(1843) Samuel H. Davis, “We Must Assert Our Rightful Claims and Plead Our Own Cause”

Buffalo, New York, map, 1849
Buffalo, New York, 1849
Public Domain Image

The National Convention of Colored Citizens which met in Buffalo, New York from August 15 to 19, 1843 is best remembered as the venue for the speech by Rev. Henry Highland Garnet calling on the slaves to “throw off their chains.” However the chair of the convention, Samuel H. Davis of Buffalo, also gave an important oration calling on African Americans, particularly those who had been enslaved, to “make known our wrongs to the world and to our oppressors.” That speech appears below.

GENTLEMEN: I consider this a most happy period in our history, when we as a people are in some degree awake to a sense of our condition and are determined no longer to submit tamely and silently to wear the galling yoke of oppression, under which we have so long suffered—oppression riveted upon us, as well by an unholy and cruel prejudice, as by unjust and unequal legislation. More particularly do I consider it ominous of good, when I see here collected, so much of wisdom and talent, from different parts of this great nation, collected here to deliberate upon the wisest and best methods by which we may seek a redress of those grievances which most sorely oppress us as a people.

Gentlemen, in behalf of my fellow citizens of Buffalo, I bid you welcome, from the East and West, the North and South, to our city. Among you are the men who are lately from that part of our country where they see our brethren bound and manacled, suffering and bleeding, under the hand of the tyrant, who holds in one hand the Constitution of the United States, which guarantees freedom and equal rights to every citizen, and in the other “the scourge dripping with gore,” drawn from the veins of his fellow man. Here also are those who live in my native New England, among the “descendants of the pilgrims,” whose laws are more in accordance with the principles of freedom and equal rights, so that but few laws are found recorded on their statute books of which we need complain. But though their laws are not marked with such palpable and flagrant injustice toward the colored man as those of the South, yet there we are proscribed, by a fixed and cruel prejudice little less oppressive. Our grievances are many and great, but it is not my intention to enumerate or to enlarge upon them. I will simply say, however, that we wish to secure for ourselves, in common with other citizens, the privilege of seeking our own happiness in any part of the country we may choose, which right is now unjustly and, we believe, unconstitutionally denied us in a part of this Union. We wish also to secure the elective franchise in those states where it is denied us, where our rights are legislated away, and our voice neither heard nor regarded. We also wish to secure, for our children especially, the benefits of education, which in several States are entirely denied us, and in others are enjoyed only in name. These, and many other things, of which we justly complain, bear most heavily upon us as a people; and it is our right and our duty to seek for redress, in that way which will be most likely to secure the desired end.

In your wisdom, you will, I doubt not, take into consideration these and the many other grievances which we suffer, and form such organizations and recommend such measures as shall, in your wisdom, seem most likely to secure our enfranchisement, the benefits of education to our children, and all our rights in common with other citizens of this republic.

Two objects should distinctly and constantly be borne in mind, in all our deliberations. One is the diffusion of truth, and the other the elevation of our own people. By the diffusion of truth I mean that we must take a bold and elevated stand for the truth. We must determine, in the strength of God, to do everything that will advance the great and holy cause of freedom, and nothing that will in the least retard its progress. We must, by every means in our power, strive to persuade the white people to act with more confidence in their own principles of liberty—to make laws just and equal for all the people.

But while the color of the skin is made the criterion of the law, it is our right, our duty and, I hope I may say, our fixed determination, to make known our wrongs to the world and to our oppressors; to cease not day nor night to “tell, in burning words, our tale of woe,” and pour a flood of living light on the minds and consciences of the oppressor, till we change their thoughts, feelings, and actions toward us as men and citizens of this land. We must convince our fellow men that slavery is unprofitable; that it is for the well-being and prosperity of this nation, the peace and happiness of our common country, that slavery and oppression be abolished within its borders, and that laws be enacted equal and just for all its citizens.

Proscription is not in accordance with equal rights, no more than is oppression with holy freedom, or slavery with the spirit of free institutions. The present system of laws, in this our country, enacted in reference to us, the oppressed and downtrodden descendants of Africa, do, and will continue to, operate like the canker worm in the root of the tree of liberty, preventing its growth and ultimately destroying its vitality. We may well say, in the language of a distinguished statesman and patriot of our own land, “We tremble for our country when we reflect that God is just, and that his justice will not always sleep.” By the example of other nations, who have gone before, whose history should be a warning to this people, we learn that slavery and oppression has nowhere prospered long; it blasts a nation’s glory and prosperity, divides her power, weakens her strength, and grows like a corroding consumption in her very vitals. “God’s judgments will not sleep forever, but he will visit the nations of the earth in justice.” We love our common country—”With all her faults, we love her still.” This is the land where we all drew our first breath; where we have grown up to strength and manhood. “Here is deposited the ashes of our fathers”; here we have contracted the most sacred engagements, the dearest relations of life; here we have found the companions of our childhood, the friends of our youth, the gentle partners of our lives; here are the haunts of our infancy, the scenes of every endearing hour—in a word, this is our own native land. I repeat it, then: We love our country, we love our fellow citizens—but we love liberty more. . . .

It is time that we were more awake to our own interests, more united in our efforts, and more efficient in our measures. We must profit by the example of our oppressors. We must act on their principles in resisting tyranny. We must adopt their resolutions in favor of liberty. “They have taught us a lesson, in their struggle for independence, that should never be forgotten. They have taught the world emphatically that a people united in the cause of liberty are invincible to those who would enslave them, and that heaven will ever frown on the cause of injustice, and ultimately grant success to those who oppose it.” Shall we, then, longer submit in silence to our accumulated wrongs? Forbid it, heaven, that we should longer stand in silence, “hugging the delusive phantom of hope,” when every gale that sweeps from the South, bears on its wings, to our ears, the dismal sound of slavery’s clanking chains, now riveted on three millions of our brethren, and we ourselves are aliens and outcasts in our native land.

Is the question asked, what shall we do? Shall we petition for our rights? I do not pretend to dictate the course that should be pursued; but I have very little hope in petitioning longer. We have petitioned again and again, and what has been the result? Our humblest prayers have not been permitted a hearing. We could not even state our grievances. Our petitions were disregarded, our applications slighted, and we spurned from the mercy seat, insulted, abused and slandered. And this day finds us in the same unhappy and hopeless condition in which we have been for our whole lives; no other hope is let us, but in our own exertions and an “appeal to the god of armies.” From what other source can we expect that help will come? Shall we appeal to the Christian community–to the church of our own land? What is her position? Behold her gigantic form, with hands upraised to heaven! See her increased and made rich by the toil and sweat and blood of slaves! View her arrayed in her pontifical robes, screening the horrid monster, slavery, with her very bosom—within her most sacred enclosures, that the world may not gaze on its distorted visage or view its hellish form! Yes, throwing around this accursed system, the very drapery of heaven, to cover this damning sin and give it character and respectability in the eyes of the country and in the eyes of the world. We cannot, therefore, look to her for help, for she has taken sides against us and on the side of slavery. Shall we turn to either of the great political parties of the day? What are our prospects there? Is there any hope of help? No, they are but the slaves of slavery, too, contending which shall be most faithful in supporting the foul system of slavery, that they may secure the vote of the slaveholder himself, and of his scores of human cattle. Shall we, then, look to the abolitionists and wait for them to give us our rights? I would not say a word that would have a tendency to discourage them in their noble efforts in behalf of the poor slave, or their exertions to advance the cause of truth and humanity. Some of them have made great sacrifices and have labored with a zeal and fidelity that justly entitle them to our confidence and gratitude. But if we sit down in idleness and sloth, waiting for them—or any other class of men—to do our own work, I fear it will never be done. If we are not willing to rise up and assert our rightful claims, and plead our own cause, we have no reason to look for success. We ourselves must be willing to contend for the rich boon of freedom and equal rights, or we shall never enjoy that boon. It is found only of them that seek.