An American History

Cape Palmas, Liberia. 1800s Etching. From oup.com

There has always been a current of feeling within US society that people of color do not truly “belong” in the United States and that they should “go back” to their own countries. One little-known and shocking episode of that history is the black colonization movement.

Author of the Declaration of Independence, President Jefferson was a brilliant writer and statesman. He was also a (mildly reluctant) slaveholder who favored the eventual abolition of slavery. He was born and bred in the green hills of Virginia, an identity which he cherished all his life. In the midst of the Revolutionary War, when he was only 36 years old, the citizens of Virginia selected him as their governor. He later went on to serve as the ambassador to the new nation’s most important ally, France, and then as the third president of the United States.

Thomas Jefferson. From Wikipedia

Jefferson’s home life was intimately involved with slavery. The estate he inherited when his father passed away included several hundred black slaves; Jefferson kept them in captivity for his whole life, as they grew his crops, built his home, and made his tools. Their homes were always small and their education minimal, as most white Americans in those times did not believe that black people were capable of being educated or owning their own property. What makes this view all the more reprehensible in Jefferson was a particular closeness which he shared with one of his slaves: Sally Hemings. Sally was a black slave with some European ancestry who had come to the Jefferson plantation with Jefferson’s wife Martha; if historians are correct she was also Martha’s half sister, from a recurring affair which their father had with a black slave woman. Shortly before his wife’s early death in 1782, Jefferson promised her he would not remarry. Nevertheless, he became peculiarly close to Sally, who he invited to join him in Europe in 1787 (she was only fourteen!). She served Jefferson there and remained in his household as he moved from New York City to Washington D.C. to Virginia, until his death. Along the way, she had five children, all of whom were definitively not from a black father; Jefferson freed her and all five children upon his death. It is widely assumed — and DNA evidence supports this — that the children were Jefferson’s own.

Given this history, it should come as no surprise that Jefferson had a complex relationship with the institution of slavery. He frequently wrote that he wanted it abolished, eventually, but not… yet. He was a key voice in the Northwest Ordinance of 1789, which prohibited slavery in newly acquired federal territories, though he later allowed slavery in the Louisiana Territory acquired under his presidency. And he presided over the abolition of importing slaves to the United States in 1808, which was anticipated in the original Constitution but was by no means assured. Jefferson’s support for the measure was significant. Yet still he never spoke publicly, definitively, against slavery.

It seems that one of Jefferson’s great objections to the slavery question, besides the South’s economic reliance on slaves for their cotton and tobacco plantations, was his objection to whites and blacks living together. To him, whites were European, blacks were African, and the two could not share one society. He believed blacks were genetically inferior to whites, a common belief for the time (though genuinely shocking given his day-to-day closeness with Sally Hemings and her children). His solution to this dilemma? Send free black people back to Africa.

It was a popular belief at the time, one which allowed white people to hold two contradictory statements in their minds: slavery was wrong, but free black people didn’t belong in America. America was a country for white people, carved out of old Native American territory through relentless Indian Wars and built by men of English ancestry and Protestant religion. They could end slavery, but they did not have to live with these people who they had brought to the country dozens or hundreds of years before, who knew no other culture or language. It was a deeply racist idea. It was also very popular.

Only in the time of Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) did that perception slowly change. It is hard to understate Douglass’s influence on the anti-slavery and colonization movement. But by the time Douglass came around, the movement had picked up a lot of steam.

In 1816, the American Colonization Society was established by a prominent coalition of anti-slavery activists and slaveholders fearful of the “corrupting” influence of free black people on their own slaves. Attendees at the first meeting in Washington, DC included future presidents James Monroe and Andrew Jackson, Star-Spangled Banner author Francis Scott Key, Senate giant Henry Clay, and George Washington’s son. (It is comparable to an organization being founded today by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Beyoncé, Mike Pence and Chelsea Clinton.) Five years later, with substantial help from Monroe in the White House, the Society purchased large tracts of land on the West African coast and began raising funds to send black colonists there, eventually establishing a colony named Liberia. The colony was administrated by white colonists, of course, and the death rates were catastrophic, but still — for some free black people in the United States, it seemed like the best option. Racism and discrimination made staying in the United States seem unbearable.

Campaigners like Frederick Douglass changed that perception. There were other anti-colonization activists, before Douglass, who you should read about as well. But if you only remember one name, remember Douglass. He was born into slavery in Maryland, around 1818, just after the founding of the American Colonization Society. When he was about twelve years old, the wife of one of his proprietors liked him and decided to teach him how to read. Douglass was bright and began devouring books, soon getting to the point where he could teach other slaves to read. But this enraged white slaveholders in the region, and the family was forced to send him to a harsher owner. Sixteen-year old Douglass was nearly whipped to death on that farm before one day, in desperation, he turned on his tormentor and beat him in hand-to-hand combat. The man never touched him again.

Frederick Douglass, 1863. From uncf.org

Douglass says that the experience changed his life. A realization of his own equality with white people began to grow inside him. And that realization was strengthened by his relationship with Anna Murray, a free black woman from Baltimore, Maryland. The two became exceptionally close, spending as much time as possible talking, and together they planned an escape for young Frederick. In 1838, at 20 years old, they smuggled him across state lines and to the house of an abolitionist in New York City, where Anna joined him shortly thereafter. Of the feeling, he wrote: “I lived more in one day than in a year of my slave life.”

He quickly became a superstar in the burgeoning anti-slavery movement. While there had been black voices before, it was Douglass whose fame matched that of white abolitionists for the first time in the nation’s history. His autobiography, published seven years after his escape, was a bestseller. He gave speaking tours in the United Kingdom, Ireland, and throughout the United States. He spoke in favor of women’s rights at the first women’s suffrage convention in 1848 and against religious support for slavery. He met personally with President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 and multiple times thereafter. Most importantly, he opposed the colonization movement: it was paternalistic, often fatal to black colonists, and thoroughly racist.

Lincoln, on the other hand, supported the colonization movement. He spoke in its favor at meetings of the American Colonization Society; as US president, he gave a grant to at least one white man who was organizing an expedition of several thousand free black people to Haiti. In the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates, he said, “There is physical difference between the two [races], which in my judgment will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality.” While this was his public opinion and may have differed from his private views, it seems most likely that he was personally skeptical of human equality between white and black people.

The 1863 meeting with Douglass appears to have changed things for Lincoln. He had issued the Emancipation Proclamation several months before, but it was a political and military document, freeing only those slaves whose owners had rebelled against the United States. It was meant to help win the war. Between then and 1865, when the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was passed, Lincoln appears to have slowly embraced political racial equality and to have condemned colonization. Douglass appears to have been a large part of this. They had multiple long talks, one of which Lincoln extended while the governor of Connecticut was waiting with these words: “Tell Governor Buckingham to wait, I want to have a long talk with my friend Douglass.”

Douglass showed Lincoln, and Americans throughout the country, that black people could be just as intelligent, knowledgeable, and well-spoken as white people if they were only given the chance. At the same time, black opposition, lack of funds, and colonist mortality in Liberia were destroying the reputation of the American Colonization Society. The racist beliefs which demanded the transfer of millions of free black people across the ocean to a continent they had never seen were shook. And there was Douglass. Standing like a rock against a storm, he and others like him showed the country that racial equality was, one day, possible. The colonization movement slipped quietly into the dustbin of history. No longer would black Americans be told to “go back” to their place of origin.

“I do not understand one thing in this world. Not one.” — Marilynne Robinson, ‘Gilead’