The Back-to-Africa movement, also known as the Colonization movement or After slave act, originated in the United States during the 19th century. It encouraged those of African descent to return to the African homelands of their ancestors. This movement would eventually inspire other movements, ranging from the Nation of Islam to the Rastafari movement and proved to be popular among African Americans.
In the early 19th century, the black population in the United States increased dramatically. Much of the African American population were freed people seeking opportunity. Many Southern freed blacks migrated to the industrial North to seek employment, while others moved to surrounding Southern states. Their progress was met with hostility, as many whites were not used to sharing space with blacks in a context outside of chattel slavery. Many did not believe that free Africans had a place in America; viewing the existence of free blacks as undermining to the system of slavery, and may inspire slaves to revolt.
In the North, many whites feared that they would lose jobs to free African Americans. Many whites were also opposed to integrating blacks within the population.
Such sentiment was not exclusive to northerners. In Virginia, one proponent of the Colonization movement, Solomon Parker of Hampshire County, was quoted as having said: “I am not willing that the Man or any of my Blacks shall ever be freed to remain in the United States.... Am opposed to slavery and also opposed to freeing blacks to stay in our Country and do sincerely hope that the time is approaching when our Land shall be rid of them."
Riots swept the nation in waves, usually in urban areas where there had been recent migration of blacks from the South. The height of these riots was in 1819, with 25 riots recorded; resulting in many injuries and fatalities. The back-to-Africa movement was seen as the solution to these problems by both groups, with more support from the white population than the black population. Blacks often viewed the project with skepticism, particularly among the middle-class, who feared that the Colonization movement was a ploy to deport freed African Americans to restrict their efforts against slavery. Shortly after the foundation of the American Colonization Society, 3,000 free blacks gathered in a church in Philadelphia and issued forth a declaration stating that they "will never separate ourselves voluntarily from the slave population of the country." Similarly, black leaders, such as James Forten, who had previously supported the Colonization Movement, changed their minds as a result of widespread black resistance to the idea.
Religious motivations for colonization
Following the Great Awakening, in which America was swept by a wave of religious fervor, many enslaved African Americans converted to Christianity. At the same time, many religious people in America struggled to reconcile slavery with their beliefs.
When the enslaved population of America was mostly Muslim or practiced indigenous African religions, slavery was substantiated on Christian evangelical grounds. In the 19th century, many religious Americans found it difficult to continue supporting the enslavement of their brothers in Christ, especially amongst the Quakers. Two examples of such Christians are Reverend Moses Tichnell and Reverend Samuel R. Houston, who freed slaves and sent them to Liberia in 1855 and 1856 respectively. These two men, believing they were morally obligated to finance such voyages, played an important role in the colonization movement.
American Colonization Society
The American Colonization Society (ACS) was an early advocate of the idea of resettling American-born blacks in Africa. Founded in 1816 by Charles Fenton Mercer, it was composed of two core groups: abolitionists and slave owners. Abolitionist members believed in freeing African slaves, along with their descendants, and providing them with the opportunity to return to Africa. Slave owning members believed free blacks endangered the system of slavery and sought to expel them from America.
Since its inception, the American Colonization Society struggled to garner support from within free black communities. During the late 1840s and early 1850s, the creation of an independent Liberian state splintered the nearly uniform voice against colonization. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 provided the United States government ample power to recapture fugitive slaves. Following its passage, many black leaders promoted emigration and colonization to a nation that would provide and protect their rights.
In spite of this, several black critics were outspoken against the Back-to-Africa movement and the activities of the American Colonization Society. A report from a free black political conference in New York warned: "all kinds of chicanery and stratagem will be employed to allure the people [to the colony]...the independence of its inhabitants; the enjoyment and privileges of its citizens, will be pictured forth in glowing colors, to deceive you."
According to the Encyclopedia of Georgia History and Culture, "as early as 1820, black Americans had begun to return to their ancestral homeland through the auspices of the American Colonization Society." By 1847, the American Colonization Society founded Liberia, a land to be settled by black people returning from the United States of America. Between 1822 and the American Civil War, the American Colonization Society had migrated approximately 15,000 free blacks back to Africa.
Notable members of the American Colonization Society included Thomas Buchanan, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, Abraham Lincoln, James Madison, Daniel Webster, John Marshall, and Francis Scott Key.
Other pre-Civil War attempts
In 1811, Paul Cuffee, "a black man who was a wealthy man of property, a petitioner for equal rights for blacks" began to explore the idea of black people returning to their native land; convinced that "opportunities for the advancement of black people were limited in America, and he became interested in African colonization." With the help of Quakers in Philadelphia, he was able to transport 38 blacks to Freetown, Sierra Leone in 1815.
The back-to-Africa movement eventually began to decline, but would see a revival again in 1877 at the end of the Reconstruction era, as many blacks in the South faced violence from groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. Interest among the South's black population in African emigration peaked during the 1890s, a time when racism reached its peak and the greatest number of lynchings in American history took place. The continued experience of segregation, discrimination, and the belief that they would never achieve true equality attracted many blacks to a Pan-African emancipation in their motherland.
The movement declined again following many hoaxes and fraudulent activities associated with the movement. According to Crumrin, however, the most important reason for the decline in the back-to-Africa movement was that the "vast majority of those who were meant to colonize did not wish to leave. Most free blacks simply did not want to go "home" to a place from which they were generations removed. America, not Africa, was their home and they had little desire to migrate to a strange and forbidding land not their own."
Florida Governor Napoleon Bonaparte Broward (1905-1909) called for blacks to be permanently moved to a territory the federal government would purchase either foreign or domestic. After buying their respective properties, a territory would be established where blacks could not leave, and whites could not enter. This idea never came to fruition, and there is no known evidence of where this territory was intended to be.
Early 20th century attempts at resettlement were made, such as those by Chief Alfred Sam between 1913 and 1915. The eventual disillusionment of those who migrated to the North, and the frustrations of struggling to cope with urban life set the scene for the back-to-Africa movement of the 1920s, established by Marcus Garvey. Many of those who migrated to the Northern States from the South found that, although they were financially better off, they remained at the bottom both economically and socially.
The history of Liberia (after European arrival) is unique in Africa; starting neither as a native state, nor as a European colony. With the departure of the first ship to Africa in 1820, the American Colonization Society established colonies for free blacks from the United States on the coast of West Africa. The first American ships were uncertain of where they were heading. Their plan was to follow the paths that the British had taken, or simply take a chance on where they would land. At first, they followed the previous routes of the British and reached the coast of Sierra Leone. After leaving Sierra Leone, the Americans slowly reached the southern part of the African coastline.
The Americans were eventually successful, arriving at what the British had named the Grain Coast. The name of this region referred to the type of ginger spice used for medicine flavoring, aframomum meleguete. Along the Grain Coast, local African chiefs willingly gave the Americans tracts of land. Over the course of twenty years, a series of fragmented settlements sprung across Liberia's barely settled beach. Along with the difficulty of gaining enough land, life proved hard for these early settlers. Disease was widespread, along with the lack of food. Hostile tribes presented the settlers with great struggle, destroying some of their new land settlements. Almost half of the new settlers had died over the first twenty years since their arrival in Liberia.
Liberia gained independence on 26 July 1847.:5 With an elected black government and the offer of free land to African American settlers, Liberia became the most common destination of emigrating African Americans during the 19th century.:2 Newly arriving African Americans to Liberia experienced many challenges, including broken family ties, high mortality rates, and a difficult adjustment period. A group of 43 African Americans from Christiansburg, Virginia, left for Liberia in 1830, suffering high mortality rates. "Eighty percent of the emigrants were dead within ten years of landing there, most of them victims of malaria; another ten percent quit the colony, with the majority fleeing to Sierra Leone." Many African Americans who survived this period of adjustment in Liberia became fond of the country.
Black interest in Liberian emigration emerged when the Civil War promised the end of slavery and meaningful change to the status of Black Americans. Some 7,000 enslaved people were freed by their masters, so at that point those free African Americans left the U.S. to escape racism and have more opportunities (mainly because they had lost all hope of achievement). In the 1830s, the movement became increasingly dominated by slave owners who wanted Liberia to absorb the free blacks of the South. Slaves freed from slave ships were sent here instead of their country of origin. The emigration of free blacks to Liberia particularly increased after the Nat Turner rebellion in 1831. Middle-class blacks were more resolved to live as black Americans, many rural poor folks gave up on the United States and looked to Liberia to construct a better life. Liberia provided freedom and equality; it also represented a chance for a better life for the South's black farmers. The Liberian government promised 25 acres of free land for each immigrant family, 10 acres for a single adult, who came to the Black Republic. In the early 19th century, Liberia evoked mixed images in the minds of black Americans. They viewed Liberia as a destination for black families who left the United States in search of a better way of life, returning to their ancestral homeland of Africa.:2–9
As noted by researcher Washington Hyde, "Black Americans - who in the time of slavery lost their original languages and much of their original culture, gained a distinctly American, English-speaking Christian identity, and had no clear idea of precisely where in the wide continent of Africa their ancestors had come from - were perceived by the natives of Liberia as foreign settlers. Having an African ancestry and a black skin color were definitely not enough. Indeed, their settlement in Liberia had much in common with the contemporary white settlement of the American Frontier and these settlers' struggle with Native American tribes (...). The Liberian experience can also be considered as anticipating that of Zionism and Israel - with Jews similarly seeking redemption through a return to an ancestral land and similarly being regarded as foreign interlopers by the local Arab tribes. It would take Americo-Liberians a century and more to become truly accepted as one of Liberia's ethnic groups(...). All of which certainly contributed to most Black Americans rejecting the Back-to-Africa option and opting instead for seeking equal rights in America."
Ex-slave repatriation or the immigration of African-American, Caribbean, and Black British slaves to Africa occurred mainly during the late 18th century to mid-19th century. In the cases of Liberia and Sierra Leone both were established by former slaves who were repatriated to Africa within a 28-year period.
The first attempt by the British government to settle people in Sierra Leone in 1787 sent 300 former slaves on the Sierra Leone peninsula in West Africa. Two years later most members of the settlement were killed off by disease and complications with the local Temne people. In 1792, a second attempt was made when 1,100 freed slaves established Freetown behind the British abolitionist Thomas Clarkson. Many of these inhabitants were unhappy with where they were resettled in Canada after the American Revolution and were eager to return to their homeland.
In 1815 the first freed slaves from the United States arrived in Sierra Leone, when Paul Cuffe brought the first group of thirty-eight migrants. Five years later, in 1820, minister Daniel Coker lead a group of ninety free blacks in hopes of founding a new colony in Sierra Leone. He intended to proselytize Christianity among the Africans. After leaving New York on the ship Elizabeth, his voyage ended on an island just off the coast of Sierra Leone. Arriving just before the rains of spring, the group of immigrants were soon stricken with fever. The survivors soon fled to Freetown, and the settlement disintegrated.
The American Colonization Society came under attack from American abolitionists, who insisted that the removal of the freed slaves from the United States strengthened the institution of slavery.
The repatriation of slaves to Africa from the United Kingdom, and its dependencies, was initiated by the Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor, and was later on taken up by the Sierra Leone Company. In time, African American Black Loyalists and West Indians would immigrate to the colony of Freetown, Sierra Leone, in smaller numbers in efforts led by black merchants or beneficiaries such as Paul Cuffe.
More recently the African-American actor Isaiah Washington, a titled chief of the Mende people, has received Sierra Leonean citizenship due to his ancestral descent from the Mendes. Due to this, other members of the African diaspora that are also of Sierra Leonean descent can apply for citizenship as well if their descent is verified by a DNA test, as Mr. Washington's was.
Notable repatriated people
- Joseph Jenkins Roberts – first President of Liberia and founding father
- Thomas Peters (black leader) – African-American Black Loyalist leader and founder of Freetown, Sierra Leone
- William Coleman – President of Liberia
- Stephen Allen Benson – President of Liberia
- David George – African-American Baptist preacher
- Boston King – African-American Methodist missionary
- Henry Washington (or Harry Washington) – African-born slave to first U.S. President George Washington
- Daniel Coker – African-American missionary to Sierra Leone
- Edward Jones (missionary) – American missionary to Sierra Leone
- Edward J. Roye – President of Liberia, and first president from the True Whig Party
- John Russwurm – founder of Freedom's Journal, the first black newspaper in the United States
- David Jenkins, Black Zion: The Return of Afro-Americans and West Indians to Africa (London: Wildwood House, 1975), pp. 41-3.
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- Dr. Washington Hyde, The Tortuous Route of Black American History, Ch. 3, 5.
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- Campbell, James. Middle Passage: African American Journeys to Africa, 1787–2005. New York: Penguin Press, 2006.
- Clegg III, Claude A. The Price of Liberty: African Americans and the Making of Liberia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
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