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How a Movement to Send Freed Slaves to Africa Created Liberia

April 1, 2019 in History

By Becky Little

The biggest question facing the leaders of the United States in the early 19th century was what to do about slavery. Should it continue or should the U.S. abolish it? Could the country really be home to free black people and enslaved black people at the same time? And if the U.S. ended slavery, would freed men and women remain in the country or go somewhere else?

Many white people at this time thought the answer to that last question to send free black Americans to Africa through “colonization.” Starting in 1816, the American Colonization Society—which counted James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay and Francis Scott Key among its members—sought to create a colony in Africa for this purpose. This was 50 years before the U.S. would abolish slavery. Over the next three decades, the society secured land in West Africa and shipped people to the colony, which became the nation of Liberia in 1847.

The New York chapter of the Colonization Society began in 1817.

The society spent its first few years trying to secure land in West Africa. In 1821, it made a deal with local West African leaders to establish a colony at Cape Mesurado. The strip of land was only 36 miles long and three miles wide (today, Liberia stretches over 38,250 square miles) The next year, the society began sending free people—often groups of families—to the colony. Over the next 40 years, upwards of 12,000 freeborn and formerly enslaved black Americans immigrated to Liberia.

The American Colonization Society was distinct from black-led “back to Africa” movements that argued black Americans could only escape slavery and discrimination by establishing their own homeland, says Ousmane Power-Greene, a history professor at Clark University and author of Against Wind and Tide: The African American Struggle against the Colonization Movement. Though some free black Americans may have supported the society’s mission, there were also plenty who criticized it.

“They argue that their sweat and blood, their family who were once enslaved, built this country; so therefore they had just as much right to be here and be citizens,” he says. In addition, many argued “this is a slaveholders’ scheme to rid the nation of free blacks in an effort to make slavery more secure.”

In the beginning, the American Colonization Society didn’t uniformly believe that slavery should end. The society was made up of white men from the north …read more


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