corresponding Secretary; and Arthur Tappan, Treasurer. David Ruggles, William Hamilton, Charles B. Ray, Dr. John Brown and Samuel E. Cornish were on the Board of Directors.

The Phoenix Society attempted large projects which involved many duties for its members. It wished to exploit all possibilities of the situation it had set out to alleviate. One cannot but admire the forthrightness that launched such a program as the following: First of all an attempt to raise $10,000 for the purpose of erecting a public edifice to be appropriated to the use of a library, reading room, museum or exhibition room, hall, etc., where colored youth and others might enjoy the benefit of such courses of lectures and other instruction on morals. literature and the mechanic arts, as are enjoyed by the white community.46 The Ward Societies were inaugurated whose functions laid a considerable obligation upon every member. Members of the Ward Societies were to visit the various families within the Ward vicinity and make a registry of every colored person, ascertaining his age, sex, occupation and his ability to read or write. They were to induce the old and young to become members of the society. Adults were to be urged to attend school and were to be impressed with the importance of sending their children to school regularly and punctually. Furthermore, each Ward group was organized to maintain a circulating library for the use of the people of color at a moderate fee, to organize lyceums to serve the advantages of public speaking and to promote lectures on science. Finally and characteristically, they were to form moral reform societies and to seek young men of "good moral character" as members whom they could expect to assist ultimately in getting a good liberal education. The Ward Societies served a further general interest by reporting to the board all members who were skilled and capable of conducting trades, by procuring places at trades with respectable farmers for them, and by giving preference in employment to those who could "read and cipher." In addition they encouraged people of color, whenever they could to improve their minds and to abstain from every vicious and demoralizing practice.47

The rapid growth of the Phoenix Society made it necessary to abandon the first rented rooms and to hire a hall in which to hold meetings. A course of lectures was given by several clergymen of the city on morals, scientific, and historical subjects. An evening school for adults was started with both white and colored teachers. A high school for colored youth was begun and continued for two years or more.48

Samuel E. Cornish, at one time librarian of the society, made strenuous attempts to build up the library. He sent the following letter which was printed in the Colonizationist and Journal of Freedom for February 1834.49


Constitution and By-Laws of the Phoenix Society of New York. New York: H. R. Piercy, 1835, p. 5.

47 Ibid., p. 6.

48 Tappan, op. cit., p. 162.

49 Colonizationist and Journal of Freedom. Boston: George W. Light, February, 1834, p. 307.

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Messrs. Editors: Aware that you take lively interest in the subject of the improvement and elevation of our colored population, I am free to address you in behalf of a library and Reading Room lately opened by the executive committee of the Phoenix Society, for their benefit.

The institution is located in spacious rooms, second story of the northwest corner of Canal and Mercer Streets. Connected with it is a classic school of ten or twelve promising youths. Much good it is hoped, will result from the successful prosecution of the purposes of this establishment. The establishment of schools, of libraries, of reading rooms, and the delivery of public lectures for our benefit, I trust will be seed sown in good ground.

Some among us are poor, and ignorant, and vicious, because we have been neglected. The time has come, in which we sincerely hope our community will not stop to find fault with our oppressed people, but turn their attention to their education and to the improvement of their condition. Permit me, therefore, through your useful paper, to solicit donations from the favored citizens of New York, in books, maps, papers, money, etc. for the benefit of our feeble institution. And I beg the benevolent ladies of our city, who are first in every good work not to forget us. We shall thankfully receive from them any volumes which they may have read and laid by, or any useful papers they can dispense with. We hope to be the objects of some of the ten thousand acts of daily benevolence; and we will promise, in return to bestow on our benefactors the blessings of thousands ready to perish.

The objects of the institution are general improvement and the training of our youth to habits of reading and reflection.

I need not tell you for the want of such institutions many of the young and unthinking part of our colored citizens are led by those older than themselves to haunts of wickedness and vice. Many young men, yea' and old ones too, spend their evenings in improper places, because they have no public libraries, no reading rooms, nor useful lectures, to attract attention, and occupy their leisure hours. We hope to save such from ruin, and lead them to habits of virtue and, usefulness.

The plans of operation for the present will be as follows: 1st--The rooms will be opened Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays 4-9 P.M. 2nd--There will be a 4, a 6, and an 8 o'clock class of readers. These classes may consist of 25 or 30 or more, each class having selected its course of reading and appointed the readers, whose duty it shall be to read for one hour. All the classes shall note prominent parts, and then retire into the adjacent room to converse on the subjects, together with occurrences of the day, calculated to cultivate the mind and improve the heart. 3dly--We propose to have a course of lectures delivered on morals, economy, and the arts and sciences generally under such arrangements as shall benefit all the classes. 4thly--The Constitution of the Temperance and Moral Societies will be kept at the library and all the readers earnestly solicited to enlist in those causes.

In conclusion, I am happy to state, that the institution will be under the immediate direction of the executive committee of the society of which the committee, the Rev. Messrs. Peter Williams of the Episcopal, Christopher Rush, of the Methodist, and Theodore S. Wright, of the Presbyterian churches are members.

Will you do something for us? Will you urge the call of humanity and religion in our behalf ?

As agent of the Society, I shall call on the wise and the good of our community--those who are blessed with all the privileges of enlightened civilization and religion, to bestow some of the blessings on the neglected and oppressed, by donating in maps, books and journals--and I pledge myself in the name of the society, and as present Librarian, to make the best use of all gifts we may receive.

Permit me to subscribe myself,
Respectfully yours,

Samuel E. Cornish.

Dec. 7, 1833.

As a result of the above notice a number of donations was acknowledged in a letter to the Emancipator by Samuel E. Cornish, January 31, 1834.50

The first annual report of the Board

50 The Emancipator, v. 2, No. 5, February, 1834.

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of Directors of the Phoenix Society shows that the general operations of the Board were confined principally to the "organization of Ward Societies, the institution of historical and scientific lectures, the establishment of reading rooms and libraries and the formation of temperance societies which existed in great numbers." The report indicates that through the organization of the Phoenix Society there was "produced a more intimate and extensive union, and a more anxious concern for the general improvement among the young people of every denomination than had existed at any former period in the city." More public spirit was exhibited and many contributions were made to objects of public utility. The cause of temperance was greatly advanced. Expensive entertainments were less frequent and a desire to acquire useful knowledge was increased. Throughout the year the scientific lectures had brought together four or five hundred persons. In the report much credit was given to Samuel E. Cornish for his services in arranging the lectures, in planning and establishing the library and reading rooms and for promoting the interests of the society generally.51

The New York Garrison Literary Association sometimes called the New York Garrison Literary and Benevolent Society seems to be the only institution of its kind, in that it was maintained primarily for the colored youth. Anybody of "good moral character" between the ages of "four and twenty by subscribing to the constitution and by paying 121/2 cents admission and 1cent per week could become a member." The society was formed early in 1834, and its members were primarily interested in religion, virtue, literature, the downfall of prejudice, and slavery and oppression in any form. They desired that the organization would be a means of spreading "useful knowledge." Probably because of the large size of the organization, it had many officers, a board of managers, an executive Committee, a visiting committee and other assistants for managing it. These officers were elected annually. John W. Lewis was President; Henry Garnett, Secretary, and Prince Loveridge, Librarian. David Ruggles was a member of the executive Committee in the year 1834.52

Education and liberty formed the main topics for discussion at their meetings which were devoted to singing, praying, and the reading of original compositions. The meetings were attended by over one hundred and fifty children and were at first held in the Public school rooms in Laurens Street. P. Loveridge, a teacher in the public school, stated at one of the early meetings held in April 1834, that one of the trustees of the school objected to the use of the name of Garrison for the society and suggested that it be changed to Finley. The young men insisted, however, on retaining the name of Garrison. At a meeting on the night of April 19, 1834, David Ruggles, who had been appointed to find a new place in which to hold meetings, reported that he had received a letter from Phillip A. Bell, Chairman of the Board of Associates of the Philomathean Society, permitting them to use the Philomathean Hall for one year. At this

51 Ibid., v. 2, May 20, 1834.

52 Ibid., April, 1834.

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same meeting it was resolved that the anti-slavery hymn book should be adopted for the use of the society and that each member should be supplied with a copy of it.53

There existed in New York as in other cities a female literary society. Abigail M. Mathews was one of the founders of the New York Female Literary Society54 and Henrietta D. Ray, the wife of Charles B. Ray, was the president.55 The Ladies Literary Society of the City of New York, as it was styled, was started in 1834, At its third anniversary held September 23, 1837, a very lengthy and elaborate program was held. In order to render financial aid to the Colored American, a new newspaper, and the New York Vigilance Committee, the society held fairs.56 Thus its purpose was extended beyond the literary and educational aim to the larger social objectives.


Maria Steward, probably the earliest Negro woman lecturer and writer and one who has been neglected by historians and bibliographers, delivered an address in the year 1832 before the Afric-American Female Intelligence Society. Although at the time, not having attained the age of thirty years, she had won a place for herself among the Negro speakers of the day. Primarily interested in religion and morals, Maria Steward did not, however neglect to urge her listeners to cultivate their minds. It was with great sincerity that she urged her audience of female listeners to improve their natural talents, to show the powers of their minds and to prove to the world "that though black your skins as spades of night, your hearts are pure, your souls are white."57 This society, which Maria Steward addressed in 1832, was organized by a group of Negro women who believing themselves "actuated by a national feeling for the welfare of our friends thought it fit to associate for the diffusion of knowledge, the suppression of vice and immorality, and for cherishing such virtues as would render them happy and useful to society."58 The constitution of the society tells us that the money collected from dues and the joining fee of the society were used for the purchase of books, room rent and contingent expenses.

Meetings were held monthly and candidates for membership had to be of "good character" and were elected to membership by a majority vote. The society had a beneficial purpose in that sick members of one year standing were given one dollar a week as long as it was "consistent with the means of the institution."59 It seems to be true that the women took the lead in the organization of literary societies in Boston.

The Boston Philomathean Society, probably patterned after the New York organization of the same name, was formed in 1836. It had for its object the promotion of literature in general and the establishment of a library. The founders felt that a library was indispensable for the furtherance of

Ibid., May 27, 1834.

54 Ibid., v. 1, June 9, 1836 (new series), p. 23.

55 Ibid., v. 1, Nov. 24, 1936 (new series) P. 119.

56 "Colored American, op. cit., v. 2, No. 1, Jan. 20, 1838, p. 7.

57 Liberator. Boston: Garrison and Knapp, 1832. V. 2, No. 17, April 28,1832, p. 66.

58 Ibid., p. 66.

59 Ibid., v. 6, p. 50.

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their plans. They, therefore, attempted to purchase a library and "apparatus" with their funds. Appeals were made by the group to the public for donations of books, maps and documents of any kind. These were to be left at the various anti-slavery rooms. An appeal for such material was sent to the newspapers by William S. Jinnings and printed in them. Regular monthly meetings were held at Centre Street Chapel on Monday evenings at 7:30 o'clock.60

On December 11, 1836, another group of colored persons decided to organize a society for literary and scientific improvement. They met in the South School room for their initial meeting. Joel R. Lewis was appointed chairman and Thomas Jinnings, secretary. A committee of five was selected to make a report at the next meeting. The second meeting was held on December 19th and the committee reported with a short address, a preamble, and resolutions for organizing. These were accepted. As a result, the group was formed into a society for the promotion of literature and science. The preamble was as follows.

We, the undersigned, impressed with the high importance of mental improvement and progressive usefulness, in obtaining knowledge of moral science and literature and believing that an active interest in these subjects among our community would be highly conducive to this subject, have associated ourselves together for the promotion of the same...61

Article 1 of the constitution gives the name of the society as the Adelphic Union for the Promotion of Literature and Science. Article 5 states that the objects of the society "shall be promoted by appropriate exercises consisting of lectures, the use of philosophical, chemical, and, astronomical apparatus, together with the use of the library and such other apparatus as shall be deemed expedient." The following officers were elected: Joel W. Lewis, President; Benjamin P. Bassett, Vice-President; Thomas Jinnings, Secretary; George Washington, Treasurer; William S. Jinnings, Librarian; and the following Curators: W. Lewis, John J. Fatal and Christopher Weeden.62 The society rented a hall in the central part of the city away from the colored settlement.63 This enabled many white persons to attend and to participate in the programs. It also opened the way for the attendance of colored persons at white lectures.

In the columns of the Liberator, a notice of a long series of weekly scientific and moral lectures was printed. They were on many different subjects, namely electricity, anatomy, longevity of the human race, the condition of the United States, the causes of consumption, Indian wars, properties of the atmosphere, fallacy of phrenology, education, poetry, Athens, duties of an American citizen, the life and times of John Hampden, etc. These lectures were given by some of the ablest men in the country, colored and white. Among the lecturers were Howard Mann, James McCune Smith, Wendell Phillips, Henry B. Stanton, Theodore Parker, William Lloyd Garrison, Charles Sumner, James D. Green, Dr. Bowditch, and Dr. Wiley. Many of these lectures were illustrated with various apparati, charts and maps. An admission fee was charged

60 Ibid ., p. 91.

61 Ibid., v. 7, January 2, 1837, p. 3.

62 Ibid.

63 Nell, op. cit., p. 113.

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and the meetings were widely advertised, continuing for over ten years.64 They were well attended considering that there was competition with the other groups for audiences, and in the latter years of the existence of the Adelphic Union there was competition for members and audiences with the Young Men's Literary Society which seems to have been organized in 1845.

The Young Men's Literary Society was composed of the most promising young men of the City of Boston. Their object was "to improve their minds, strengthen their intellectual faculties and cultivate a refined literary taste."65 This society instituted a series of lectures and secured prominent men as lecturers. The members of both of these societies gave from time to time entertainments for the public in which the members took part . These for the most part were dramatic sketches.66

This type of performance aided Negroes to adjust themselves to the use of self-educational facilities and to show the white persons their desire for self-improvement. Lapses in the activities of the Boston societies seem to have occurred during the summer months when meetings were not held.

Since the Liberator was published in Boston, the colored people there had a mouthpiece and one which they used frequently. Through its columns they were able to make comments on their opposition to colonization, the passing events of the times, the reports of their meetings and to publish literary essays and poetic compositions. Many of these published writings appeared anonymously, as has been stated previously.


In the middle West and border cities literary societies were not found to exist in as large numbers among Negroes as they did in the Eastern cities. The number of free Negroes in the middle West was much smaller than in the East. Settlements of both white and colored persons, particularly in Ohio were comparatively new in 1828. Many of the counties in Ohio were not formed until after 1800.67 This territory was known as the New West, and as late as 1830 it was still regarded as part of the frontier.

Ohio Societies

From the moment the Negro began to settle in Ohio efforts were made to better his moral and educational status. Between the years 1830 and 1835 educational advantages for the Negroes were made possible largely through the efforts of Mr. Augustus Wattles, a native of Connecticut, who had done much to encourage and enable the Negroes scattered over the state to obtain permanent homes and education. 68 In 1830 there were only 9,586 Negroes in Ohio. 69 In Cincinnati, between the years 1833 and 1836 there were 1,500 free Negroes for whom there were provided six instructors, who were employed "in teaching school, organizing associations and in numerous ways promoting their intel-

64 See issues of theLiberator for 1837-1847.

65 Liberator, v. 15, April 25, 1845. p. 67.

66 Ibid., v. 15, April 11, 1845, p. 59.

67 See Henry Howe, Historical Collections of Ohio. Columbus: H. Howe and Son, 1890-1891.

68 Ibid., p. 356.

69 U.S. Bureau of the Census, Negro Population 1790-1915. Washington, D.C., Govt. Printing Office, 1918, p. 57.

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lectual, moral and religious improvement."70 The colored people themselves in this city formed in 1837 the School Fund Institute of Ohio which aided in the education of the Negroes.71

The printed reports on the education of the colored people throughout the State of Ohio indicate that definite steps were taken to provide educational facilities for the Negroes living in Ohio before 1843 but they do not show any indications of the establishment of any number of literary societies on the part of the colored people for self-improvement, in spite of the fact that in one of the reports there is stated that there were forty-five colonies of settlements of free colored people in Ohio with the smallest settlement containing about fifty people and the largest from three to five thousand persons.72 These colored people were busy attempting to earn a livelihood and protecting themselves against shrewd persons who did not want them in their midst, and who exploited them on every possible occasion.

The reports of the Ohio Ladies Education Society which probably did more towards the establishment of schools for the education of colored people at this time in Ohio than any other organized group, give valuable information concerning the population, wealth, occupations and internal conditions of the various settlements. Much can be learned concerning their schools and teachers from these reports.73 The colored people in this section lacked the leisure time which their Eastern brothers had. They held conventions in place of literary meetings to discuss and to draw up resolutions to petition the Ohio legislature for the repeal of the laws that deprived them of "those rights which pertain to citizenship." They could not participate in the rights of "free and public school education," although they were taxed for public school purposes and their children were not permitted to attend these schools.74 With such conditions to combat it can be seen readily why literary societies did not flourish in Ohio.

There are references, however, which indicate that there was not an entire lack of the cultural impulse among this group. At a meeting of the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society in 1835 a report was made stating that there existed in Cincinnati a lyceum where lectures on scientific and literary subjects were delivered twice a week to an audience of from 150 to 300 persons, and that a library of 100 volumes had been collected. The books had been used very little, however, because the people for the most part were unable to read.75

It was reported, also, that by 1843 among the benevolent and temperance societies there existed in Cincinnati a literary society with forty members and in Columbus, Ohio, there was a literary society of twenty-five members.76 There is further indication that

70 Philanthropist, New Richmond, Ohio. V. 1, No. 7. Feb. 12, 1836.

71 Ibid., v. 2.

72 Philanthropist, Cincinnati, Ohio (new series), v. 6, No. 49, June 22, 1842.

73 Ibid. (new series), op. cit., v. 6, no. 50, June 28, 1842.

74 Ibid., v. 5, No. 15, July 14, 1840.

75 Proceedings of the Ohio Anti-Slavery Convention. (Held at Putnam on the 22nd, 23rd, and 24th of April, 1835.) Beaumont and Wallace 1835, p. 21.

76 Minutes of the National Convention of the Colored Citizens. (Held at Buffalo, on the 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th of August, 1843, for the purpose of Considering their Moral and Political Condition as American Citizens.) New York: Piercy and Reed, 1843, p. 37.

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there was not a lack of literary culture in the middle West. In Lafayette, Indiana, there was held on April 21, 1843, a Coloured People's Convention for the purpose of "moral and educational improvement." A circular was printed and distributed urging the colored people to attend a convention to be held at Indianapolis on the 4th of September for "mental culture and moral improvement."77 Farther West, in the city of Detroit in 1846, there was "among other societies a Young Men's Lyceum and Debating Society."78

Societies in Pittsburgh

In Pittsburgh, a group which called itself the Theban Literary Society was organized in 1831, at the instigation of a Rev. Louis Woodson of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and a young student who while studying together decided that there were other young men in the city who might have literary tastes similar to theirs and who would like to be associated for "mutual enjoyment."79 In the same city, in 1837, there was formed a Young Men's Literary and Moral Reform Society of the City of Pittsburgh and Vicinity. This group was an auxiliary organization to the American Moral Reform Society. Its objects were the same as those of the other literary societies. Any young man between the ages of 18 and 35 years and of "known moral habits and respectability and ability to pay a monthly fee of 12 1/2 cents" could become a member. Monthly meetings were held and an annual meeting took place in May of each year. There were seventeen persons present at the first meeting of the group. Martin R. Delany was elected librarian.80 Statistics indicate that there were in existence in 1837 two debating societies in Pittsburgh.81 No record has been found of their activities.

Societies in Baltimore and Washington, D. C.

The records of the literary societies which existed in the border cities of Baltimore and Washington, D. C., are very fragmentary and very little information is available concerning them. There were living in Baltimore in 1830 about 20,000 free Negroes. There were many benevolent and temperance societies among them at this time. They were said to have had as many as 1,500 members. It seems that among this number there must have been some literary societies comparable to those in other cities. There is a record of the existence of a Young Men's Mental Improvement Society for the Discussion of Moral and Philosophical Questions of all Kinds.81a There existed also a Phoenix Society in 1835, but no report of its progress or its activities could be found.82

77 Philanthropist. Cincinnati, Vol. 49, No. 49, August 16, 1843.

78 American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Reporter. New York: The Society, Vol. 2, Feb. 1846, p. 103.

79 Frank A. Rollin, Life and Public Services of Martin R. Delany. Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1883, p. 39.

80 Colored American, v. 1, no. 35, Sept. 2, 1837.

81 The Minutes and Proceedings of the First Annual Meeting of the American Moral Reform Society held at Philadelphia, p. 17.

81a "The Condition of the Coloured Population of the City of Baltimore." In the Baltimore Literary and Religious Magazine. V. 4, April, 1838, p. 174.

82 Minutes of the Fifth Annual Convention for the Improvement of the Free People of Colour in the United States. (Held by Adjournments in the Wesley Church, Philadelphia, from the first to the fifth of June inclusive, 1835.) Philadelphia: Wm. P. Gibbons, 1835, p. 6.

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In Washington, D.C., on May 28, 1834, there was held a meeting of the free people of color at the rooms of the Franklin Moral and Literary Society, (probably an organization of white persons) for the purpose of forming an auxiliary society to the American Convention of the People of Color and of sending delegates to the convention which was to be held in New York City during the month of June. John Francis Cook was made chairman of the organization and Augustus Price, secretary. A committee was appointed which selected the following officers for the society--Frances Datcher, President; David Carroll, Vice-President, John F. Cook, Secretary; and Arthur Waring, Treasurer. In the preamble of the Constitution the name of the organization is given as the Washington Conventional Society to the American Convention of the People of Color. Delegates were to be sent to the annual meetings of the American Convention of the People of Color and aid was to be given in "uniting and improving the people of color here in morals, literature, industry, etc. by the dissemination of information in matters connected with the amelioration of our condition."83 The Washington Conventional Society was not organized primarily for literary or educational purposes, but it did include on its program the educational and literary progress of the colored people. Mention of this society is included herefor this reason and to indicate that the free Negroes of Washington were actively engaged in such pursuits. In the first annual report of the America Moral Reform Society mention is made of the existence of one literary and one debating society in the District of Columbia. The District of Columbia had its churches, day schools, moral reform, temperance, and benvolent societies and some unheralded literary societies in its colored population of 6,200 in 1837.84 The cities of Baltimore and Washington being located within the slave area were not favorable for the development of literary pursuits among colored people. Economic issues and questions of actual survival or continuance as free men and women were more pressing than in sections farther North and East. Experience demanded that attention should be devoted to organization around these issues.


The efforts of these literary societies deserve recognition and praise for they not only actually helped to disseminate knowledge among a people for the most part poorly educated, but they taught the Negro how to use his leisure time to advantage. The lecturers who addressed these societies chose not only literary topics, but also scientific and educational ones. These lectures were said to be stimulating to the hearers. They prompted many Negroes who could read to read further, and those who were unable to read to learn to read. Many of these addresses were printed and widely circulated throughout several states. Some of them have been preserved and handed down to

83 The Emancipator, v. 2, June 17, 1834.

84 The Minutes and Proceedings of the First Annual Meeting of the American Moral Reform Society, p. 17.

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us as rare items in the book-collecting field. The lecture platform of these societies was the workshop and the preparatory school for many of the Negro anti-slavery lecturers who later won fame in America and England as public speakers.

As a result of the activities of these societies many Negroes started private libraries. In Philadelphia and nearby cities there were 8,333 volumes in private libraries in 1838.85 David Ruggles, a Negro printer and abolitionist, was probably the earliest Negro book-collector. He maintained a circulating library and made available to many readers anti-slavery and colonization publications. He charged a fee which was less than twenty-five cents a month for the renting of books for the year. He sold books and printed at frequent intervals in the various newspapers lists of books relating to the Negro and to slavery.86 In this same connection, The Colored American, a Negro newspaper first published in 1837, maintained a reading room.87

With a few exceptions these societies had to struggle to continue their activities. The existence of several societies in one city caused competition for membership. Several of the leaders of the Philadelphia societies felt that the various societies should merge into one large organization which would include men and women of all ages, regardless of their learning. A plan for such an organization was drawn up by Mr. James Needham which proposed "to have lectures by competent persons at stated intervals, to encourage men of color to become professors in particular branches of science, to establish a library, collect a cabinet of minerals and procure philosophical apparatus as soon as its permanent organization might allow of so doing."88 No evidence has been found to indicate that this society was ever organized.

The various anti-slavery organizations weakened the strength of the literary and debating societies in that they called constantly on the members of the literary societies to furnish audiences for their lectures and some of the leaders in these societies were pressed into service as speakers and workers for the emancipation programs. In many instances members of the literary societies were officers and members of the anti-slavery societies. William Whipper, Samuel E. Cornish, James C. Bowers, Robert and Harriet Purvis, Sarah Douglass and numerous others listed above were members and officers of the literary and also the anti-slavery organizations.89

For the most part, these societies were short-lived. Some existed actively for ten or twelve years, others died an early death. As is still true of many organizations, the members became lax in their membership and in the payment of their assessments. Some years later, after the particular societies mentioned in this article had served their purposes and passed out of existence, other organizations with similar purposes were set up, and in turn existed for brief periods. Many of

85 Robert Purvis, Appeal of Forty Thousand Citizens, Threatened with Disfranchisement, to the People of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia: Merrihew and Gunn, 1838, p. 11.

86 See advertisement column of the Emancipator, Vol. 4, No. 22, May 31, 1834, p. 87.

87 Colored American, v. 2, No. 5, Feb. 10, 1838, p. 18.

88 Wilson, op. cit., p. 112.

89 See the Reports of the American Anti-Slavery Societies 1835-1845.

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these were influenced by the anti-slavery struggle and were in the main anti-slavery societies until around 1857 when they took on a more definite literary aspect.

These organizations are indications of the activity of self-educative influences in Negro life. They worked from within the group and showed their results not only in organized action but also in trained individuals who joined hands with the white leadership in other religious and philanthropic societies working for the improvement of Negro life. The story of the development of Negro education in its broader implications would be incomplete without some reference to these endeavors of the Negro literary societies. They were frequently the background for the organization of the Negro school. They were the supporters of the educative life among Negroes in a day when there were few formal instruments of education in existence for their use.

[end of part two]

Source: Porter, Dorothy B. “The Organized Educational Activities of Negro Literary Societies, 1828-1846,” The Journal of Negro Education, vol. V, no. 4, Oct. 1936, pp. 555-576.

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(May 25, 1905 - December 17, 1995)

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