Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Were Freed Slaves Repatriated Back To Africa?

"Departure of  colored emigrants for Liberia", The Illustrated American, 1896
A reader wrote to ask if the federal government ever made it possible to return blacks back to their homelands in Africa. She asked, "why weren't slaves returned to Africa after being freed?"

From what I gather, toward the end of the Civil War, one of the biggest questions being asked was what to do with all of the freed slaves? There were those who wanted to know if the United States could really be a home to free blacks and freed slaves? Many wanted to know, would freed slaves want to return to Africa?

Let's keep in mind that we the people of the United States won our freedom from England at the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783. A mere 25 years later in 1808, President Thomas Jefferson stopped the importation of African slaves into the United States. From 1808 to 1861, African slaves brought into the United States were done so illegally. My point is that Americans were working on getting rid of slavery for decades.

The most population idea in the early 1800's was repatriating freed slaves back to Africa, or somewhere other than the United States that appealed to them. In a letter to Edward Coles, on August 25, 1814, Thomas Jefferson suggests the "expatriation" of slaves from the United States. He and others at the time were already looking at plans for "emancipation with colonization." That is, to give freed slaves their own homeland outside the U.S. since most had no idea what part of Africa they come from.

In that 1814 letter, Jefferson wrote, "I have seen no proposition so expedient . . . as that of emancipation of those slaves born after a given day, and of their education and expatriation at a proper age."

Did Thomas Jefferson abhor slavery and want to create a homeland for returning freed slaves? I believe he did, and would eventually decide that Africa was the best destination for them to have their own country. After leaving the presidency, he would give his support to a group to see that happen.

That group was the American Society for Colonizing the Free People of Color in the United State, more commonly known as the American Colonization Society. The group was formed in 1816 to send freed slaves back to Africa. Besides the support of former-president Jefferson and sitting President James Madison, the American Colonization Society had other very prominent members including Francis Scott Key, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, as well as future presidents James Monroe and Andrew Jackson.

What may be surprising to some is the fact that many of the members were slave-owners at the time. While many slave-owners opposed freedom for slaves until they would be able to find another source of cheap labor, those slave-owners who were members of the American Colonization Society viewed repatriation as a way to avoid rebellions. Their motive for repatriation was just one of several political motives of those belonging to that group.

Fact is, there were several in Washington D.C. who saw the murderous turmoil that took place in Haiti in 1804 during that slave rebellion and subsequent massacre there as a warning to the United States. Others were affiliated with the group were also connected to religious groups and anti-slavery groups that simply wanted to abolish slavery. They saw repatriation to Africa as a solution for America that was long overdue.

While some depict the organization as being run by Quakers, from what I can tell, that's not true as they were multi-denominational. Quakers at the time did expose the belief that free-born blacks and freed slaves in the United States would have a better chance of obtaining a fuller measure of freedom in Africa. Remember, this was 50 years before President Lincoln wrote the Emancipation Proclamation.

At this point, I don't want to mislead my readers by making you think that creating a colony in Africa for the purpose of repatriating freed slaves back to Africa was either Thomas Jefferson's or that group's idea. It was a notion that was thrown around by various religious groups and anti-slavery organizations for years in the United States and England.

It was the British who had "colonized" a settlement in Sierra Leone in what was called the "Province of Freedom". The British had been transporting freed slaves to Freetown, Sierra Leone, since its creation by the British in 1787. So no, the idea of resettling freed slaves in Africa through "colonization" of an area was not new. As for those who think "colonization" was always done to conquer, they should look at Freetown, Sierra Leone, and the large number of freed slaves that were settled there. 

As for the American efforts to do something similar, 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."

The American Colonization Society worked to secure land in West Africa, actually right next to the British colony of Sierra Leone. The American Colonization Society founded the colony of Liberia in 1821. That colony of Liberia became the nation of Liberia in 1847. Between 1821 and 1861, the American Colonization Society had migrated approximately 20,000 free-born blacks and freed slaves back to Africa.

While we should all recognize that the West African country of Liberia was founded by Americans specifically for free people of color to return to, although not the exact location where they were sold into slavery by African chiefs, we should also note that only a relatively few thousand freed slaves decided to emigrate back to Africa when given the chance to do so.

It should also be understood that not all freed slaves wanted to go back to Africa. In fact, many prominent black Americans at the time regarded the American Colonization Society with a great deal of hatred. One such black activist was James Forten who wrote attacked the group a year after its creation in 1817, writing, "We have no wish to separate from our present homes for any purpose whatever".

The Colored American was an African-American newspaper published in New York City from 1837 to 1842 by black Americans Samuel Cornish, Phillip Alexander Bell, and Charles Bennett Ray. The Colored American focused on "the moral, social, and political elevation of free colored people and the peaceful emancipation of slaves." The Colored American viewed colonization as a means of "defrauding" blacks of the rights of American citizenship.

A backslash against the plans for repatriation was that free-born blacks and even freed slaves began to view their ancestral homeland with contempt. In fact, blacks at the time dropped the use of the word "African" in the names of their organizations. Instead of "African American," organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People which was formed in 1909, simply used the term "Colored People" or "Colored American." 

Frederick Douglass was a black American who escaped from slavery in Maryland to become a social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman. He became a leader of the abolitionist movement and said of the colonization plan, "Shame upon the guilty wretches that dare propose, and all that countenance such a proposition. We live here, have lived here, have a right to live here, and mean to live here."

In contrast to Frederick Douglass' opinion of repatriation was that of black American abolitionist Martin Delany who is credited with slogan of "Africa for Africans." Delany was born as a free person of color in what is today West Virginia. He was an abolitionist, journalist, physician, writer, and was a Union Army officer who fought in the Civil War. He is believed to be the first proponent of "Black Nationalism". He believed black Americans deserved their own country in Central and South America. He believed that their own country in Central and South America was "the ultimate destination and future home of the colored race on this continent." 

Another notable member of the American Colonization Society was Abraham Lincoln. He was an advocate of their efforts to settle freed slaves in Liberia. As a matter of fact, for a long time, President Lincoln was in favor of returning former slaves to Africa. But he didn't stop with the idea of expatriating freed slaves to Africa, he saw them settling in an American colony in Central America. 

This is now where Linconia comes in. Linconia was the name of a proposed Central American colony which former slaves could be resettled. In fact, by 1862, President Lincoln had picked the Chiriquí Province in Panama as the perfect location to start a colony in Central America. 

During the summer of 1862, President Lincoln was in the midst of all sorts of problems pertaining to the Civil War. Though that was the case, he is said to have invited a group of prominent black Americans to the White House to discuss his plan to colonize a part of the Chiriquí Province in Panama. His plan was only in the preliminary stages. Even though that was true, his plan was not met with a favorable reaction from almost all there. Even after assuring them that the area he chose "had evidence of very rich coal mines, and among the finest harbors in the world," no one liked the idea. 

The name "Linconia" was suggested for the colony by Kansas Republican Senator Samuel Pomeroy in 1862. Pomeroy is said to have came up with the idea after President Lincoln asked the Senator and the Secretary of the Interior to work on a plan to resettle freed slaves outside the United States. It's said he saw the name "Linconia" as being similar to the name of Liberia's capital Monrovia which was derived from the name of American President James Monroe.

Though the plan was not met with open arms, Sen. Pomeroy was part of the team that headed the project and sought 100 freed slave families to travel with him to the Chiriquí Province as "Pioneers." Pomeroy would ultimately find over 500 families willing to be "Pioneers." It's said he was both disappointed and angry when their trip scheduled for October of 1862 was canceled, and the plan was scrubbed. 

While Sen. Pomeroy and others, to include Secretary of State William H. Seward, did in fact get permission from the Republic of New Granada and the area's landowner which was the Chiriquí Improvement Company to come and evaluate the prospective territory, the nations of Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Honduras felt threatened by the United States. 

While unfounded as they were at the time, there are some who say those nations saw the American colony of Linconia as unwanted American influence in Central America. Some say those Central American nations didn't want the influence of former black slaves in their region. Keep in mind, they too remembered the massacre in Haiti in 1804. 

The Haiti Massacre of 1804 was carried out against the French population and French Creoles that stayed in Haiti after the Haitian Revolution that same year. Earlier in 1804, General Jean-Jacques Dessalines assumed dictatorial power there. Under orders from Dessalines, squads of soldiers, mostly former black slaves, moved from house to house torturing and killing entire families. The massacre in Haiti took place from early January and through April of 1804. In all, it's believed that the death squads massacred about 5,000 innocent people. It was genocide. And later that same year, General Dessalines proclaimed himself Emperor Jacques I of Haiti. It was most fortunate for Haiti that he was killed two years later.

Because of their concerns of such things taking place in Central America, the nations of Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Honduras informed Washington D.C that they opposed President Lincoln's plan to create a colony in Panama. It's said that Secretary of State Seward informed those nations that no plan of a colony there would take place without the consent of all concerned. Because of their response, Secretary of State Seward advised President Lincoln of the growing disdain for the plan by all of the parties involved. President Lincoln decided to abandon the idea for a colony in Central America.

As for the American Colonization Society, it continued to operate with the help of the federal government which provided minimal support through the Freedmen's Bureau. And yes, there are those on both ends of the spectrum when it comes to seeing what the American Colonization Society actually did. Some say their efforts were in reality pro-slavery while others say the organization worked to free slaves to repatriate back to Africa -- thus making it an anti-slavery group.

While there are scholars who look at their role, there is no mistaking that the Americans Colonization Society was part of the spark which generated the Back-to-Africa Movement of the 1800's. The Back-to-Africa Movement of the 1800's took the 19th century view that Americans of African ancestry should return to the continent of Africa because it was their real home. 

No, not return to their specific homelands where their ancestors were sold into slavery by their tribe's Chiefs, homelands which were by then unknown, but to the continent of Africa. In general the Back-to-Africa Movement of the 1800's was an overwhelming failure. Yes, in the very same way that the American Colonization Society ended as a failure. 

Even though a colony for freed slaves in Central America did not materialize, President Lincoln is said to have believed that the federal government should return former slaves to Africa if they wanted to return to Africa. Union Army General Benjamin F. Butler once claimed that President  Lincoln told him of the black soldiers, "I believe that it would be better to export them all to some fertile country with a good climate, which they could have to themselves." Supposedly, President Lincoln told him that in 1865 months before being assassinated. 

Some say he publicly abandoned the idea of creating a colony after speaking about it with Frederick Douglass who told the president that "America is their homeland, not Africa." Others say President Lincoln thought it immoral to ask black soldiers to fight for the Union, but then ship them to Africa after their military service had ended. We do know that later in the war, President Lincoln abandoned the idea of colonization and came to believe that freed blacks had a legitimate claim to citizenship in America. He believed that so much, that he publicly supported all blacks getting the right to vote.

Since we live in a climate where race is now always a question, and I'm called a racist with almost everything that I write these days, there are those who will say President Lincoln had racial motivations for wanting freed slaves repatriated to their homeland. Those people will ironically assume that because he never gave up the idea of repatriation for free blacks, that that somehow made President Lincoln a racist. They dismiss the many options that he tried using to free slaves.

For example, the same year that President Lincoln is looking into creating a colony for freed slaves, he signed a bill ending slavery in the District of Columbia. On April 16, 1862, the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act became law a little more than 8 month before President Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation.

The District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act ended slavery in our nation's capital. It provided for immediate emancipation by compensating former owners who were loyal to the Union, and included an option to the freed slaves which was the availability of volunteering to join a colony of  former slaves outside the United States. It also paid up to $100 for each person choosing emigration. In the months to follow, the federal government paid of up to $300 each for slaves, which were said to be worth over $1,000 each, to freed the slaves of 930 former slave-owners. In all, former owners were paid to release almost 3,000 slaves.

The District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act of 1862 was one of many efforts attempted by President Lincoln to emancipate slaves. It's said both free-born blacks and freed slaves greeted emancipation with great jubilation in the District of Columbia. For many years afterward, the people of  the District of Columbia celebrated every April 16th as Emancipation Day with parades and festivals.

The naysayers, those who see racial problems where there are none, they cannot see the efforts of men like Abraham Lincoln who actually worked to free those in bondage. They also cannot see others like President Lincoln who belonged to the American Colonization Society believing that returning freed slaves back to Africa was in effect an attempt at righting a wrong perpetrated upon a race of people.  

Those who want to twist and spin history to fit their own hate for President Lincoln and others usually do so while purposely ignoring his and the efforts of others to right a wrong. For me, I believe that President Lincoln looked at all options when it came to ending slavery and stop the injustice of people in chains. I believe that after examining and exhausting all options including that of efforts at colonization which had been tried by others, President Lincoln issued the executive order we know as the Emancipation Proclamation. 

Tom Correa