In 1816 political and religious leaders met in Washington, D.C., and established the American Society for Colonizing the Free People of Color of the United States, popularly known as the American Colonization Society (ACS). The ACS included notable Virginians, such as James Madison, John Randolph, John Marshall, and founder Charles Fenton Mercer. The ACS attracted a respectable membership, many of whom sought the colonization of free African Americans as an alternative to emancipating slavers who would remain in the United States. During this time period, racial prejudice and racial differences were thought to be too strong in the United States for blacks and whites to coexist as equals. ACS members repeatedly stressed that free black poverty and crime in the North was the main barrier to slave emancipation. The members also strongly believed that southern slave owners would free their slaves if they knew their slaves would leave their state and never become a burden to society. Many colonizers assumed free blacks were incapable of becoming productive citizens without education and employment, but the education and employment of free blacks meant job competition with white Americans, as well as eventual social equality and integration—the latter being totally unacceptable to most white Americans.
The ACS identified a portion of the coast of West Africa, later named Liberia, as a place where free blacks would be capable of civilization and self-government. Even though there was some dissention among members about the abolition of slavery, most ACS members hoped that a thriving Liberian colony might persuade other slaveholders to manumit their slaves and ultimately lead to the total abolition of slavery in the United States. Today, Liberia remains Africa's oldest republic.
Virginians played a pivotal role in the colonization of formerly enslaved African Americans and sent more free blacks to Liberia than did any other state while providing large sums of money for the cause. Between 1820 and 1865, approximately 3,700 African Americans sailed from Virginia to Liberia. Virginia's free blacks also made up Liberia's leadership class, most notably the future first president of the Liberian Republic, Joseph Jenkins Roberts. Not every free black eagerly went to Liberia and thrived along West Africa's Ivory Coast. Others were reluctant to leave because most free blacks had been born in the United States and clung to their African American culture.
Several hundred free black Virginians went to Liberia during the mid-nineteenth century and eventually adapted their cultural habits to West African realities. One important account of life in Liberia is a letter by a formerly enslaved woman, Rosannah Brown. In her letter dated August 17, 1857, she described her life in Liberia to her former owner, Hugh Adams. She began, however, with sad news about the death of a female traveler soon after their arrival in Liberia. She informed her former master that she would care for her deceased friend's daughter in addition to her own daughter. Brown positively described her daughter's opportunity to get an education and her own ability to grow crops for her family.
1. Why do you think the American Colonization Society attracted such prominent politicians?
2. Why do you think some abolitionists would oppose the American Colonization Society?
3. Would you have supported colonization? Why or why not?
1. Why is this letter from a literate, free black female important? What can it tell us about those who left for Liberia in the mid-nineteenth century?
2. Can you think of another controversial issue that divides people today?
Hugh Adams had freed Rosannah Brown and several others of his slaves. This letter was used as evidence in a chancery case settling Adams's estate. Chancery cases involve court decisions not specifically covered by law.
Davis, David Brion. Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
McGraw-Tyler, Marie. An African Republic: Black and White Virginians in the Making of Liberia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.