Though Sierra Leone would continue to receive African-American
immigrants over the years, their primary destination soon became Liberia, the
country of the Vai, Kru, Kissi, Grebo, Bassa, Kpelle, Mandingo, and other
populations. The controversial American Colonization Society (ACS) helped them
in this endeavor.
It was founded in 1816 with the expressed aim to colonize free African-Americans in
Africa or wherever else it saw fit. An organization with mostly white members
and supporters, many of whom were slaveholders, the ACS did not gain widespread
support among African Americans, who saw it as a means by which whites hoped to
deport free blacks. Nonetheless, some people, dissatisfied with their lives in
the United States, sought help from the society. Its first vessel, the
Elizabeth, set sail in 1820 with some eighty migrants on
board. They were unable to acquire land in Liberia and took refuge in Sierra
A year later, the ACS was successful in obtaining acreage, and a ship
carrying thirty-three African Americans landed at Cape Mesuardo - later to
become Monrovia, after U.S. President James Monroe.
Over the course of the nineteenth century, the ACS transported an
estimated sixteen thousand migrants to Liberia. The migration peaked between
1848 and 1854; during this period, the ACS chartered forty-one ships, carrying
over four thousand colonists to new lives in a new land. Most were free blacks
who had either lived in the North all their lives or had been born in the South
and later moved across the Mason-Dixon Line.
They came from almost all the Southern states and from as far west as
Colorado. Many of the Southern migrants were born free, but a large number had
been freed from enslavement on the expressed condition that they leave the
Gen. Robert E. Lee freed most of his slaves before the Civil War. He
offered to pay the expenses of those, like William and Rosabella Burke and
their children, who wanted to go to Liberia. Burke went to the seminary in
Monrovia and became a Presbyterian minister in 1857. A year later, he wrote a
friend back home:
Persons coming to Africa should expect to go through many hardships,
such as are common to the first settlement in any new country. I expected it
and was not disappointed or discouraged at any thing that I met with; and so
far from being dissatisfied with the country, I bless the Lord that ever my lot
was cast in this part of the earth.
In a letter to Mary Custis Lee, Rosabella Burke noted, "I love
Africa and would not exchange it for America."
The colonists were predominantly male, and often traveled in family
groups. Many were under twenty years old. During the 1820-1828 period, women
made up 43 percent of those going to Liberia. Freeborn migrants were mostly
artisans, involved in agriculture in some way, or skilled and unskilled
laborers; a few were professionals.
As the nineteenth century progressed, an increasing number came from the
middle and professional class.
The migration was not always without problems - many prospective
settlers died en route. They succumbed to fevers, tuberculosis, pleurisy, and
other lung diseases. The primary reason for African Americans to seek freedom
through emigration was their perception that there was no other alternative to
a hopeless situation. But they also came to Africa because it was the land of
their ancestors. Another reason was that the American Colonization Society paid
their passage. Most could scarcely have afforded it and would have remained in
the United States had the society not paid their way.
In the early years the ACS ran Liberia's government, but the settlers
soon demanded control of their own affairs. In 1837 the Commonwealth was
formed, and virtually all power devolved to the emigrants. The society retained
only the right to choose the governor. A decade later, Liberia became an
independent nation, and in 1848, Joseph Jenkins Roberts - a Monrovia merchant
who had emigrated from Virginia twenty years earlier - was elected president.
Even as they left the United States behind, the colonists made concerted
efforts to create a sort of "little America" in their new surroundings. They
spoke English, and their manners, clothing, and even the construction of their
homes reflected their previous place of residence. They were not always welcome
in Liberia. Heavily influenced by Christian values, many exhibited a missionary
zeal toward the indigenous Africans. They wished to "civilize" and Christianize
people whom they often perceived as "heathen savages."
Emigration to Africa continued on a small scale into the twentieth
Between 1890 and 1910, some one thousand African Americans immigrated to
Liberia. In 1913, sixty Oklahomans settled in the Gold Coast under the leadership of
Chief Alfred Sam.
Though small in number, these efforts were not insignificant, as in most
cases they represented self-initiated migrations, heavily influenced by
nationalist ideas. Although individuals continued to migrate to the continent,
there were few organized movements. Events in Africa itself may have been the
1884 partition of the continent resulted in full-scale
domination by Europe. African nations, with the exception of Liberia and
Ethiopia, came under European rule. In this climate, it was difficult for
African Americans to consider emigration schemes.