Published in the Winter 2007 edition of our print newsletter, this article by David Bearinger about the relationship between Liberia and the United States is more relevant than ever. As Liberia faces a frightening epidemic, we must consider our place in their history and culture in order to fully understand the events unfolding there.
The American Colonization Society (ACS) was established in 1816 to promote the voluntary return of African Americans—emancipated slaves as well as free blacks—to Africa. With the help of the U.S. government, the colony of Liberia was created to receive them. Virginians were instrumental, both in the formation of the Society and in the early history of the colony; nearly one-third of the 11,909 African Americans who left the U.S. for Liberia between 1820 and 1866 were from Virginia.
The connections between Virginia and Liberia are complex and fascinating. Jefferson was an early proponent of African colonization: he saw it as a solution to the problem of slavery and the most desirable outcome of emancipation. The founders and leading supporters of the American Colonization Society— a group of clergymen, political leaders, and antislavery advocates—included Virginians James Monroe, John Marshall, and Bushrod Washington.
The idea originated with another Virginian named Charles Fenton Mercer, a member of the state legislature inspired by accounts he read of earlier legislative debates about black colonization that took place in the aftermath of Gabriel’s Rebellion. In the early years especially, Virginians were also among the Society’s leading donors.
The ACS purchased the freedom of slaves and actively encouraged free African Americans to emigrate, and then paid for their passage to Liberia. It also sought to encourage slave holders to emancipate, and for a time the Society maintained an uneasy alliance between some members of the clergy and abolitionist groups who wanted to end slavery and slave owners and others who feared the presence and influence of free blacks in a slave-holding environment. Both groups thought it would be impossible for free—or freed—African Americans to assimilate into white society.
At the same time many free blacks, especially in the North, opposed the ACS, believing it to be an organization whose real purpose was to remove all free blacks from the U.S. and thereby strengthen the slavery system even further. Nevertheless, many black Virginians chose to
emigrate. Interest was especially strong among free African Americans in the Tidewater region; and Virginia had, relatively speaking, a large number of slaveholders who were willing to emancipate slaves in their wills, once their return to Africa appeared to be a practical option.
Liberia became independent in 1847, but the new nation was not formally recognized by the United States until 1862. After an initial appropriation of $100,000, Congress refused further support for the Society and the colony. Virginia members of the ACS organized a state Society in 1828 and repeatedly sought support from the Virginia
legislature which twice appropriated funds for Liberian emigration. But these funds were authorized only for free blacks not emancipated slaves, and much of the money was left unused. After 1832, few free blacks volunteered.
Lott Cary, a Virginia slave born in Charles City County, purchased his own freedom and eventually raised enough money to pay for his own transport to Liberia. Supported by the First Baptist Church in Richmond and the Richmond African Baptist Missionary Society (which he had helped to establish), he became the first American Baptist missionary to Africa.
He established the Providence Baptist Church in the Liberian capital, Monrovia (named for President James Monroe), and was elected vice-agent of the ACS in 1826. He became Acting Governor of the colony in 1828, but served just three months until his death in an accidental explosion.
Joseph Jenkins Roberts, another Virginian, served as the colony’s first Lieutenant Governor, its first black Governor, and the first President of Liberia for four years immediately following its independence. He served again as President from 1871 until his death in 1875. From 1856 until his death, he was also the President of Liberia College.
Native people resisted the expansion of the colony; and soon after its founding Liberia entered into an agreement with the U.S. government to accept Africans recaptured from slave ships. The new nation was thus divided early-on into three distinct groups: indigenous people, slaves freed from slave ships during transport, and black settlers from the U.S.
Virginians had been instrumental in framing and articulating the idea of individual rights as well as the U.S. Constitution on which Liberia’s founding constitution was based.
Ironically, the Liberian constitution did not extend immediate citizenship rights to indigenous people of the country. At the same time, it conferred privileged status on American immigrants and their descendents, thereby setting up internal tensions and patterns of resentment that have had disastrous consequences in the country’s more recent history.
In June 2006, the VFH awarded a Discretionary Grant to the Afro-American Historical Association of Fauquier County to support the expansion of an existing database on the more than 3,700 Virginians—emancipated slaves and free blacks—who are known to have emigrated from Virginia to Liberia prior to 1867.
This information, located mainly in the records of the American Colonization Society currently housed at the Library of Congress, is drawn primarily from lists that included age, place of birth, literacy level, occupation or skills, and family groups, as well as from letters written by Liberian immigrants and others.
This information is extremely important, not just for the insights it provides into the lives of those who emigrated, but because information on the lives and circumstances of Virginia slaves in general is difficult to-impossible to obtain from other sources. Thus, even without further elaboration or enhancement, the database is a rich and valuable resource for new scholarship and classroom education.
In December, the VFH awarded a second grant, this time to the University of Virginia’s Center for Digital History (VCDH), to develop additional humanities content and to plan and produce a website devoted to the Liberia-Virginia connection, with the database as its central component.
The website will offer additional primary sources, links to other online resources, and a series of essays that allow for deeper exploration of the data and what it means or suggests. It will also include in-depth narratives focusing on the lives of nine emigrant families from Virginia and the experiences of three emancipated groups—from Rappahannock, Fauquier, and Prince Edward Counties.
Work on this project actually began almost ten years ago, when former VFH fellow Marie Tyler-McGraw began research on Virginia emigrants to Liberia concentrating on the years 1820-1843. She had assembled a number of family-based files and added to it the information s only extensive 19th century census, conducted in 1843.
Her book on Virginia and Liberia, Shadowed Republic: African Colonization in Virginia and Liberia, will be published by the University of North Carolina Press in late 2007.
In February 2006 she began a collaboration with another former VFH fellow and historian Deborah Lee, to encode the initial data and expand the reach of the database to include the years 1843-66. This work, which involved further research into the ACS materials at the Library of Congress, particularly the passenger lists published by the Society in its journal The African Repository, was completed under the VFH Discretionary Grant.
In the website phase of the project, they will be assisted by fellow historians Scot French of the VCDH and Reginald Butler, former Director of the Carter G. Woodson Center at U.Va., also a former VFH fellow.
Users of the database can already research many questions. What was the average age of first childbearing among emigrant mothers? What were the death rates for those who emigrated prior to 1843? How many had literacy skills? What Virginia counties produced the most emigrants and how did this change over time?
Explorations through the website can go much deeper. Users will have access to plantation records, letters, images, maps, and newspaper accounts from the period. There will be links to resources on slave trade law, free black law, American political history, and additional images of Liberia and its settlers. Researchers will be able to construct the story of a particular family, find all the Virginians on a particular ship, or compare promotional materials advertising the colony to the reality its settlers experienced.
The VFH is very pleased to have been in a position to support this extraordinary project, one which opens up an important but little-known chapter of Virginia’s history, while providing important new access to information on individual slaves—and by extension, slave life in general—that cannot be found in any other source.
- Virginia Emigrants to Liberia – VCDH
- VFH Grant Program
- An African Republic: Black and White Virginians in the Making of Liberia – Marie Tyler-McGraw