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50 years after slavery ended, former slaves held a convention in Washington

The attendees of 1916's former slave convention.
The attendees of 1916's former slave convention.
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In 1916, these four women — Annie Param, Anna Angales, Elizabeth Berkeley, and Sadie Thompson — were in Washington, DC, for the annual Former Slave Convention. Each claimed to be more than 100 years old.

Though we can't be certain about their ages (Berkeley said she was 125, which seems unlikely), we do know they came together to reflect on the past and act on the future.

The convention — then in its 54th year — opened at the Cosmopolitan Baptist Church in Washington, with many centenarian attendees. One speaker was a preacher named Robert E. Lee — a former slave who had been owned by the Confederate general of the same name, and who said he was 103 at the time of the convention.

John Jackson, a former slave owned by Stonewall Jackson, preached, as well. The picture below shows another group: Lewis Martin, 100; Martha Banks, 104; Amy Ware, 103; and Reverend S.P. Drew, born free.

Four attendees of the former slave convention.

Four attendees of the former slave convention. (Library of Congress)

It wasn't just a chance for former slaves to connect — it was also a platform for activist goals. The convention attendees requested a universal pardon for married convicts, which followed earlier calls for pensions for former slaves.

That issue was actively debated at the time. In 1899, about 21 percent of all blacks in America had been born into slavery, and the legal future of pensions or reparations was uncertain. In 1915's Johnson vs. McAdoo, an ex-slave pension association sued the government for $68 million for cotton produced while the members were slaves. However, the DC Court of Appeals denied the claim, and the US Supreme Court upheld the decision.

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