The Colored Conventions Project

Interviewing the team behind the Colored Conventions Project (CCP), a collaborative research endeavor that documents the events and people of the Colored Conventions Movement and centers nineteenth-century Black collective organizing.

Thirty years before the Civil War, the Colored Conventions movement was launched in Philadelphia. Over the course of seventy years, hundreds of thousands of African Americans met in multi-day conventions across the growing United States and Canada. Together they advocated for voting and political rights, educational equity, labor rights, and freedom from slavery and racial violence. This mural in Philadelphia honors and remembers the movement’s origins and recognizes organizers who extend this movement for Black rights and dignity. Mural art by Ernel Martinez.

In this Ask an Archivist, the team behind the Colored Conventions Project (CCP) details the project’s development, community engagement, and expansive digital exhibits. Selected as a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Essential Project, Past and Present in 2017, CCP documents nineteenth-century Black collective organizing and highlights the many people and places involved in the Colored Conventions Movement, bringing them to digital life for new generations of researchers, students, and community scholars. CCP has also won grant support from the NEH, the Mellon Foundation, and the Council on Library and Information Resources. Throughout this interview, our guests dive into the project’s guiding principles, teaching guides, and digital records. The interviewees further explain CCP’s community-oriented approach, underscoring the benefits of working with cross-disciplinary partners in libraries, archives, high schools, technology, the arts, and more. They also discuss how the project foregrounds Black women’s contributions to the movement and Black activism, and how CCP informs future social and racial justice efforts.

Members of the Colored Conventions Project interviewed for this month’s column include:

  • Denise Burgher, Director of Community and Curricular Engagement, The Center for Black Digital Research/#DigBlk, Penn State University. PhD candidate, University of Delaware.
  • Jim Casey, Co-Director and Co-Founder, Colored Conventions Project; Co-Director, Douglass Day, The Center for Black Digital Research/#DigBlk, Penn State University. Assistant Professor of African American Studies and History, PSU.
  • Lauren Cooper, Managing Director and Digital Scholarship Librarian, The Center for Black Digital Research/#DigBlk, Penn State University.
  • P. Gabrielle Foreman, Co-Founder and Co-Director, Colored Conventions Project; Founding Co-Director, The Center for Black Digital Research/#DigBlk, Penn State University. Paterno Family Professor of Liberal Arts, PSU.
  • Brandi Locke, Coordinator of Arts Partnerships, The Center for Black Digital Research/#DigBlk, Penn State University. PhD candidate, University of Delaware.
  • Courtney Murray, #DigBlk Scholar, Center for Black Digital Research, Penn State University. PhD candidate, PSU.
  • Morgan A. Robinson, #DigBlk Scholar, Center for Black Digital Research, Penn State University. Graduate Student at PSU.
  • Carol Rudisell, Long-Standing Team Member, Colored Conventions Project; Retired Head of Reference and Instructional Services Department, University of Delaware Library, Museums and Press.

How would you describe the Colored Conventions Project to a perfect stranger?

Carol Rudisell: The Colored Conventions Project (CCP) is a public history hub that has engaged tens of thousands of people in collecting the scattered records of the most important understudied early movement for an inclusive U.S. racial democracy and in making them freely available for the very first time at Starting in 1830 and lasting for seven decades, Black organizers held multi-day state and national conventions to advocate for legal, educational, and labor justice. In documenting this movement, CCP employs a collaborative model that engages interdisciplinary scholars, graduate student leaders, archivists, undergraduate researchers, arts partners, and independent researchers across North America to locate, digitize, and transcribe convention proceedings and newspaper coverage. Scores of digital exhibits bring the stories of the movement to life through photographs, data visualizations, and fascinating research. CCP has engaged students, scholars, and technologists at numerous universities in digital exhibit making and original research. The CCP team also has worked with high school teachers to develop a curriculum introducing this forgotten history to a new generation. In addition to its website, the CCP hosts symposia and performances with partners, presents at scholarly conferences and public history venues, and publishes scholarly works (including The Colored Conventions Movement: Black Organizing in the Nineteenth Century). CCP highlights the past’s connection to our present moment while it also looks to the future by training and providing opportunities for hundreds of students, librarians, and scholars equipped to bring history to life for the broader public. 

A core aspect of the Colored Conventions Project appears to be your project principles. Could you explain how these were developed and how they inform the CCP’s overall work?

Gabrielle Foreman: The Colored Conventions Project is as well-known for the way we do our work as we are for the work itself. We developed project principles in an effort to enact the collective methods and values of the Colored Conventions Movement itself. We deliberately engage institutions, scholars, archivists, students, publics, technologists, and creatives across North America to mirror the ways in which the convention movement brought people together across states, station, status, profession, and age. We center economic equity and opportunities for our team members and partners just as the delegates advocated for economic justice during 70 years of convention organizing. Our principles also seek to counter the ways the movement fell short. We pledge—and have our partners pledge—to highlight Black women’s centrality even as official convention records erase and anonymize how women’s contributions, labor, and infrastructure-building made the movement possible. Highlighting public-facing principles allows us to be accountable to our values, each other, our partners, and those who seek to feature or build on our work. 

We enact our principles in multiple ways. For instance, we’ve created Memos of Understanding (MOUs) for our partners. Working committees draft plans to enact principles as they launch new initiatives. When project directors receive invitations, we ask them to include (and pay) those who develop our curricula, innovate our crowd-sourcing initiatives, lead our exhibits team, and coordinate our arts partnerships, for example. Multiple team members appear on podcasts, present at high-profile events, and appear in articles such as this one to make visible the collective nature of the work we do. We often ask those who extend honoraria to our speakers to contribute to the project as well to honor our collective work. We advocate for (and try to model and expand) fair pay and fair attribution. Having articulated values keeps us faithful to the time-consuming and hidden work that’s necessary to counter systems whose default is to 1) laud individuals for work only collectives can do, and 2) continually undervalue and underpay/impoverish the many students, staff members, artists, archivists, librarians, post-docs, teachers and others, who make possible so much of what we create and value. 

How does the CCP challenge assumptions about Black women’s role in nineteenth-century organizing and contend with the lack of acknowledgement afforded to Black women in convention records?

Brandi Locke: From the outset of our project we have held a principled suspicion of the absence, silencing, and marginalization of women participants seen in convention minutes. We know women are the cornerstone of many Black liberation movements across the diaspora, so a critical component of the work we do is to identify women connected to the movement and to expand our understanding of their roles and contributions. We mine scattered records for references to women and then create digital exhibits or biographical pages within our exhibits that display Black women’s political organizing, educational activism, demographics, fundraising, and intellectual contributions. Uncovering these activities reveals how Black women transformed and sustained the Colored Conventions Movement by prioritizing action that empower themselves, children, and communities as a whole. As a result, we can engage the complexities of the era’s gender politics as we examine the tensions between the minutes’ silences and the fact that women were integral to the movement in every way imaginable. Our work is a corrective; by amplifying Black women’s voices and representation in our scholarship, public events, K-12 curriculum, and public art projects, we put our project principles into practice in our research and in partnerships. For example, we center Black women’s centrality to past and present activism in the double mural—the first public arts commemoration of the convention movement—which we debuted in 2022 in Philadelphia, the city which hosted five of the six first national conventions. We bring this commitment into the present by also ensuring that the labor of the students, scholars, digital practitioners, and artists of all genders who are our collaborators are recognized and properly compensated.  

October 2023 marks the 200th birthday of Mary Ann Shadd Cary, a nineteenth-century lawyer, journalist, and anti-slavery and civil rights activist. How do exhibits, such as Mary Ann Shadd Cary’s Herstory in the Colored Conventions, allow for a more targeted focus on specific aspects of the Colored Conventions Movement?

Morgan Robinson: Our exhibits provide opportunities to learn not only about the history of the Colored Conventions Movement but also about the individual and communal efforts needed to support this movement. Looking at Mary Ann Shadd Cary’s Herstory in the Colored Conventions, we facilitate connections between the advocacy work of Mary Ann Shadd Cary in the multitude of spaces she occupied and the influence she had on the work of the Colored Conventions Movement as well as its impact on her activism. By highlighting more specific histories of individuals and smaller communities within the Colored Conventions Movement in our exhibits, we create more nuanced, complex narratives of this movement while shining a light on individuals like Shadd Cary, whose work helped shape the movement and should be acknowledged within these histories.

The exhibit accompanied a two-year initiative to digitize Shadd Cary’s papers across collections in Canada and the U.S. and to ready them for our global transcribe-a-thon on Douglass Day 2023. More than 7,000 people joined us to transcribe 8,500 pages of Shadd’s writing and the newspaper she edited, the Provincial Freeman. The Center for Black Digital Research/#DigBlk also hosted several online symposia that included arts partners, creative works, and cutting-edge scholarship. The first collection of scholarly essays to examine Mary Ann Shadd Cary’s writing, editing, and activism emerged from that symposium and will be edited by a visiting scholar who joined the center that year. 

By highlighting more specific histories of individuals and smaller communities within the Colored Conventions Movement in our exhibits, we create more nuanced, complex narratives of this movement while shining a light on individuals like Shadd Cary, whose work helped shape the movement and should be acknowledged within these histories.

—Morgan Robinson

As mentioned on your website, the CCP’s Digital Records contain “minutes, proceedings, newspaper articles, speeches, letters, transcripts, and images.” Can you describe the process of assembling and digitizing these materials?

Jim Casey: When we began the Colored Conventions Project back in 2012, we had records from a dozen national conventions and 48 state conventions. Those records came from reprint volumes published in the 1960s and 1970s. Most of those conventions came from the period before the Civil War and from northern states—a focus that we have come to appreciate is only a very partial view of the larger history. We assembled a team of faculty, librarians, archivists, and graduate and undergraduate students to find additional records of the convention movement. We have now quadrupled those numbers and estimate that there are still hundreds—if not thousands—of records left to locate. We have found records from the Conventions Movement in more than one hundred libraries, archives, and repositories. Once we collect these records, there is a lot of work behind the scenes. We spend a great deal of time creating metadata. We also run the materials through our crowdsourcing projects to generate transcripts that will allow visitors to our sites to search them more easily. These steps are vital to our mission of providing nationwide access to the long history of Black activism that arose in every part of this country. 

The Colored Conventions Project emulates numerous facets of the Colored Conventions Movement, one of which being its focus on community. What are the advantages and challenges of working with a group of “interdisciplinary scholars and students, librarians and independent researchers, national teaching partners and media specialists, academic institutions, and members of the public”?

Lauren Cooper: Being interdisciplinary, cross-rank, and cross-institutional provides fertile soil to seed creative and strategic thinking that comes from varied experiences, presenting opportunities we might not have considered. We are able to highlight and elevate people and the variety of knowledge and skill sets they contribute, providing recognition beyond what they might or might not experience at their home institutions or communities. The challenge, sometimes, is being able to implement ideas given the academic frameworks we reside in and scoping magnificent ideas into possible timelines within people’s availability and semester-driven schedules. Another challenge can be communication across and between content experts, community members, and technologists who might all use different vocabularies to say the same thing. What may seem like a simple request or question may actually take research—conferring with the community or more seasoned experts, or testing ideas—to be able to answer. 

Being in community with the public and other thought leaders reminds us of our accountability to the lives lived and of whose history we are researching and making accessible online through published and transcribed documents, digital exhibits, and classroom curriculum. This focus on community also makes us accountable to each other, not in a disciplinarian way, but in acknowledging what we learned and what challenges us so we can figure out together another path or where more resources are needed. By being in community, we are building collective knowledge that future iterations of our team can learn from and build on. 

I imagine that the CCP’s interdisciplinary and collaborative nature has brought about various outreach opportunities. Is this the case? 

Jim Casey: Absolutely! The CCP approaches every new direction or initiative with an eye towards collaboration. Early in the history of the project, we worked with a broad network of North American Teaching Partners to locate records, to write the early versions of our exhibitions, and to think together about the significance of this movement in American history. Working with our collaborators at colleges and universities across the country led us to our second set of partnerships with secondary educators across several important places—in the very communities that hosted some of the most important conventions. In 2014, when we began our Transcribe Minutes initiative (2014-17) to crowdsource the transcription of our digital collections, we worked in close partnership with the national lay leadership of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. Thousands of people helped to enrich our first phase of transcription. The results of that partnership are now the transcripts on the CCP Digital Records website. More recently, we had the honor of collaborating with Mural Arts Philadelphia on the first-ever mural about the Colored Conventions, right in Philadelphia, accompanied by an online exhibition about the mural. All of this work is, of course, made possible by collaborations within our teams. It is typical on a CCP working committee, for example, to have senior faculty members working alongside graduate student leadership. We have benefited tremendously from collaborating with a number of stellar undergraduate students over the years who have gone on to law school, teaching, and other professional career paths. We also present in pairs, and even in this very interview we often like to speak in collective voices!

This mural in Philadelphia commemorates Black political organizing and protests that have emerged after the convention movement. This wall includes iconic moments from the Civil Rights Movement: the March to Selma from the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Montgomery and the 1963 March on Washington. Mural art by Ernel Martinez.

What benefits did becoming a flagship project of Penn State University’s Center for Black Digital Research/#DigBlk bring? 

Gabrielle Foreman: From its genesis at the University of Delaware, the Colored Conventions Project was housed at the intersection of university libraries and the College of Arts and Sciences. CCP is not only a cross-disciplinary team of scholars, students, and partners, it has been watered by and has grown because of the energy and expertise of the librarians, archivists, and technologists who have contributed to its projects across institutions. Now housed in the library at Penn State and supported generously by PSU’s College of Liberal Arts, CCP has spawned two interconnected projects, Douglass Day, which we brought with us to PSU, and the early Black Women’s Organizing Archive. The three make up the projects housed at the Center for Black Digital Research. CCP may be the longest-running Black digital project in North America, with hundreds of past and present team members, thousands of contributors, and hundreds of thousands of users. It’s also a pipeline project—one meant to train and support members in the service of just and collaborative collections creation, research-based digital and arts storytelling, and public history making. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the convention movement itself, it’s that to do values-driven work over time, one needs not only dedication, but infrastructure. Infrastructure, a culture of care, a commitment to nurturing ideas that spring up from all corners of the project team, and insanely high expectations—those are some of the ingredients needed to serve up sustainability over time. We’re both lucky and grateful for past and present support from the offices and people who make our work not only possible in the moment, but sustainable over time. 

African American Studies continue to face contestation in the United States, as seen recently with the College Board’s revisions to its AP African American studies course. How is the CCP addressing or plans to address the challenges being made to secondary and postsecondary African American Studies? How do the CCP’s teaching guides aid in this work?

Denise Burgher: Black history is American history. The CCP Curriculum Committee invites teachers, students, and parents to learn Black history by exploring online exhibits and curricula through our archives. The archival invitation orients the work we do as a project and is at the center of our pedagogical practices and outreach. 

Our online lesson plans, resource guides, and activities contextualize the Black-authored and Black-curated conventions collection featured at, making this history accessible and relatable. Centering our proceedings, records, and exhibits by engaging students with primary documents ensures that many state histories and social studies standards are met, while simultaneously responding to claims of bias in Black-centered curricula. Deeply informed by the frameworks of project-based learning, our curricula are organized around a series of questions. Students are supported to discover their answers as they explore digital archives and learn about nineteenth-century Black intellectual history which, for many of them and their teachers, was unknown. By centering historical records, we make space for multiple interpretations. By engaging with the primary sources, students make their own assessments versus being told what or how to think. Facilitating the development of critical thinking skills in our students is—or should be—the goal of educators. Our curricular work is dedicated to doing just that.

“Our online lesson plans, resource guides, and activities contextualize the Black-authored and Black-curated conventions collection featured at, making this history accessible and relatable.”

—Denise Burgher

How does the work done by the Colored Conventions Project function as a form of activism and inform contemporary racial and social justice movements?

Courtney Murray: Seven decades of Colored Conventions movement organizing served as a precursor to organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), the Civil Rights Movement, and #BlackLivesMatter. Colored Conventions delegates met in churches and lecture halls, formed newspapers that circulated proceedings, and received support from local Black businesses. While Colored Conventions minutes record men’s leadership, Black women across generations created politically empowered spaces as conventions met to advocate for education, jobs, and freedom from state-sanctioned violence for Black communities as they also lobbied for collective political representation. These modes of collective Black organizing resonate in the protests, communication networks, and meeting places of more recent movements. CCP emulates the communal organizing of the Colored Conventions through collaboration to uncover this long-forgotten history.

CCP functions as a form of activism through recovery and community. This work relates to increasing attention to how digital tools and historical preservation impact Black communities and their histories. We use ethical and accessible data practices such as specifically naming people and historical context in metadata. We always center the innumerous communities represented in the convention proceedings through community-based projects like murals, art contests, transcribe-a-thons, and a range of events that cover relevant issues such as voting rights, COVID-19, and Black women’s history.

About the interviewees:

Denise Burgher headshot.

Denise Burgher is a senior team leader at the Colored Conventions Project where she heads curriculum development and community engagement for the Center for Black Digital Research at Penn State. She is finishing her PhD at University of Delaware and co-directs Douglass Day, the yearly global transcribe-a-thon.

​​Jim Casey is an assistant professor of African American Studies, History, and English at Penn State, where he serves as associate director of the Center for Black Digital Research. He is co-editor with P. Gabrielle Foreman of The Colored Conventions Movement: Black Organizing in the Nineteenth Century (2021) and co-director of the Colored Conventions Project and Douglass Day.

Lauren Cooper is the Managing Director and Digital Scholarship Librarian for CBDR at Penn State. She works with students, faculty, librarians, and partners to implement, develop, and manage digital scholarship and publishing projects. As a member of the CBDR Exec Team, she participates in strategic planning, grant writing and management, and relationship development.

P. Gabrielle Foreman is an award-winning educator, scholar, author, mentor, and MacArthur Fellow. A leader in Black digital and public history, she is also known for her long-standing commitment to co-creating and working in collectives and to institution and community building. Gabrielle is the founding co-director of the Colored Conventions Project and of Penn State University’s Center for Black Digital Research/#DigBlk.

Brandi Locke is a senior team leader at the Colored Conventions Projects where she leads public arts projects with partnering organizations and arts-education communities for the Center for Black Digital Research at Penn State. She is finishing her PhD at University of Delaware.

Courtney Murray is a #DigBlk Scholar with the Center for Black Digital Research. She works on the Communication committee for Douglass Day as well as serving in various research roles for the Colored Conventions Project. She is a Dual-Title PhD Candidate in English and African American Studies at Penn State.

Morgan A. Robinson is a #DigBlk Scholar with the Center for Black Digital Research. She works alongside CBDR team members to conduct research for the Colored Conventions Project’s digital exhibits and the Black Women’s Organizing Archive. Morgan is a History & African American Studies PhD Student at Penn State.

Carol Rudisell is a JT Mellon Satellite Partner who consults with Colored Conventions Project research teams on search strategies, research resources, and licensing and copyright issues. She is the retired Head of Reference and Instructional Services at the University of Delaware Library where she also served as the liaison librarian for Africana Studies.

To learn more about the Colored Conventions Project, please visit:

To learn more about the Center for Black Digital Research/#DigBlk at Penn State University, please visit:

This interview was conducted by Ashley Roy. She is the digital media assistant at Choice.

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