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.
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:
W. Jones, c. 1850|
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 property requirements were rendered unconstitutional by the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870.
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.”
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.)
|Elmira Daily Gazette and Free Press, July
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.
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