Editor's Note: History is a combination of facts and perspectives. Despite being a study of a common past, our history classes, textbooks, and knowledge vastly differ based on how we approach facts. At the same time, our education ultimately influences the way we view certain nations, ethnicity, and cultures. Thus, how and where we learn history—whether that is from the victors’ or victims’ perspective— often result into a conflicting understanding of a common past. Starting 2017-18, AIR will launch a month-long series on the history of a specific region. We hope these articles provide an outlet for students around the globe to present, discuss, and resolve disparities in history. Especially by struggling together through controversial subjects in World History, we will begin to understand the origins of different perspectives and ultimately promote a balanced narrative that incorporates all aspects of a historical event. After all, “those who do not recall the past accurately are condemned to repeat it.”
Founding of Liberia: The Back to Africa Movement
In 1816, a Presbyterian minister from New Jersey named Robert Finley asserted that “everything connected with [the blacks’] condition, including their color, is against them.”[i] Indeed, although the early nineteenth century witnessed an increased emancipation of slaves, the “post-emancipation” society did not allow for a meaningful, de facto freedom for blacks. Rather, the former slaves faced institutionalized discrimination and lynching while many whites still disparaged them as a “subordinate and inferior class of beings, who had no rights.”[ii] Seeing little hope for free blacks within America, Finley found a solution to their plight on the West Coast of Africa: relocation of African Americans into the “land of their fathers” where they “might set up a government and society of [their] own.”[iii] This idea soon grew into the Back to Africa movement.
Despite the evident fallacy in Finley’s words—depicting Africa, the vast continent consisting of countless ethnic tribes, as one homogenous “home” to all blacks—his proposal became reality with the establishment of the Society for the Colonization of Free People of Color of America (commonly known as the American Colonization Society) in December 1816. Approved by influential leaders including Speaker of the House Henry Clay, General Andrew Jackson, and Congressman Daniel Webster, this philanthropic community planned “for the restoration to Africa of her stolen children” by purchasing land along the Cape Mesurado from native chieftains and assisting with “the construction of homes and forts, the acquisition of farm implements, [and] the defense of settlers.”[iv] By 1865, the Society transported across the Atlantic approximately twelve thousand African Americans who established the first and oldest African Republic: Liberia.[v]
However, this short glimpse at African American history leaves several unanswered questions. Why did Finley’s proposal gain popularity among white elites, many of whom were slaveholding Southern politicians who detested the emancipation of blacks? How did African Americans perceive and respond to this solution of seeking “refuge in the land of their fathers”? What methods did the American Colonization Society employ to establish a settlement in a distant land originally occupied by indigenous tribes? And, how did an immigrant community of twelve thousand African Americans found an African Republic?
Although the members of the Colonization Society seemed to aspire to benevolence, their true motivation stemmed from racism; the white majority, disturbed by an emerging free black population, sought to prevent the former slaves from appropriately integrating into the American society, and this proposed mass deportation emerged as a viable solution. The process by which the Society acquired territory from native tribes often involved violence as emigrated blacks capitalized on superior military technology to reinforce their dominance over the “uncivilized savages.” Then, ironically, the African Americans who returned to their “homeland” justified their authority and governance over indigenous tribes by imitating the very practices of racism and Christian superiority employed by White Americans.
Next Chapter (October 31, 2017): Racism in Nineteenth Century America
[i] John-Peter Pham, Liberia: Portrait of a Failed State (New York, NY: Reed Press, 2004), 6.
[ii] Charles Henry Huberich, The Political and Legislative History of Liberia (Clark, NJ: Lawbook Exchange, 2010), xx.
[iii] Pham, Liberia: Portrait, 6.
[iv] Ibid., 19.
[v] Benjamin G. Dennis and Anita K. Dennis, Slaves to Racism: An Unbroken Chain from America to Liberia (New York, NY: Algora Pub., 2008), 20.