Address of a Convention of Negroes Held in Alexandria, VA Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Many Southern slaves had been freed through one of the Confiscation Acts or the Emancipation Proclamation. This proclamation initially only affected slaves in the states in rebellion, but was later amended to extend to the entire nation. Many African Americans attempted to join the Union Army prior to the Emancipation Proclamation, but were denied enlistment. In addition to declaring free the slaves of the rebel states, the Emancipation Proclamation granted African Americans permission to join the United States Army to fight on the behalf of the Union. Many African Americans enlisted and fought alongside white Union soldiers. Despite this demonstration of loyalty, African Americans continued to be regarded as second-class citizens after being declared free. Their options were limited, and many were forced to live in squalid conditions. This address outlines the apparent hypocrisy of the decision to allow African Americans the right to enlist in the Army, while denying them basic rights enjoyed by whites. The Thirteenth Amendment was approved by the House of Representatives and the Senate prior to this address, but had yet to be ratified by every state.

Summary Overview

Many Southern slaves had been freed through one of the Confiscation Acts or the Emancipation Proclamation. This proclamation initially only affected slaves in the states in rebellion, but was later amended to extend to the entire nation. Many African Americans attempted to join the Union Army prior to the Emancipation Proclamation, but were denied enlistment. In addition to declaring free the slaves of the rebel states, the Emancipation Proclamation granted African Americans permission to join the United States Army to fight on the behalf of the Union. Many African Americans enlisted and fought alongside white Union soldiers. Despite this demonstration of loyalty, African Americans continued to be regarded as second-class citizens after being declared free. Their options were limited, and many were forced to live in squalid conditions. This address outlines the apparent hypocrisy of the decision to allow African Americans the right to enlist in the Army, while denying them basic rights enjoyed by whites. The Thirteenth Amendment was approved by the House of Representatives and the Senate prior to this address, but had yet to be ratified by every state.

Defining Moment

The address illustrates the conditions endured by African Americans following the Emancipation Proclamation and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment by the House of Representatives and Congress. American citizens and members of Congress of the United States are the intended audience. It calls for action to address the fears and social and economic hardships faced by recently freed African Americans. It is acknowledged that they were effectively freed from slavery, however little else has changed. They still must live among the former slave owners of the South, believed to continue to embrace their racist beliefs. This address suggests that despite the constitutional amendment guaranteeing their freedom, African Americans believed that without greater protection and equal rights they could never truly be free. It highlights the lack of entitlement to protection of African Americans through laws because they did not possess citizen status. They feared revocation of their freedom, either through government intervention, or violent action taken by former participants of the rebellion. Some states had not yet ratified the Thirteenth Amendment, creating a sense of uncertainty. These sentiments, shared by many recently freed African Americans, were later addressed by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Constitutional Amendments. The Fourteenth Amendment declares all individuals who are born in the United States citizens, regardless of race, thus offering the same protection by laws that white citizens had enjoyed exclusively. The Fifteenth Amendment granted all citizens, including African Americans the right to vote. Although this address did not directly contribute to the passage of these Constitutional Amendments, it clearly demonstrated the need for action beyond abolition, in order to protect African Americans. This address illustrates a government unable to pass legislation fast enough to keep up with a chaotic period of transition and rapid social change from the perspective of African Americans who were directly affected.

Author Biography

The names of the authors of this address are unknown. They were members of a convention of African American citizens of Virginia, who had previously been owned as slave laborers. These individuals, although anonymous, brought to the attention of citizens and Congress the difficulties recently freed African Americans were facing. They also effectively pointed out the hypocrisy of legislative actions that granted African Americans permission to enlist in the Army, while denying them the basic rights of citizenship.

Document Analysis

This address is an appeal to Congress and citizens of the United States, urging them to recognize the limitations of abolition in the absence of protection, as well as the value of African Americans to the nation. It reminds them of their participation in the war, fighting the rebels on behalf of the Union, and calls Congress and citizens out on their selective views of equality. Conditions are described as only slightly improved from when African Americans were enslaved. A climate of hostility toward former slaves remained, and African Americans were relegated to less than desirable living conditions.

This address was intended to persuade Congress and citizens of the United States to consider taking action to protect recently freed African Americans. It outlined the harsh realities of life as a former slave, while portraying African Americans as patriots, humbly seeking a peaceful solution. Southern states passed laws which echoed many of the restrictions of slavery, called the Black Codes. The address describes the Black Codes as “all sorts of ‘unfriendly legislation,’ to render the freedom you have given us more intolerable than the slavery they intended for us.” The Black Codes did, indeed, seek to maintain white supremacy and perpetuate the economy enjoyed by whites in the South prior to abolition.

The participation of African Americans in the war as part of the Union Army is cited as a demonstration of loyalty, and compared to the actions of the South, described in the address as “wayward sisters” whose “rights they abandoned and forfeited when they rebelled.”

Fear for the safety of African Americans is expressed, primarily at the hands of Southern whites who still embrace the rebel cause. Safety of African Americans, the address asserts, cannot be guaranteed unless they are granted citizenship. The appeal goes on to challenge the popular belief among whites that African Americans are ignorant. The address demonstrates that this belief is invalid, illustrating a clear understanding of the hypocrisy evident in restoration efforts that favor the disloyal South to the detriment of the African Americans who remain patriotic in spite of the nation's failure to grant citizenship. The address argues in favor of voting rights for African Americans, defending their knowledge and awareness of circumstances, as well as their ability to judge character. A situation in which African Americans contributed to a poll in the North is cited to this end.

In addition to prompting the audience to recall the rebellion of the South for the Confederate cause, the authors describe the maltreatment African Americans continue to endure from former rebels. The rebels are portrayed as untrustworthy and dangerous as long as there are no laws that protect African Americans.

The address could be considered ahead of its time, as it calls for legislation that would come to fruition many years later.

Essential Themes

Of the themes in this address, of greatest importance may be the early recognition of African Americans that citizenship status and voting rights would be essential if the Thirteenth Amendment were to have any social significance. This address was made in August of 1865, the year following the Emancipation Proclamation and only months after the Thirteenth Amendment was passed by the Senate and House of Representatives. Some states had not even yet ratified the amendment. Despite its prematurity, this address implores Congress to consider passing laws addressing precisely the rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment and the Fifteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868 and 1870 respectively.

Another important theme of the address is the loyalty and patriotism of African Americans. Despite the tremendous maltreatment they had suffered as slaves, and the continued hardships they endured as freed people, the African Americans of the South demonstrated loyalty to the nation. Many African Americans served in the Civil War alongside white Union soldiers. Before the Emancipation Proclamation allowed them to enlist, free African Americans expressed interest in fighting the Confederacy, but were denied enlistment. They continued to contribute to the economy of the United States as workers before being granted citizenship and accept representation from a government that denied them voting rights.

The treatment of African Americans following their freedom from slavery is a prominent theme of the address. In addition to being denied rights, such as citizenship, African Americans were treated harshly in the South. Laws, known as ‘Black Codes,’ restricted the rights of African Americans and dictated where they could live and work. They also allowed whites to enter into binding contracts with African Americans, in which African Americans agreed to a level of servitude that had much in common with slavery. Vagrancy laws essentially permitted slavery by defining the unemployed African American as a “vagrant” and punishing this vagrancy with a period of unpaid labor.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • “Address of a Convention of Negroes Held in Alexandria, Virginia August 1865.” American History from Revolution to Reconstruction and Beyond. University of Groningen, 2012. Web. 29 Mar. 2014.
  • “Constitution of the United States: Amendments 11–27.” National Archives. National Archives and Records Administration. n. d. Web. 29 Mar. 2014.
  • Hacker, Louis M. and Benjamin Kendrick. The United States Since 1865. Rev. ed. New York: F. S. Crofts & Co., 1937. Print.
  • Kennedy, Stetson. Jim Crow Guide to the U.S.A.: The Laws, Customs and Etiquette Governing the Conduct of Nonwhites and Other Minorities as Second-Class Citizens. 2nd ed. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2011. Print.
  • McConnell, John Preston. Negroes and their Treatment in Virginia from 1865–1867. Pulaski, VA: B.D. Smith & Brothers, 1910. Print
  • “The Southern Black Codes of 1865–66.” Constitutional Rights Foundation: Bill of Right in Action. Constitutional Rights Foundation. Spring 1999. Web. 29 Mar. 2014.
  • Schultz, Kevin. HIST2. Vol 1. 2nd ed. Boston, MA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 2012. Print.
Categories: History Content