Award-winning Colored Conventions Project founding director joins Penn State

Susan Burlingame
September 23, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — P. Gabrielle Foreman, founding faculty director of the Colored Conventions Project (CCP), has joined the Penn State College of the Liberal Arts faculty as the Paterno Family Liberal Arts Professor in Literature with appointments in the departments of English, African American Studies and History.

The Colored Conventions Project’s groundbreaking work has been widely publicized in national media, including The New York Times, Forbes and other publications. The project has created a robust digital database of the proceedings and records of the “Colored Conventions,” state and national meetings of free, freed, and self-emancipated Black people, which were held across North America from approximately 1830-1890. They and their North American teaching partners have also created interactive digital exhibits that share the stories of this early Civil Rights movement and its organizers.

According to Foreman, scholars of 19th-century history have been aware of the conventions, “but the number of conventions and the scope and depth of this activism has been part of a hidden history, in part because they were overshadowed by the antislavery movement.”

Funded in part by the Mellon Foundation and the National Endowment of the Humanities (NEH), the project was chosen as one of NEH’s “50 Essential Projects” as NEH celebrated its 50th anniversary. It also won the American Studies Association prize, the Modern Language Association prize and the American Culture Association prize.

Foreman said the Colored Conventions Project is confident there are hundreds more conventions that have yet to be added to the online archive. The number of proceedings that once appeared in print collections has already more than quadrupled.

“The conventions were Black-led events dealing with issues beyond slavery — issues that still resonate today such as economic and labor justice; legal, jury and voting rights; and educational justice,” Foreman said, adding that the meeting delegates included the pantheon of Black political, church and community leaders over 70 years both before and after the Civil War.

Foreman is the most recent addition to the liberal arts faculty as part of the college’s African American Life and Culture cluster hire, a focused recruitment effort that attracted eleven senior, mid-level and junior scholars from diverse backgrounds. The new faculty members have joint appointments in African American studies and six other liberal arts disciplines.

“I can’t stress enough how historic these hirings are,” said Foreman, who credits Susan Welch, former dean of the College of the Liberal Arts, and Cynthia Young, head of the Department of African American Studies, for their leadership and vision. The cluster hire; the chance to work with Penn State faculty she has long admired; as well as the “longevity the University can give to the Colored Conventions Project” through the new center were among Foreman's main reasons for accepting the offer to come to Penn State. In addition, “the chance to work with Clarence Lang as the incoming dean was hard to pass up,” she said.

Originated at the University of Delaware, the Colored Conventions Project will be housed in the University Libraries as part of a new Center for Digital Black Research. Shirley Moody-Turner, Penn State associate professor of English and African American studies, will be the co-director. CCP co-founder Jim Casey, a Perkins Fellow and postdoctoral research associate at the Center for Digital Humanities at Princeton University, will serve as managing director of the new center. During the next two years, Foreman, Casey and a cohort of project leaders from the University of Delaware will transition to Penn State.

“Having Gabrielle Foreman join us at Penn State is a game-changer for the College of the Liberal Arts,” said Mark Morrisson, head of the Department of English. “She joins three departments with significant strengths in 19th- and 20th-century literature, history and ethnic studies, but the Colored Conventions Project — and the highly successful mode of collaborative research, mentoring and scholarly communication Foreman has pioneered — is virtually unique in its scope, ambition and achievement. The new center that Foreman and Shirley Moody-Turner will co-direct will allow Foreman and her team to make an even greater impact on the college, its teaching, research and public outreach missions, and the profession. I could not be more thrilled.”

“The Colored Conventions structure tries to mirror the collaboration and collective organizing strategies of the movement we seek to preserve,” said Foreman, who is quick to give credit to the library colleagues, undergraduate researchers, and graduate student leaders with whom she works. “Credit for collaborative team-based digital work shouldn’t be tied to the person with the most visible and recognizable degree or title.

“We are deeply grateful to the University of Delaware, where we were founded, and we are extremely excited to relocate to Penn State — an institution with incredible technological resources, a growing commitment to digital work within major programs, and historic growth in African American studies,” added Foreman, calling the departments of English, African American Studies and History as well as the George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Center “intellectual powerhouses doing groundbreaking work” in interdisciplinary ethnic studies and the long 19th century (the period between the years 1789 and 1914).

“Through the Colored Conventions Project’s archives and digital exhibits, we are resurrecting the history that belongs to Black Americans culturally, historically and regionally,” she said. “Not every institution is organized through centers that allow scholars to bring together various publics and constituencies in order to focus deeply on work that matters. Located at Penn State during this new phase of growth, we will be able to ask critical new questions about the ways in which we remember and disremember our national and hemispheric past.”

“It is not an exaggeration to say that Gabrielle Foreman is a world-renowned scholar of 19th-century women’s and men’s activism and literature who has taken the work to another level by building a digital humanities project on the African American conventions movement,” remarked Cynthia Young. “No one has ever done what she has done. Her cutting-edge work will impact undergraduates through post-docs as well as high school students. To have this kind of project and Dr. Foreman at Penn State puts us in the stratosphere. We couldn’t be more excited.”

Foreman grew up on the south side of Chicago until frigid winters and “The Hawk,” the notorious wind that gives the city its nickname, sent her father to Venice Beach, where she spent her summers. She said she credits her commitment to scholarship, literature and activism to her parents. Her father, Kent Foreman, was a Black Arts poet. Her mother Lynn is a model for Foreman’s own activism.  

In her youth, Gabrielle spent summers on the beach flanked by the family’s two German shepherds, making her way through her father’s suggested reading list.

“One year it was world theater, the next it was Shakespeare; another year it was world religions,” recalled Foreman.

Without a car, long walks with her mother “were a political education about redlining and gentrification punctuated by discussions about nature, architecture and Black and labor history.

“We did not have a lot of money,” Foreman recalled, “but boy we were rich in cultural capital.”

Foreman earned her bachelor’s degree in American studies from Amherst College, graduating Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude. She was in one of the earliest cohorts of the doctoral program in ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley. At Delaware, she was the Ned B. Allen Professor of English and professor of history and Africana studies. A prolific scholar, she has published extensively on issues of race, slavery and reform in the 19th century with a focus on the past’s continuing hold on the world today. Foreman is the author of three ground-breaking editions or monographs, including "Activist Sentiments: Reading Black Women in the Nineteenth Century." Three more — including the first edited collection on the Colored Conventions — are near completion.

“I am thrilled that Professor Foreman has joined the College of the Liberal Arts and that she is bringing the Colored Conventions Project to Penn State along with an excellent team that has helped to build the project,” said Clarence Lang, Susan Welch Dean of the College of the Liberal Arts. “Foreman’s work powerfully documents the tenacity of Black-led efforts across time for social transformation and autonomy. From an institutional perspective, her appointment illustrates several thematic priorities for our college: faculty research excellence, interdisciplinarity, digital scholarship, inclusive hiring, and outreach to multiple and diverse publics beyond the university. I am excited about the leading-edge intellectual and programmatic work that she, Shirley Moody-Turner, and their colleagues will do.”

“When I visited Penn State in past years, several faculty members knew of my father’s work in Chicago’s flourishing poetry scene,” concluded Foreman. “When I came back to give my job talk, I discussed how poetry magnifies contemporary Black visual art to convey slavery’s tenacious hold on the present. People in the room recited the poetry with me — a call and response that made me feel like I was coming home. I carry the thrill and energy of that visit with me as I look forward to all I can build, learn and share with colleagues and the community at Penn State and beyond.”

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated September 27, 2019