Liberia To Observe 200 Years Of Free Blacks

Historical Society of Liberia calls for Providence Island to serve as a monument of the triumphs and the darkest chapters of the country’s past

Idea Becomes Reality

As the idea of a safe haven for despised free Black Americans clocks two centuries, the Historical Society of Liberia (HSL) is pleased to join the Government of Liberia in commemorating this momentous milestone. HSL’s principal raison d’être is dedicated to the proposition that knowing and preserving Liberia’s past remains a noble undertaking. On this auspicious occasion HSL deems it therefore appropriate not only to issue this Statement, but to also reaffirm a core belief of its mission, namely, to be “part of the national voice mediating historical matters.” In addition, the Statement is a concise narrative of the emigration and disembarkation of the free Blacks on January 7, 1822 on what is now Providence Island, precursor to the founding of the Republic a quarter century later in 1847.

Enslavement in the Americas

How, in the first place, did Black people (presently 14% of US population) end up in a largely White America? The answer is the transatlantic slave trade, the forced transportation of captive Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to enslavement in the Americas—i.e., North, South, and Central America, and the Caribbean (West Indies). Although approximately 12.5 million Africans were transported from eight regions between 1525 and 1866, only 10.7 million actually disembarked. The remainder perished during the harrowing voyage across the Atlantic, or the Middle Passage.  Today’s Liberia and the Ivory Coast (known together as the Windward Coast) exported 287,366 or 2.2 % of the 12.5m. Of the nations that received the 10.7m, Brazil’s 45% comprised the lion’s share in contrast to the United States that absorbed 388,747 or 3.6 %. (Accessed September 20, 2021 But in spite of the smaller import, the US African American population grew, for instance, from 1.5m in 1820 to 3.9m by 1860 (Hine et al., 2012), almost doubling Brazil’s by the mid-century (Lindsay, 2008). The increase must have been mainly natural, since the US prohibited the importation of enslaved Africans as of 1808.

Becoming Free

This growth was the source of the free Black population. But how did the enslaved become free, since the US did not abolish slavery until 1865? Because the New World’s chattel slavery stripped individuals of every shred of human dignity, enslaved people constantly looked for ways to escape what was eternal servitude. Some, for example, toiled overtime under extreme hardship, earned money, and bought their freedom. Others were fortunate to have been born free. Still others were emancipated by slaveholders, although some slaveholders tended to make deportation to Liberia a precondition for manumission. In addition, many enslaved people fled the bastion of slavery in the South for the northern states that had abolished slavery earlier, e.g., Pennsylvania (1780). However, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was intended to return runaways. Notwithstanding, the free Black population did increase, for instance, from 59,000 in 1790 to 319,000 in 1830. And two decades later the group numbered 434,449 (Hine, et al. 2012). 

Trepidation and formation of the ACS

This increase was a source of fear for the plantocracy—the South’s powerful and politically-connected planter class that relied on enslaved Black labor for the wealth generated from large plantations of cotton, rice, and sugarcane, among others. Planters viewed the growing number of free Blacks as a threat to their economic wellbeing. For example, the presence of free Blacks was perceived as inspiration to the mass of enslaved people (nearly 4m by 1860) to resist enslavement. An example of that resistance is the various slave uprisings: e.g., the Stono Rebellion of 1739 in South Carolina; the bloody Haitian Revolution of 1791 in which former slaves destroyed the prosperous French sugar colony of present-day Haiti, established the independent nation of Haiti in 1804 and killed French colonists; and the 1831 Nat Turner rebellion in Virginia in which planters and leaders of the rebellion were killed. 

It was this trepidation that contributed to the formation of the American Colonization Society (ACS) in 1816, with the expressed goal of removal, or colonization of free Blacks, “the promoters of mischiefs,” in the words of one founding member (Staudenraus, 1980).  The ACS membership included slaveholders and prominent politicians (e.g., Bushrod Washington, was founding president of the ACS, associate justice of US Supreme Court, nephew of US first president George Washington, and reportedly a slaveholder; Bushrod Island in Monrovia is named in his honor). Indeed, some founders, including Rev. Robert S. Finley and Francis Scott Key, appeared genuinely moved by the lack of equality for free Blacks in the US. They seemed convinced that only in Africa could these despised free Blacks attain equality and dignity. Yet, in spite of this humanitarian sentiment, the plantocracy hardly concealed its motive: “Colonization,” warned another ACS associate, “was for free Negroes, not slaves” (Staudenraus, 1980).

Emigration and the Bicentennial

US President James Monroe, a supporter of the ACS, provided federal funds to implement the ACS “voluntary” emigration policy; we recall that for some enslaved people, emancipation was conditioned on departure to Liberia. Subsequently, Liberia’s first town was named Monrovia in honor of President Monroe. In March 1820 the initial group of free Black emigrants, some eighty-six, disembarked from the ship Elizabeth and went ashore in Sierra Leone. Those that survived unfamiliar diseases and the result of ill-preparation waited for about two years to find a permanent place on the African coast. Negotiations for that location were concluded by US navy officer Robert Field Stockton and Eli Ayres on behalf of the ACS. They were finalized December 15, 1821 when the chiefs on the Liberian coast, according to the agreement, ceded Dozoa Island (Providence Island) along with Cape Mesurado. The emigrants from Sierra Leone joined other newcomers and settled on Providence Island January 7, 1822. 

Around the end of the 1800s the Republic of Liberia consisted of four categories of people. There were 16,428 free Black Americans, followed by 5,722 “recaptured Africans,” or Africans liberated from slave ships. They would become known as “Congoes” (the majority claimed to have originated in the Congo). Recaptured Africans were among the January 7, 1822 Black Americans that settled on Providence Island (ACS Annual Report, 1824). The third group was the 346 Barbadian emigrants that arrived in 1865 (Annual Reports, 1896, 1867). Finally, the largest category was the estimated 1m indigenes (Annual Report, 1900) who met the Government’s requirement for inclusion into the Liberian society—i.e., assimilation of Western culture, or becoming “civilized.” When the 1980 military coup d’état occurred, the ruling class was drawn from the first three groups (together known as “Congo people”), basically to the exclusion of the majority indigenous people. The leaders of the coup, all of indigenous extraction, abolished the January 7 national holiday called Pioneer’s Day that commemorated the arrival of free Blacks in Liberia (Guannu, 2010).

Providence Island represents a Liberian historical site of the utmost significance. As the site where the first free African Americans settled 200 years ago, it epitomizes not only a pivotal moment of Black nation building and sovereignty, but a critical space of conflict and cooperation between indigenous Liberians and peoples of African descent previously separated by an ocean for many generations. So, when Liberians at home and across the world reflect on the Bicentennial, may Providence Island serve as a monument of the triumphs and the darkest chapters of the Liberian past.

For questions and comments, contact Dr. William Ezra Allen, Chair of the Board, HSL ([email protected]).