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Tue, 10.04.1864

The National Equal Rights League is Founded

NERL Program

*The National Equal Rights League (NERL) was founded on this date in 1864.  NERL is the oldest national human rights organization in the United States.

It was founded at the National Conference of Colored Men in Syracuse, New York, dedicated to the liberation of black people in America. Its origins began with the emancipation of slaves in the British West Indies in 1833. The league emphasized moral reform and self-help, aiming "to encourage sound morality, education, temperance, frugality, industry, and promote everything that pertains to a well-ordered and dignified life." Black leaders formed state and local branches of the league, which drew many members and caused the society to multiply in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where people like Thomas Morris Chester joined.

Ten years later, in 1843, after establishing several state conventions, the first National Convention of Colored Men of America was held in Buffalo with several hundred delegates, free black men and escaped enslaved people from throughout the U.S. At this convention, Chairman Samuel H. Davis defined their purpose: 

"... 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 choose ... unconstitutionally denied us in part of this union. We wish also to secure the elective franchise in those states where it has denied us - where our rights are legislated away, and our voice is neither heard nor regarded. We also wish to secure, for our children especially, the benefits of education, which in several States are entirely denied to 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 lead most likely the desired end." 

The NERL founding members included Henry Highland GarnetFrederick Douglass, and John Mercer Langston. The organization originated in New York but quickly expanded after the American Civil War. The NERL used the economics practices of its many West Indies immigrant members to fund its activities, including establishing self-sufficient black communities throughout the U.S. The work of the membership of the NERL created such other organizations as the National Negro Business League, the National Negro Bar Association, and the Pan-African Conference.

The NERL leadership had a delegate attend the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. Other organization leaders were William Monroe TrotterMadam C. J. WalkerIda B. Wells-BarnettMary Church TerrellMarcus GarveyOctavius V. CattoCharles Lewis ReasonJohn RockWilliam Cooper Nell, and Moses Dickson. In 1905, NERL met with other black leaders in the Niagara Movement. At this meeting, Du Bois unsuccessfully tried to convince the NERL members that white Americans should be permitted to join the NERL. When his pleas went unheeded, Du Bois left the organization and joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. With the continued growth of the NAACP, the NERL lost prominence, and by 1921 most members had joined the NAACP.

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