Journey of Hope

The Back-to-Africa Movement in Arkansas in the Late 1800s

by Kenneth C. Barnes Copyright (c) 2004 by the University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.


Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to be free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Emma Lazarus, a Jewish immigrant from Russia, penned these famous lines in 1883 for the Statue of Liberty, then being constructed by the French Republic as a gift to the United States of America. Nearly a decade later, Lady Liberty would witness an ironic scene unfolding in New York Harbor. On the rainy afternoon of 10 March 1892, the Dutch steamer Werkendam arrived after a two-week voyage from Rotterdam on the North Sea. The 569 passengers speaking Dutch, German, Russian, Polish, Italian, and a host of other European languages must have chattered excitedly about their hope for a better life in America. One can imagine that many eyes became misty as they beheld Lady Liberty, torch held high, next to Ellis Island, which had opened just two months before. As the Werkendam made its way into the bay, it passed a much smaller, old-fashioned sailing ship, the Liberia, which had left Pier 6 on the East River earlier in the day. The Liberia was packed to the brim with black families from Morrilton, Arkansas, who were leaving the United States to return to their ancestral homeland of Africa.[1] Perhaps the passengers of the Werkendam and the Liberia waved to each other as they passed in the bay. This image sums up the paradox of American society in the 1890s. While millions of Europeans were coming to the United States to follow their dream of political freedom and economic opportunity, thousands of black Americans, especially in Arkansas, were equally anxious to get out of this county. The hope for many African Americans centered on the Republic of Liberia in West Africa.
As Africa’s only independent black republic, Liberia encouraged and symbolized race pride for African Americans in the late 1800s. With an elected black government that offered American settlers free land, Liberia represented a chance for a better life for the South’s black farmers. Interest in African emigration peaked among black southerners in the 1890s, a time when cotton prices hit rock bottom and white racism reached its zenith. The 1890s saw the greatest number of lynchings in American history. As it became increasingly clear that black Americans would not get a seat at the table, Liberia posed an alternative to integration, an escape to an all-black world. One black man from central Arkansas asked in 1890: “Ar tha any White People over in liBery? if there is—none [of us] ar going there.”[2]
Of all areas of the South, Liberia emigration fever was most intense during the late 1800s in Arkansas. More Liberia-bound emigrants left from Arkansas than from any other state—more than a third of all known black American emigrants to Africa in the years from 1879 to 1899—despite the fact that Arkansas’s black population was smaller than that of any of its southern neighbors.[3] And for each one of the approximately 600 who left Arkansas for Africa, hundreds more applied unsuccessfully to go. To understand the back-to-Africa movement in the post-Reconstruction and Jim Crow years, one must examine Arkansas. Ironically, before the 1890s, Arkansas had served as a destination for black migrants leaving other southern states. A high percentage of African American men voted in Arkansas elections, and many held public offices on the county level. But Jim Crow measures, disfranchisement, and a wave of brutal racial violence dramatically changed the situation for black Arkansans. I will argue that the rapidity of this shift from relative well-being to subjugation, rather than the magnitude of the oppression, convinced many African Americans to leave not just Arkansas or the South but the entire United States. The Arkansas counties with the most competitive political environments, where white elites most targeted black voters, saw the most intense interest in African emigrations. Among sharecroppers and country preachers there swelled a remarkable wave of fascination with Africa—as a place of refuge from white oppression and as an ancestral land that helped define a black national identity. While middle-class blacks were more resolved to live as black Americans, many rural poor folk gave up on the United States and looked to Liberia to construct a better life. This study will compare the Liberian dreams to the reality Arkansas emigrants found in their African fatherland. For those who left, and for those who stayed behind, the meaning of Liberian emigration was simple: it was a journey of hope.
Earlier in the nineteenth century, Liberia evoked mixed images in the minds of black Americans. People of color must have pondered a return to Africa as soon as they arrived in the New World, but an organized back-to-Africa movement began in the late 1700s. British abolitionists worked together with free black immigrants to found Sierra Leone on the continent’s west coast as a place for the return of black people from British territory. The first black settlers arrived from England in 1787, and others came afterward from Nova Scotia and Jamaica. Sierra Leone became a British crown colony in 1808.[4] In the United States, black Americans’ discussion of African colonization originated among New England religious circles that opposed slavery and the slave trade. Paul Cuffe, a prosperous half-black, half-Indian Quaker of Massachusetts who owned a small fleet of whaling ships, transported thirty-eight free blacks to Sierra Leone, largely at his own expense, late in 1815. Cuffe died two years later, but he had inspired a movement.[5]
Humanitarian concerns, like those of Cuffe, joined with very different motives to found the American Colonization Society, just before Cuffe’s death. Slave owners in the South had become increasingly worried about the presence of a free black population clustering in southern towns. Some whites thought the very existence of a free black community undermined the slavery system and inspired slaves to revolt. In 1816, the Virginia legislature, dominated by slave owners, asked the U.S. Congress to find a territory on the African coast to become a place of asylum for free blacks and emancipated American slaves. Slave owners and antislavery forces gathered at the Davis Hotel in December 1816 in Washington, D.C., and founded the American Society for Colonizing Free People of Color in the United States, a name later shortened to the American Colonization Society (ACS). At this first meeting, antislavery leaders, such as Daniel Webster, promoted the idea of an African colony as a place of protection for a persecuted people while slave owners, such as Henry Clay, who chaired the first assembly, saw an African colony as a dumping ground for free blacks who had no place in America. Through its early years, the ACS struggled with this tension between humanitarian and racist motivations. Black Americans stood divided on the issue of emigration. A few black church leaders gave signals of support for the ACS, and free blacks in Richmond, Virginia, made the first public pronouncement in January 1817 favoring emigration. But most free blacks in northern communities such as Philadelphia, New York, and Boston united against emigration, seeing it as a ploy to expel free blacks from the United States.[6]
On 21 January 1820, the ship Elizabeth sailed from New York carrying a party of eighty-six free blacks from the Illinois Territory who had volunteered to resettle in Africa. The ACS had received financial and moral support for this expedition from President James Monroe. Nearly a decade after Congress had outlawed the slave trade, American ships were still capturing and confiscating cargoes of illegal slaves bound for the New World, and by 1819 a new slave trade act had authorized the president to establish a place in coastal West Africa where recaptured slaves could be returned. Thus, the ACS began its resettlement work as a private agency carrying out a public policy. The Elizabeth arrived in Sierra Leone, where the settlers waited for more than a year while white agents acting on behalf of the U.S. government and the ACS located a site for a colony. They found one at Cape Mesurrado, more than 200 miles south of Freetown, Sierra Leone, where a rocky promontory juts out into the sea near the mouth of the mighty St. Paul River. After much discussion with the local African ruler—the agents ultimately put a gun to his head to encourage cooperation—the ACS received the cape in exchange for an assorted package of rum, muskets, beads, tobacco, and other items worth in total less than $300. The settlers in Sierra Leone, augmented by another group recently arrived from the United States, first set foot in the colony on 25 April 1822. The ACS named the colony Liberia, after the Latin liber, meaning free man. The colonists choose the name Monrovia for their first permanent settlement, in honor of the president’s support for the colonization effort.[7]
The first settlers, and virtually all the emigrants from America, struggled to survive in their new environment. The ACS agents had chosen one of the most inhospitable locations in West Africa for their colony. Beyond the rocky hill overlooking the coast, mosquito-infested swamps surrounded the new town of Monrovia. Settlers invariably came down with malaria in the first months after arrival. Nearly a quarter of the early settlers to Liberia died within the first year of settlement. Those who survived the “seasoning” found it difficult to make a living. The thin, leached soil did not easily yield American food crops, and settlers found local foods unpalatable. The early settlers eschewed agriculture and largely subsisted on imported foods. They searched in vain for some commodity in demand on the world market, first looking for gold or ivory, then finding camwood, used in the dye industry. But the venture never became economically profitable.[8] Nevertheless, yearly reinforcements brought settlers to Liberia, which remained a colony of the ACS for the next twenty-five years. The society’s resident agent in Monrovia presided over the colony, assisted by an elected council of settlers.
The emigration of free blacks to Liberia particularly increased after the Nat Turner rebellion in 1831. During the next year in Maryland, for example, the state legislature passed laws restricting the liberties of free people of color and even appropriated money to pay for their resettlement outside the state’s boundaries. In 1832, the American Colonization Society resettled 796 emigrants to Liberia, more than in any year of its history, and the Maryland auxiliary of the ACS itself sent another 146. As the movement became increasingly dominated in the 1830s by slave owners who wanted Liberia to absorb the free blacks of the South, antislavery forces largely turned against the society. William Lloyd Garrison led the charge, decrying African colonization as a plot to continue the slave system in America. Prominent free black leaders, such as David Walker, loudly and consistently denounced the colonization enterprise through the emerging black press, from pulpits, and at every national Negro convention of the 1830s. In a time of conflict within the ACS, state auxiliaries, such as the one in Maryland, began to go their own ways and even establish their own resettlement colonies along the coast southeast of Monrovia. Despite this internal dissension in the society, some free blacks, mostly from slaveholding states, continued to apply for emigration. A few slave owners emancipated slaves with the expressed goal of sending them to Liberia. In addition, more than 5,000 African slaves, confiscated by the U.S. Navy on the high seas, were returned to Africa and left in the colony of Liberia.[9]
Liberia’s status changed when the colony gave way to an independent republic on 26 July 1847, a day still celebrated as Liberia’s national holiday. It had become evident that a colony owned by a private philanthropic society had little legal and diplomatic standing. Under ACS direction, the settlers drew up a constitution based on that of the United States and designed a flag, again emulating the American model. Thus, beginning in 1847, an elected president and congress of black American settlers governed Liberia, and the ACS’s role became virtually that of an emigration agency, transporting settlers and assisting them once they arrived in country.
Emigration picked up in the 1850s when the new Fugitive Slave Act encouraged runaway slaves to seek a destination outside the United States. And then the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision in 1857 demonstrated that people of color possessed no rights that white people of America were obligated to respect. Many free blacks became even more pessimistic about any future in the United States. Free black leaders, still viewing the ACS as a racist organization in league with white slave owners, sought other locations for black emigration. Martin R. Delany, a prominent black physician, tried to establish a colony in the Yoruba region of today’s Nigeria as an area for American settlement. Others looked to Haiti or Central America as destinations. But these movements had leaders but few followers. No settlers actually emigrated to Delany’s Nigeria colony, and only a few North Americans moved to Haiti.[10] However, by the beginning of the Civil War, nearly 13,000 black American settlers had come to Liberia, and the black republic controlled a strip of English-speaking settlements scattered along 250 miles of coastline, a few miles deep. Indigenous Africans, who always formed the majority of Liberia’s residents, were considered neither “Liberians” nor citizens, and they had no voice in the republic’s affairs.
By 1861, the Republic of Liberia had emerged as a symbol that could unite or divide black public opinion. Some black Americans, as well as white abolitionists, believed Liberia’s very existence suggested that persons of African descent had no place in America outside of slavery. Prominent black leaders saw the American Colonization Society as a white man’s movement that was part of America’s racial problem, not its solution. Others saw in the Liberian Republic a symbol of black nationalism, a place where “civilized” black people ruled themselves. At the end of her famous novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe sent George and Eliza off to Liberia with their family but kept some of her black characters home in the United States. George, the strong and angry black man, cannot live in America but expresses his black nationalist feelings by building up the black Republic of Liberia. Likewise, in real life, some emigrants applied to the ACS every year willing to trade in their residence in the United States to follow their African dreams.
Black interest in Liberia emigration plummeted when the Civil War promised the end of slavery and meaningful change to the status of black Americans. Ironically, President Abraham Lincoln’s administration suddenly became interested in colonizing freed slaves, especially those who trailed behind occupying Union armies throughout the South. Looking past Liberia, Lincoln’s officials searched for locations closer at hand, in the Caribbean or Central America, for the resettlement of freed persons. Despite a congressional appropriation for colonization, the Lincoln administration mustered only one small unsuccessful colonization expedition to Haiti. Likewise, the ACS during the war had difficulty finding emigrants for Liberia and ultimately had to recruit settlers from Barbados instead of the United States.[11]
The end of the Civil War saw significant change in the fortunes of the American Colonization Society and the idea of African colonization. By the time the society celebrated its fiftieth birthday in 1867, its revenues had sharply declined, its loyal following of wealthy white men had largely grown old and died, and the state auxiliaries for the most part had ceased their operations. The ACS had really become the work of one man, William Coppinger, the society’s corresponding secretary, who after 1872 worked out of an office on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. Coppinger, a white Quaker, had begun work with the colonization movement in 1838 as a ten-year-old office boy in the Pennsylvania auxiliary. By 1864, he became corresponding secretary of the ACS and devoted the rest of his life, until his death in 1892, to the work of Liberia emigration. He single-handedly administered the ACS’s dwindling resources, edited the society’s quarterly journal, the African Repository, corresponded with the people who desired to resettle in Liberia, and made the arrangements for those accepted for emigration. A dedicated, humble, self-effacing man, Coppinger appeared to believe sincerely that freed people of the American South could better their lives through emigration to Liberia, and he worked tirelessly to that end. No longer a big-budget institution, the American Colonization Society had become virtually a one-man show.[12]
But at the same time, the momentum in the back-to-Africa movement was shifting from white northerners to poor black farmers in the South. Freedom’s rewards were slow in coming and fewer than expected. The Liberian government promised twenty-five acres of free land for each emigrant family, ten acres for a single adult, who came to the black republic. After the war’s end, Secretary Coppinger made yearly trips to Georgia and the Carolinas recruiting emigrants. Between 1865 and 1869, the ACS expended much of its remaining funds and transported a record number of 2,394 emigrants to Liberia, more than the society would send over the next thirty years. Through the 1870s, with even less money in its treasury, the ACS sent a yearly average of only ninety-eight emigrants, and that average dropped to seventy-four in the 1880s. Finally, in 1892, the society decided to stop sending groups of emigrants entirely.[13] However, the decline in the number of emigrants in the post-Reconstruction years reflects the dwindling financial resources of the society, not motivation among African Americans. In fact, the most intense black interest in emigration, as measured by the volume of the ACS’s incoming correspondence, came in the late 1870s and early 1890s. Both of these periods were moments of sharp racial conflict, and nowhere was the desire for African emigration greater than Arkansas.
African Americans’ desire to move out of the South swelled as Reconstruction came to a halt in 1877. Reconstruction had been winding down gradually before its final closure. White Democrats had reclaimed state governments in Tennessee by 1869; in North Carolina, Georgia, and Virginia by 1870; in Arkansas, Alabama, and Texas by 1874; and in Mississippi by 1875. By 1877, the party of Lincoln controlled only the statehouses of Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana. Public opinion in the North had begun to sour on military occupation of the South, and business interests in the Republican Party pushed for the reintegration of southern states into the national economy. The election of Rutherford B. Hayes as president in 1876 signaled the end of federal oversight of local affairs in the South. Ironically, Hayes’s campaign platform called for strong protection of black citizens in the South. But when the election mired down in controversy because of disputed returns in Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana, Republicans worked out a compromise that gave them the presidency in exchange for measures formally ending Reconstruction. In an extremely complex turn of events, the necessary electoral votes went to Hayes while the statehouses in the disputed states went to the Democrats. Hayes withdrew the federal troops from South Carolina and Louisiana and included some southern Democrats, even ex-Confederates, in his federal patronage and cabinet appointments. Historians have debated whether Hayes’s policy reflected a genuine attempt to heal sectional strife or a mere ploy to win a disputed election and consolidate power. In any case, Reconstruction, with its use of force to protect the rights of black citizens, had come to an end.[14]
The symbolic meaning of Hayes’s policy seemed clear to white southern Democrats. The federal government, while it would use troops to fight Indians in the West and to break a railroad strike in northern cities in the summer of 1877, would not intervene in southern affairs. In black-majority areas, white Democrats had already begun using terror tactics against black Republican voters in the elections of 1875 and 1876. Before the state elections in Mississippi in 1875, white military companies in Yazoo and Coahoma Counties, deep in the delta, attacked black Republican meetings and murdered several black leaders.[15] In South Carolina’s piedmont area, gangs of white men rode through the countryside before the 1876 election terrorizing black neighborhoods and keeping Republican voters home on election day. Obviously, Hayes’s actions of 1877 further emboldened white Democrats. The violence and fraud in the next election, the state and congressional races of 1878, shocked many northern Republicans into admitting the failure of the president’s southern policy. Again the atrocities were greatest in black-majority states where white Democrats needed to suppress black Republican votes to get or maintain power. Reports from Louisiana suggested that animals preyed upon the unburied bodies of African Americans slain on election day. The number of Republican ballots cast in South Carolina dropped from 90,000 in the fraudulent 1876 election to a mere 4,000 in 1878. The Republican Party thus crumbled in the Black Belt southern states that had the largest number of potential Republican voters.[16]
The pattern would continue in the 1880 elections. Only two Republican votes were recorded in Yazoo County, Mississippi, a county that was 75 percent black. The Republican presidential candidate of 1880, James A. Garfield, received his lowest percentage of votes in states that had the highest proportion of black residents, while he polled the greatest percentage of southern votes in border states with the lowest black populations.[17] Thus, African Americans virtually lost voting rights in the areas where their numbers threatened white control.
African Americans understood the meaning of the president’s retreat from Reconstruction. In the same areas where Reconstruction’s end brought sudden change to their political status, a black migration movement took root quickly and sprouted in the last three years of the 1870s. The day after President Hayes withdrew federal troops from South Carolina, John Mardenborough, a black lawyer in Edgefield County, wrote to the American Colonization Society’s office in Washington begging the society to send a group of seventy-five local black residents to Liberia. Edgefield County, in fact, was known throughout South Carolina for the most extreme political violence against black citizens. Mardenborough explained why his group wished to leave Edgefield County: “While I write a colored woman comes and tells me her husband was killed last night in her presence by white men and her children burned to death in the house; she says her person was outraged by these men and then she was whipped—such things as these are common occurrences. In the name of God can not the Society send us to Africa or some where else where we can live without ill treatment?”[18]
By the summer of 1877, interest in Liberia emigration had spread throughout South Carolina. One of the black leaders from Edgefield County, Harrison N. Bouey, traveled to Charleston to serve on a federal jury, and there he linked up with others interested in emigration. When Bouey arrived in Charleston, “Professor” J. C. Hazeley, a native African, was in town to deliver lectures promoting African emigration at the Morris Brown African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. Apparently displeased with the ACS’s response to prospective emigrants, leaders at these meetings proposed the formation of a joint stock company to purchase their own ship and to transport emigrants to Africa. Thus was born the Liberian Exodus Joint Stock Steamship Company, which sold stock at ten dollars a share. By early 1878, the company had raised $6,000 and purchased a ship in Boston, the Azor, which arrived in the port of Charleston in March. Five thousand people turned out for the worship service that consecrated the vessel into service. The elderly Martin R. Delany, eminent Charlestonian and longtime promoter of African emigration, spoke, as did the Reverend Henry McNeal Turner, future bishop of the AME Church and the coming generation’s spokesman for the emigration cause. A month later, the Azor finally set sail with 206 passengers, and 175 more remained behind awaiting a second voyage. But the Azor would never sail again. Upon its return, bills from the first voyage came due, and the ship was sold at auction the next year to pay the company’s debts.[19]
At the same time that black South Carolinians were organizing for African emigration, a similar movement broke out in Louisiana. As early as December 1875, a group of black clergymen from Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia had held a conference in New Orleans to assess the situation for southern blacks. The group discussed migration to the western territories or to Liberia. One of the delegates to the meeting, Henry Adams, a tireless political organizer from Caddo Parish, in northwest Louisiana, returned home and founded the Colonization Council to plan a way to go somewhere, anywhere, outside of the South. In July 1877, Adams’s council drew up a petition to President Hayes asking for the government either to protect rights of black citizens or to give them a territory of their own. If Hayes could do neither, the petition asked for a federal appropriation of funds to send them back to their own land, Africa. The next month, Adams wrote to the American Colonization Society claiming to speak for 69,000 African Americans in Louisiana, southern Arkansas, and eastern Texas who wished to move to Liberia. The aspiring emigrants even proposed to send a delegation to Liberia to investigate the conditions there and report back to the group. Coppinger made it clear that the ACS could not fund a mass migration to Liberia and that any investigative delegation must travel at its own expense. He encouraged the group to keep organized, collect dues, and send a few settlers each year. Given the impoverished conditions under which they lived, this advice could hardly satisfy. Only seven known emigrants left Louisiana for Liberia, a group from New Orleans settled by the ACS in 1876.[20]
As possibilities for emigration to Liberia were waning, interest shifted to a destination closer at hand: Kansas. Benjamin “Pap” Singleton, a former slave from Tennessee, had arrived in Kansas in the mid-1870s and immediately begun work to promote the state as a haven for black settlers. Singleton and other land developers circulated handbills throughout the South encouraging black people to consider Kansas. Political actions further inspired black southerners to move west. In January of 1879, Senator William Windom of Minnesota introduced a resolution calling for a U.S. Senate committee to study the feasibility of federal aid for migration of black citizens from areas where their rights were denied to western territories where they would be respected. After much debate in the Senate, the Windom resolution eventually died from inaction, but rumors about the resolution swept through the South and further inspired black interest in migration and the possibility of governmental assistance. By spring 1879, Liberia fever in the lower South had become Kansas fever, and hundreds of migrants camped along the Mississippi River waiting for steamboats to take them north. Reports of a mass migration from Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas in particular aroused much interest among politicians and newspaper editors. The U.S. Senate even established a select committee to investigate the situation. However, informed estimates suggest that only around 8,000 black migrants actually moved to Kansas in 1879 and 1880. Poverty rather than lack of interest probably best explains the modest numbers, for few rural blacks could afford the steamboat and railroad passage needed to get to Kansas.[21] The Kansas exodus of 1879, like the Liberia emigration movement, illustrates the keen interest among African Americans in escaping political oppression in the South. While in antebellum years, free black Americans had criticized the American Colonization Society as a racist organization hell-bent on removing the country’s free black population, one can only wonder what slaves may have thought or said about Liberia in the years before freedom. After Reconstruction’s end in 1877, most prominent black leaders continued to oppose African migration, but for ordinary black Americans, many whose lives had begun as slaves, Liberia became a symbol of a new life, free from white oppression. These men and women were more than willing to work with the ACS to get to Africa. During the late 1800s, as the back-to-Africa movement shifted from being a white man’s institution to a black grassroots movement, interest would be no greater anywhere than in Arkansas. The story of Arkansas’s African emigration movement will illustrate not just the severe realities for black southerners in the late 1800s but also their hopes and dreams for a better life.

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