Eighty-six freed American slaves set sail for Africa on this day in 1820, to found the settlement that eventually became Liberia. Guided by the American Colonization Society, a group of American Quakers and slaveholders, and backed by a $100,000 grant from Congress — many politicians regarded repatriation a better alternative than emancipation — the first group of settlers were joined by some 20,000 other freed slaves over the next four decades. Though only 5 percent of the new nation’s population, the Americo-Liberians controlled the government and the economy until the quarter century of coups and civil wars that began in 1980.
Alan Huffman’s Mississippi in Africa (2004) tells how the slaves of Prospect Hill, a Mississippi cotton plantation, were at the center of an interesting and ironic chapter in the larger story of Liberia’s settlement:
There were legions of wealthy planters in Jefferson County before the Civil War, but what set [Isaac] Ross apart was that he ordained, from his deathbed, the destruction of the very thing that he had spent his life building up — his prosperous, 5,000-acre plantation. Ross’s will, which was probated in 1836, described a radical plan to ensure that his life did not end as might have been expected, its sum total reduced to an embarrassment of riches for his heirs, and a hopeless fate for the slaves on whose backs his fortune was made. Ross stipulated [that] Prospect Hill would be sold and the money used to pay the way for his slaves who wanted to emigrate to Liberia.
Perhaps understandably, the plantation owner’s white heirs violently contested his will; but the resettlement plan also aroused wider opposition in both America and Africa:
Opponents, including many abolitionists, saw the effort as essentially a deportation of free blacks, while supporters — who also included abolitionists — were embarrassed by reports that some of the freed-slave immigrants had resorted to enslaving members of Liberia’s indigenous tribes. Many of the new settlers, including some of the Prospect Hill immigrants, established large plantations and built grand mansions in the same Greek Revival style they had known back home, and some of the native tribes had a name for them, which is still occasionally used to refer to blacks of American ancestry: white.
To extend the irony, some descendants of Prospect Hill’s first wave of Americo-Liberians have fled the civil wars that consumed their country in the 1990s and are now “back home” in the United States.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.