Monday, February 13, 2017

Colored Citizens of Elmira

by Erin Doane, curator

In 1844, the Colored Citizens of Elmira was formed. The organization was created to help promote social, economic, and political issues important to the African-American community. Groups such as this were being organized throughout the United States as early as the 1830s. Elmira was somewhat of a hotbed of abolition activity leading up to the Civil War. Both white and black citizens were involved in public movements to end slavery and in the more secret business of the Underground Railroad. John W. Jones, an escaped slave and Underground Railroad conductor, served as secretary of the Colored Citizens of Elmira in 1850. His duties with the organization included preparing and disseminating resolutions made by the group.

John W. Jones, c. 1850
Through these resolutions, the Colored Citizens presented their stance on political issues and declared how they intended to act in regard to those issues. In October 1850, the organization resolved:
That we, the colored citizens of Elmira, do hereby form ourselves into a society for the purpose of protecting ourselves against those persons, (slave-catchers) prowling through different parts of this and other States since the passing of that diabolical act of Sept. 18th, 1850 [the Fugitive Slave Act], which consigns freemen of other States to that awful state of brutality which the fiendish slaveholders of the Southern States think desirable for their colored brethren, but are not willing to try it themselves.
They also resolved to protest against and resist the Fugitive Slave Act “though every one of us be assassinated.” They declared that if they discovered anyone working with the slave-catchers, those people would be treated as enemies.

Jones was tasked with having these resolutions published in the village papers, the New York Tribune, the North Star, and the Impartial Citizen. The full text also appeared in the November 15, 1850 issue of the Boston Liberator.

The Colored Citizens were active for years, taking stands against many injustices. In 1854, they organized a petition to remove the requirement of African-Americans to have $250 in property in order to vote in New York State. The state finally removed the requirement in 1873.

In the 1890s, the group met several times to discuss the frequent occurrences of lynchings throughout the country. Rev. M.H. Ross, chairman of the organization, considered an 1893 meeting one “of grave importance, one that should concern every American on this broad land of ours; that should call forth expression from every lover of justice and liberty – the continual lynching and outrages that are being perpetrated on the colored people by lawless mobs, without just cause, only because they are negroes, is to us a subject that should concern all.”

Elmira Daily Gazette and Free Press, July 9, 1892
In 1916, the Colored Citizens issued a protest letter to Mayor Harry N. Hoffman regarding the scheduled showing of Birth of a Nation in Elmira. (You can read more about that incident here.)

When it came to politics, the Colored Citizens of Elmira openly endorsed or condemned candidates. In 1872, they passed a resolution strongly endorsing the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant who went on to easily win a second term. In November 1891, they had a notice published in the newspaper urging voters to remember how Mr. Fassett had defeated the civil rights bill in 1890. The Lodge Bill or Federal Elections Bill, as it was called, would have authorized the federal government to ensure that elections were fair by enforcing the ability of African-Americans to vote in the south. J. Sloat Fassett of Elmira who was running for governor in 1891 had apparently been against the bill.

The Colored Citizens also organized community events to celebrate significant occasions such as the ratification of the 15th Amendment in 1870 which prohibited the government from denying a citizen the right to vote based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude. They also held events to commemorate the anniversaries of the Emancipation of the Slaves in the British West Islands and the passing of the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 that ended slavery in the British Empire. Highlights of these events were speeches by renowned orators. Hiram Rhodes Revels of Mississippi, the first African-American to serve in the United States Congress, spoke at an 1870 event in Elmira. Frederick Douglass spoke at Colored Citizens-sponsored events here at least twice, at a civil rights celebration on July 17, 1873 and at another event on August 3, 1880.
Frederick Douglass, c. 1870s
I had some difficulty in tracking the activities of the Colored Citizens of Elmira after the early 20th century. The name of the organization appeared in newspapers in the 1920s and later but was never capitalized. Because of this, I am not sure whether the articles were referring to an official organization or rather the community in general. An April 26, 1928 article in the Star-Gazette reported that “Colored citizens of Elmira are planning a concerted movement which it is hoped will bring them more recognition in civic and intellectual affairs. … It is proposed to form an organization which will take an active part in the advancement of the colored race.” To me, this indicates that the Colored Citizens of Elmira as an organized group had dissolved at some point. The organization, however, did appear to have an active history for some 70 years.

No comments:

Post a Comment