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Journey of Hope The Back-to-Africa Movement in Arkansas in the Late 1800s
By Kenneth C. Barnes
The University of North Carolina Press Copyright © 2004 The University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.
Chapter One The Liberia Exodus Arkansas Colony, 1877-1880
On 23 November 1877, a convention of nearly one hundred black delegates and observers assembled at the Third Baptist Church of Helena, Arkansas, to make plans for a mass migration to Liberia. Calling themselves the Liberia Exodus Arkansas Colony, the delegates resolved:
That we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And WHEREAS, In the United States of North America many of our people have been debarred by law from the rights and privileges of freemen, and even now public sentiment-more powerful than law-frowns us down. We are made a separate and distinct class, and against us many avenues to improvement and eminence are effectually closed. Strangers from all lands, of a color different from ours, are preferred before us. Therefore, Resolved, That we continue to seek an asylum from this deep degradation by going to Liberia, on the western coast of Africa, where we will be permitted to more fully exercise and improve those faculties which impart to man his dignity, and to evince to all who despise, ridicule and oppress our race, that we possess with them a common nature, and are susceptible of equal refinement and equal advancement in all that dignifies man, and that we are capable of self-government.
This eloquent statement reveals both the push and the pull motivations for emigration: the deteriorating racial climate of the American South combined with the magnetic attraction of Liberia, a stirring symbol for black hopes. Conditions in Arkansas's delta region, near the Mississippi River, provided the motivations for the state's first back-to-Africa movement, although it would prove to be short-lived. In some ways, Arkansas would seem a less probable location for an African emigration movement than other southern states. Under the firm hand of so-called carpetbagger Republican governor Powell Clayton, Reconstruction policies had achieved more success in Arkansas than elsewhere in the South. Clayton's first months as governor in the fall of 1868 saw an intense confrontation with conservative Democratic forces organized as the Ku Klux Klan. But Clayton met the challenge decisively by declaring martial law and organizing militia companies of local black and white Republicans to police a large part of the state. Clayton's willingness to use force distinguished him from most other Republican governors in the South. The heavy-handed tactics made him a hated figure to white Democrats for several generations, but Reconstruction in Arkansas after 1868 was relatively peaceful. With more than 8,000 white men serving in Union blue during the Civil War, more than any other Confederate state except Tennessee, Arkansas had many white Unionists joining with freedmen to form a sizable block of Republican voters. Arkansas's Reconstruction struggles of the 1870s resulted more from factions within the Republican Party than from an overpowering Democratic opposition. Reconstruction ended in Arkansas in 1874 with one last blowout, the Brooks-Baxter War, fought by two rival groups who supported two Republican politicians, each claiming to be the lawful governor. Elections that followed in 1874 brought Democrats into control of both the statehouse and legislature. But the Democratic takeover did not mean the end of black political power, as in some other southern states. No evidence suggests a decline in black voting or political officeholding, or a violent backlash against people of color immediately following Reconstruction's end. The new Democratic governor, Augustus H. Garland, campaigned on promises to protect black voting rights and provide access to free public schools. As governor, he opened the Branch Normal College in Pine Bluff to train black teachers and named an African American, Joseph C. Corbin, as its first principal. After Democrats had firmly reestablished control of state government, some whites in black-majority Lee County tried to oust the black elected sheriff, W. H. Furbush. However, Governor Garland refused to allow it, saying they had no legal grounds on which to remove him. Black Republicans so highly regarded the Democratic governor that five black representatives in the Arkansas legislature broke ranks with their party in 1877 to vote for Garland in his bid to become a U.S. senator. Some northerners held up the Redeemer government of Arkansas as a model for other southern states, and even Arkansas Republican leaders admitted that Democratic rule had been peaceful and fair after the end of Reconstruction.
African Americans made up just over a quarter of Arkansas's population in the 1870s, so Democrats did not need to worry, as they did in South Carolina and Louisiana, about black votes controlling state politics. In the 1876 presidential election, the Republican candidate polled about 40 percent of the state's popular vote, which suggests that blacks voted freely and in large numbers. African Americans formed a majority of the population in about a dozen counties in the delta area of eastern Arkansas. There the democratic process enabled black politicians to occupy many county offices and take seats in the state legislature. Ned Hill, for example, headed the Republican legislative ticket in black-majority Jefferson County for the first post-Reconstruction General Assembly in 1875. A man who knew him said Hill was a black man "who could neither read nor write, but whose fighting weight was two hundred pounds, drunk or sober. His ticket was overwhelmingly elected." Rather than restricting black political rights, the new Democratic state government took more subtle but damaging economic measures. In 1875, lawmakers passed two new acts that gave planters and persons with wealth more control over the rural poor, black or white, who worked the land. One law approved a system of mortgages granted on future crops whereby small farmers could borrow in the spring from a landlord or merchant using the expected fall harvest, preferably cotton, as collateral. Farmers dubbed these mortgages "anaconda" mortgages after the snake that squeezes its victim to death. The second law gave landlords a lien on the crops of an indebted tenant and forbade the worker to leave until the agreed-upon terms of service had expired. Taken together, the laws encouraged landless farmers into debt and then gave more control to the planters and merchants to whom they were indebted. In the same legislative session in 1875, the assembly passed another draconian measure aimed specifically at the poor, a larceny law that made the theft of any goods worth more than two dollars punishable by up to a five-year prison term. The state prison population jumped dramatically in the late 1870s, with black prisoners outnumbering white. Without space to house all the inmates, state officials increasingly leased out convicts as virtual slave labor under deplorable conditions. Thus, even though black Arkansans retained political rights after Reconstruction's end, their economic position and freedom of movement sustained losses. But with the federal retreat in 1877 indicated by President Hayes's southern policy, African Americans immediately perceived a significant change in their status and well-being. In the black-majority Arkansas delta, some people responded with efforts to escape to Africa. On 15 August 1877, just shortly after the clamor for African migration had begun in South Carolina and Louisiana, the Reverend Anthony L. Stanford, a Methodist preacher and physician, inquired about the terms to resettle about 5,000 black Arkansans in Liberia. He addressed his questions to AME Church leader Henry M. Turner, who held the honorary position of vice president of the American Colonization Society (ACS). Turner passed on the letter to ACS secretary William Coppinger, who asked Stanford how many of his 5,000 emigrants could pay the one hundred dollars it cost the ACS to transport and provision each settler. Not put off by this response, Stanford busily prepared for a convention in November to discuss a mass migration to Liberia. A flamboyant man of questionable character, Stanford proved to be an able leader of the emigration movement. Born free in Greenwich, New Jersey, in 1830, by the close of the Civil War he served as pastor of Savannah's St. Phillip Church, the first African Methodist Episcopal congregation in Georgia. There he met Henry Turner, who arrived in 1865 to organize AME churches elsewhere in the state. By the later 1860s, Stanford had moved to Philadelphia, where he claimed to have graduated from the Eclectic Medical College, a school closed down in 1880 for selling and giving away diplomas. In the early 1870s, Stanford worked at the AME Church headquarters in Philadelphia, managing the publications department. However, in early 1872, allegations surfaced that he had embezzled money, left his wife, and disappeared in the company of a young woman who clerked in his office. Evidently, Stanford made his way to Jackson, Mississippi, where he practiced medicine. After serving a jail sentence in Canton, Mississippi, he had by the fall of 1872 moved west to Helena, Arkansas, an old port town on the Mississippi River. There he entered politics and was elected in 1876 to a four-year term as state senator, representing the black-majority counties of Lee and Phillips. Scott Bond, a prosperous black farmer in eastern Arkansas, later remembered that Stanford came through his neighborhood recruiting emigrants for Liberia. Stanford was such an effective salesman for his cause, Bond said, he could "almost talk the horns off a frozen cow."
By the time of the emigration convention in November, Stanford had disseminated the information about Liberia he received from the ACS and had apparently organized at least twenty-eight emigration clubs in eastern Arkansas. The clubs, under Stanford's leadership, had drafted a constitution for the movement, which called itself the Liberia Exodus Arkansas Colony, obviously following the lead of the South Carolina group of a few months earlier. According to the constitution, the colony would be divided into companies of no more than one hundred; each would be represented at the convention, with one delegate per fifty members. As in a secret society, one could not join the club without the sponsorship of an existing member and acceptance by the group. Five black balls in the vote would be sufficient to exclude someone. Members would pay an initiation fee of $1.25 and then monthly dues of a quarter. Upon membership, one kissed the Bible and took a loyalty oath that included a clause requiring secrecy about the business of the organization. Members could be expelled for immoral, drunken, or felonious behavior. Once organized, clubs would hold monthly meetings, each following an established order of business beginning with the singing of the missionary hymn "From Greenland's Icy Mountains." While Stanford's letters to the ACS had made allusions to poverty and political oppression as motives for emigration, the constitution of the Liberia Exodus Colony spoke less of black desire to leave the United States than about a responsibility to redeem and elevate Africa. The colony pledged to take to Liberia "the implements of husbandry, mechanics, artizens, school-teachers, preachers, doctors and lawyers, wealth and refinement, a higher and nobler christian manhood to develop the resources of that country ... and to redeem its tens of millions to Christ." As if to help elevate the material standards of Liberia, the constitution directed emigrants to take with them "stoves, pans, kettles, bedsteads, bedding, chairs, sofas, lounges, pianos and organs, carpets, pictures, and everything that conduces to refinement and education, with books in vast number and variety." These words clearly reflected Dr. Stanford's middle-class vision. While the poor farmers who formed the bulk of the colony's membership may have lacked the pianos, carpets, and instruments of refinement, apparently they, too, believed they could do much, as Christian Americans, to bring civilization to a dark continent. At the two-day convention that convened in Helena in November, delegates representing clubs in Phillips, Lee, Cross, and St. Francis Counties quickly elected Stanford as chairman of the Liberia Exodus Arkansas Colony. After considerable speechmaking-each speaker limited to five minutes-the delegates spent most of their time deliberating about the choice of two of their number to travel to Liberia as "commissioners" to scout out the land, choose a suitable location for settlement, and then return to Arkansas and report to the group. Delegates resolved to pay the commissioners a salary of $1,000 if married men, or $700 if single, and up to one $100 each for transportation. Dr. Stanford was unanimously elected as one commissioner. Brother A. Dennis was proposed as the second, but after much discussion, he was deemed too old to stand up to the rigors of such travel and replaced by a younger man, Charles F. Hicks. As a last act before adjourning, the all-male convention resolved that women could join the colony and were asked to pay reduced dues of fifty cents. After the meeting, Stanford sent the ACS $175 to book cabin passage for himself and Hicks aboard the bark Liberia, chartered by the ACS to transport fifty-three settlers in less commodious steerage accommodations. The Liberia sailed from New York on the morning of 9 January 1878 and arrived in Monrovia in early February. Stanford and Hicks spent two months in Liberia, traveling throughout the settlements near Monrovia and along the coast as far south as Cape Palmas. Just before the Azor arrived from South Carolina, Stanford and Hicks returned to the United States, enthusiastic about Africa and emigration. Hicks said: "Africa is the home for the freeman, and his able sons and daughters where-ever they may be found in the United States." Stanford was somewhat more chastened in his views. While he still viewed Africa as the black man's home, he concluded that emigrants required means of support in their new land or they easily became a burden on the ACS and the country itself. Stanford recommended that emigrants come from the "more enterprising, hardworking, moral and intelligent class," not the "indolent, ignorant, and immoral class of American Negroes." Upon his return voyage to New York, Stanford worked his way back to Arkansas by lecturing about Africa in cities such as Philadelphia, Wilmington, Baltimore, and Washington. Stanford declared that he planned to gather his family and prepare for permanent emigration to Liberia. By the time the commissioners returned home in May with their favorable report, Liberia fever had broken out in eastern Arkansas.
Excerpted from Journey of Hope by Kenneth C. Barnes Copyright © 2004 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
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