Why Black Americans Should Honor the History of Liberia

This post was originally published on Word In Black.

By: Roger House

The Republic of Liberia was controversial when founded by free Black emigrants from the U.S. during the darkest days of slavery. Today, it is a symbol of their successful colonial experiment. Yet the country holds little sway in the public imagination, an oversight that needs correction—and all the more so during an election year when politicians are neglecting history for their advantage.

The history of Liberia should be honored as much as the independence holiday of Juneteenth, and the Congressional Black Caucus and Library of Congress should include it in commemorations. That is the land of liberty known as Liberia, set on the west coast of Africa at the bend of the Gulf of Guinea. It was the second Black republic after Haiti, founded two centuries ago by free people as most of their peers were in chains. The region that became Liberia was long known by European traders as the “Grain Coast” for its agricultural products. That distinction vanished when the demand for slaves made selling people more lucrative than selling pepper.

The Liberia project was controversial within the small and hard-pressed community of free Black people, which comprised about 10% of the Black population in the antebellum period. One reason for suspicion was the promotion by white powerbrokers of the American Colonization Society (ACS), founded in 1817.

The group included prominent figures such as Henry Clay, the senator from Kentucky, and John Randolph, a congressman from Virginia. They endorsed a relocation project for free Black people who were interested in a new start. These white supporters wanted to cull the free population as it expanded after the Revolutionary War, in part as a result of the emancipations of some 5,000 Black soldiers who fought alongside their white American counterparts against the British.

The question of emigration became a major topic of discussion in Black conventions throughout the early 19th century. Most objected to the idea as a scheme to rid the land of people best positioned to challenge the perpetuation of slavery. They also argued that, after 200 years of sacrifice in labor and blood, they were entitled to citizenship and a piece of the turf.

Supporters of the project, always a minority viewpoint, argued that life was too short to wait on citizenship and the end of slavery. Whatever the motives of the ACS, they viewed it as an opportunity to pioneer a new life away from the slavocracy of America. So, like the Pilgrims who fled religious persecution in 1620, a group of free Blacks fled racial subjugation in 1820. And like the Pilgrims, they encountered years of hardship, hunger, disease, and death, but they persevered until the colony was stable.

In 1824, these free Blacks initiated a gradual process of separation from the ACS. They drafted a constitution and formed a government—and, unlike the U.S., their constitution forbade slavery and participation in the slave trade. The largest settlement was named Monrovia in honor of former U.S. President James Monroe, and the unification of several settlements became Liberia.

Who were some of the early settlers to establish the first African Republic? There was Lott Carey, one of the founders of Monrovia. Born into slavery in Virginia, Carey bought his freedom in 1813 and became a popular lay preacher. He organized the Richmond African Baptist Missionary and emigrated to Liberia with members of the mission in 1821. He organized a native workforce for export crops, established a trade company, and served as governor of Monrovia in 1828.

And there was John Russwurm, only the third free Black person to graduate from an American college, Bowdoin in Maine. In 1827, he co-founded Freedom’s Journal in New York, believed to be the first Black-owned newspaper. He went to Liberia as the colonial secretary for the ACS in 1830. There, he established the first Western-style newspaper in Africa, The Liberia Herald, and was appointed governor of the Maryland settlement.

No one was as important as Joseph Jenkins Roberts, the first president of the republic. In 1829, when he was 20 years old, Roberts emigrated to Liberia from Virginia, becoming a merchant and aide to the white governor of the colony. In 1842, he was appointed the first Black governor of Liberia, with an agenda to cut ties with the ACS.

On July 26, 1847, Liberia declared its independence to the world. Roberts was elected president and negotiated peace treaties with indigenous nations, ending a series of tit-for-tat skirmishes. The new republic was recognized by Britain, France, Portugal, Austria, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and Haiti. The U.S. dragged its feet until 1862, when President Abraham Lincoln recognized it during the Civil War, no doubt with an eye on the growing number of enslaved people abandoning plantations.

Liberia drew the attention of thousands of Blacks with skills and education in the second half of the century. One was Edward Wilmot Blyden, who was born in the U.S. Virgin Islands in 1832 and lived in the U.S. around 1850. He went to Liberia to teach high school and flourished under the freedom of the Black state. He became a renaissance man, teaching theology, the classics, geography, and mathematics. He authored five books, including “African Life and Customs,” a pioneering work of tribal anthropology.

After the Civil War, Blyden, then secretary of state and professor of classics at Liberia College, returned to the U.S. to recruit others, attracting a final wave of settlers after the disappointment of the Reconstruction experience.

Today, Liberia is a stable constitutional republic of 5.5 million people, and one of only two African states (along with Ethiopia) to avoid European colonization. It was an ally of the U.S. during World War II, providing the critical commodity of rubber. After suffering two civil wars in the late 20th century, it bounced back in 2006 under President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first woman elected to head an African state and the recipient of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize.

What is important for Black History Month is the appreciation of the daring shown by the early pioneers—how they dreamed of building a free and prosperous state during the time of slavery, how they embarked on that dream, and how the dream might be applied in Black communities today.

About Post Author

From the Web

Skip to content