1864: Influential African American Leaders Gather At Syracuse Convention

Bridge Street

In 1864, Syracuse played host to some of the most influential African American leaders from across the United States. 

In October of that year, the National Convention of Colored Men was held at Wesleyan Methodist Church on East Onondaga Street (now Luna Loca restaurant) and the long-gone Weiting Opera House, which stood in Clinton Square. 

“Syracuse in the 1860s and through much of the 19th century was a center of a form” says Robert J. Searing, Curator of History with the Onondaga Historical Association.  “Progressive movements were here. Women rights conventions were here. Political conventions of all sorts. It’s the central city. It was easy to get to, and it was located in a population center, and you had a lot of people here that were fighting for rights.” 

Said to be the largest and most significant gathering of its kind up to that point in history, about 150 leaders from seventeen states and the District of Columbia attended.  Some were well-known, including Frederick Douglass, H.H. Garnett (the first Black Man to preach in the U.S. Capitol), J. Mercer Langston (a future Congressman) and John Rock, the first Black man to be admitted to argue in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. 

“It’s sort of wild to think about how significant the event was and the time it’s taking place” adds Searing.   “Abraham Lincoln is up for reelection.  A lot of American citizens or war weary.  The Emancipation Proclamation has been put out there, so abolition and the actual end of slavery is on the horizon for millions of African Americans both living as free men in the north and millions that are still enslaved in the South.” 

While the 1864 National Convention of Colored Men is long remembered for its importance in history, Searing says some delegates faced some problems. 

“Even while they were here discussing equality and citizenship, they were being harassed and they were victims of racial violence while they were here in Syracuse. I mean, you gotta admit, there’s a revolutionary time in the United States after three years of war. At the end of slavery, after hundreds of years of it being here. I mean, this is where these were incredibly heady times for everybody involved. Both the public participants and obviously the delegates that had been selected to come here to Syracuse.” 

Click here to learn more about the Onondaga Historical Association or stop by their museum located on Montgomery Street in Syracuse. 

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