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Back-to-Africa Movement

The Back-to-Africa Movement mobilized thousands of African-American Arkansans who wished to leave the state for the Republic of Liberia in the late 1800s. Approximately 650 emigrants left from Arkansas, more than from any other American state, in the 1880s and 1890s, the last phase of organized group migration of black Americans to Liberia.

As early as 1820, black Americans had begun to return to their ancestral homeland through the auspices of the American Colonization Society (ACS), an organization headquartered in Washington DC, which arranged transportation and settlement. The ACS founded the Republic of Liberia in 1847, with its flag and constitution emulating American models, and nearly 13,000 redeemed slaves and free blacks had settled there before the Civil War. With the Civil War and abolition of slavery, the Back-to-Africa movement declined. However, interest in an African migration rekindled after Reconstruction ended and conditions for black Americans worsened in the late 1870s.

In several Delta counties of eastern Arkansas, white Democrats used extraordinary measures during the 1878 elections to keep African Americans from voting. In Phillips County, which was approximately seventy-five percent black, Democrats even stationed a heavy cannon in front of the main black polling place. Anthony L. Stanford, a black physician and Methodist preacher who also served as Phillips County’s Republican state senator, contacted the ACS, requesting assistance with emigration of a number of black citizens to Africa. In 1879, he led twenty-three residents of Phillips County to Liberia, and another 118 emigrants followed the next year from Phillips and Woodruff counties. Whereas Phillips County had polled a Republican majority in the 1876 presidential election, by the gubernatorial election of 1880, only ten Republican votes were cast in the county that had more than 15,000 black residents. Clearly, the Back-to-Africa movement was motivated by the deterioration in status of black citizens in the Delta in the late 1870s.

Conditions improved somewhat in the 1880s. Black men appear to have regained the franchise in the 1882 elections, and black Republican officials were elected to local offices in Delta counties through the rest of the decade. The 1880s also saw a massive in-migration as African Americans from the Deep South, especially South Carolina, fled their own oppressive conditions and looked to Arkansas as a place of plentiful work and cheap land. The 1880s seemed to be a time of promise for black Arkansans, and interest in African emigration waned but never went away. The Reverend Henry McNeal Turner of Atlanta, the foremost advocate nationally for African emigration, was elected bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in 1880 and was appointed to the eighth district, composed of Arkansas, Mississippi, and Indian Territory. Throughout the 1880s and early 1890s, Turner made yearly trips to Arkansas to preside over annual church meetings, and he always used the pulpit to promote emigration and missions to Africa. In 1886 and 1887, an African man, self-proclaimed “professor” Jacob C. Hazeley, traveled around the state giving lectures accompanied by picture displays about Africa. Hazeley encouraged interested parties to apply for emigration to the ACS. A farm family from Lee County and a schoolteacher from Fort Smith (Sebastian County) emigrated to Liberia in 1882. Three more left from Conway County in 1883, a family of eight from Phillips County emigrated in 1887, and a Faulkner County family of eight moved to Liberia in the spring of 1889.

However, it would be the return of political and racial violence in the late 1880s and early 1890s that made Liberia fever rage through black precincts of Arkansas. In the 1888 and 1890 elections, the Democratic Party faced opposition by a biracial alliance of the rural poor with the cooperation between the agrarian populist movement and the Republican Party. To win the elections, fraud and terror tactics eclipsed those used in 1878 in degree and scale. The Democratic-controlled state legislature in 1891 passed laws aimed at disfranchising black and poor white voters. Before the session ended, the General Assembly crafted Jim Crow segregation laws. In the year that would follow disfranchisement, some of the most horrific lynchings in American history occurred in Arkansas.

In response, black Arkansas sharecroppers and small landowners flooded the ACS office in Washington with letters begging for passage to Africa. As more information circulated back to Arkansas, interest only swelled. Would-be emigrants formed at least forty “Liberia Exodus” clubs that elected officers and held regular meetings, often disguising their true purposes from white neighbors hostile to the movement. Applications for emigration came in from the majority of Arkansas’s seventy-five counties, but interest was particularly keen in areas where political conflict was most intense—in Woodruff, St. Francis, Lonoke, and Jefferson counties in east-central Arkansas and the Arkansas River Valley from Little Rock (Pulaski County) to Atkins (Pope County). In Conway County alone, which experienced some of the most spectacular political violence, nearly 1,500 African Americans, about twenty percent of the county’s black population, formally applied to emigrate to Liberia. Most of the emigrants sent by the ACS to Liberia in the early 1890s hailed from Arkansas, including nearly 100 from Morrilton (Conway County) and Plumerville (Conway County) and forty-four from Little Rock and Argenta (now North Little Rock in Pulaski County). A group of thirty-four would-be emigrants from Woodruff County sold their possessions and traveled to New York City in 1892 to beg unsuccessfully for passage to Africa. Their unexpected arrival created a refugee crisis for the ACS, leading it to end its seventy-five-year long resettlement program. The society got out of the emigration business just at the time demand was greatest in Arkansas. To address this interest, some white businessmen in Birmingham, Alabama, formed a company that transported to Liberia more than 200 Arkansans, mostly from Jefferson, St. Francis, and Lonoke counties, in three voyages between 1894 and 1896. A few additional black Arkansans booked commercial passage on steamers that traveled to Liberia from New York via ports in Europe. The interest in Africa spilled over into missionary work. Approximately a dozen black Arkansans and their families traveled to Africa in the 1890s as missionaries, a number representing nearly a quarter of known black missionaries to Africa in that decade.

For the black Arkansans who emigrated, their African Promised Land brought great challenges and some rewards. The Republic of Liberia granted each emigrant family twenty-five acres of free land and settled most of the Arkansas arrivals together in two communities, Brewerville and Johnsonville, a few miles into the interior from the capital, Monrovia. In the heart of the tropics and one of the wettest places in Africa, Liberia hosted a variety of diseases, especially potent strains of malaria that ravaged the emigrant population. People struggled with illness just when they had the most work to do—clearing land, planting crops, and building homes. Settlers had to adjust to new foods and lifestyles and learn to grow a new cash crop, coffee, instead of cotton. The Arkansas emigrants of 1879 and the 1880s prospered through coffee cultivation. However, the coffee trees planted by settlers of the 1890s began to produce berries just in time for the cataclysmic drop in coffee prices, as production in Brazil began to glut the world market in the late 1890s. Several Arkansas emigrants returned to America; perhaps more wished to return but lacked the money for passage. But many of these new Liberians apparently were pleased with their new home. In the words of one Arkansas settler, William Rogers, who wrote back to family in Morrilton, Liberia was “the colored man’s home, the only place on earth where they have equal rights.” What Rogers liked best about Liberia, he said, was that “there are no white men here to give orders; and when you go in your house, there is no one to stand out, and call you to the door and shoot you when you come out. We have no foreman over us; we are our own boss. We work when we want to, and sit down when we choose, and eat when we get ready.” Some of the Arkansas families became prominent in the black republic. Victoria David Tolbert, Liberia’s former first lady whose husband, President William Tolbert, was murdered in the violent coup of 1980, was the daughter of Isaac David, who left Little Rock in 1891 with his family at the age of five.

For additional information:
Barnes, Kenneth C. Journey of Hope: The Back-to-Africa Movement in Arkansas in the Late 1800s. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Redkey, Edwin S. Black Exodus: Black Nationalist and Back-to-Africa Movements, 1890–1910. Yale University Press, 1969.

Patton, Adell, Jr. “The Back-to-Africa Movement in Arkansas.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 51 (Summer 1992): 164–177.

American Colonization Society Records. Manuscripts Division, Library of Congress, Washington D.C.

Kenneth C. Barnes

University of Central Arkansas
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March 15, 2011



Governor Rauf Aregbesola receives a gift from one of the visiting Mayors. Photo: AKINTAYO ABODUNRIN

Black Mayors look towards Africa’s redemption

By Akintayo Abodunrin

March 5, 2011 11:24

Osogbo, renowned in Osun State and beyond for its rich cultural heritage, recorded another first when it hosted the fourth World Summit of Mayors. The meeting, themed ‘Global Engagement of Local Leadership for Universal Progress’ held at the Centre for Black Culture and International Understanding from Friday, February 25 to Wednesday, March 2.

Given that plans for the hosting commenced during the sacked Olagunsoye Oyinlola administration, some had thought that Rauf Aregbesola, the incumbent governor, would jettison it, being an initiative championed by his predecessor. But obviously sharing Oyinlola’s vision of consolidating Osogbo’s place on the world’s cultural landscape, Aregbesola and his team decided to go ahead with the conference, which focused on seven areas. Trust, training trade, treasury, twin cities, technology and tourism were among issues discussed by the local government leaders from Africa and their colleagues from the Diaspora.

The five-day meeting organised in collaboration with the National Conference of Black Mayors (USA) and the World Conference of Mayors, opened on a colourful but late note (it started almost three hours behind schedule) on February 25. Expectedly, there were speeches further highlighting the goals of the summit as well as performances.

The state governor and chief host, Rauf Aregbesola, set the tone. He noted that the selection of Osogbo to host the conference was apt because, “The city has been a bastion of the arts and culture and has been the home of great art scholars and cultural icons like Ulli Beier, Susan Wenger, Duro Ladipo, Oyin Adejobi and others. The city has hosted important meetings in the past and the most recent being Global Conference of Black Nationalities, in August last year.” The governor who sold the state’s tourist sites to the gathering, also touched on the ubiquitous nature of municipal government in modern states. Mr. Aregbesola, who noted that Nigeria uses local government instead of municipal government, also spoke about urbanisation and its challenges for administrators. He however noted that the “biggest challenge of municipal administration is leadership. Where leadership is lacking at national and state levels, it is trite that it is not going to be available at the local level either.” Aregbesola promised that , “The local government is going to play an important role in our development programme.” Felix Akhabue, national president, Association of Local Governments of Nigeria (ALGON), said resources available to local government leaders are limited while their challenges are enormous. He reiterated the need for the optimal utilisation of available resources to benefit people. “Local government chairs have the responsibilty to ensure that good governance is at the doorstep of people and we must act in the best interest of our people,’ he charged his colleagues.

Solidarity and brotherhood

President, National Conference of Black Mayors, Robert Bowser, noted that it was appropriate, blacks in the Diaspora come to Osun to celebrate “solidarity and brotherhood.” He also commented on the “awesome” theme chosen to empower Africans all over the world. Mr. Bowser, who had earlier spoken about the Black History Month and its evolution, decried the negative effects of the ‘‘brain drain’’ on the continent. Certain states in the US, he added, are facing the same problems. But he urged his colleagues to be of good cheer because “this is a new day.” The American further charged that the mayors must be decisive and build a nation Africans elsewhere will be proud of . Bowser reiterated that Black people have roles to play in structuring the world and that collaborations and innovation are needed to ensure this. “Africa’s redemption is coming,” he prophesied.

Rebuilding Africa

Vice president, World Conference of Mayors, James Wallis said it’s “always good to come home, to come home to mother Africa.” Executive Director, National Conference of Black Mayors, Vanessa Williams, who described herself as daughter of Africa said the conference was not a mere meeting. “We are here not to meet but to do the work of our people. The only way African people can be one uplifted people is by being connected. Language and geography should not separate us,” she said. Williams also made a case for the rebuilding of Africa, noting that, “it is in the rebuilding of Africa that we too can be rebuilt. We can’t correct what was done in the past but we can set an agenda for the future. This won’t be the last time you will see our faces.” The American, who disclosed that the Black Mayors are working with Mr. Aregbesola in the areas of agriculture, job creation and establishment of industries, later presented a gift to the governor on behalf of the others.

Adebayo Williams, a professor who represented Bola Tinubu, former governor of Lagos State and chair of the occasion, described the meeting as an important cultural occasion and ecxhange. He commended the vision and magnanimity of the state governor to continue with the programme initiated by his predecessor, noting that “it epitomises the supreme culture of the Yoruba, tolerance and liberalism.” Williams added that it is a salute to the spirit of the Yoruba and Oduduwa. The academic and newspaper columnist expressed hope that the exchange would be fruitful since culture is a two-way thing and that myths would be exploded at the end of deliberations. He also suggested that since the since the idea of the nation state is becoming frayed at the edges, the world might have to go back to the Yoruba city states.

Building bridges

Director General of the Centre for Black African Arts, Civilisation and Culture, Tunde Babawale noted that since Africa is the least regarded continent in the world, the meeting has to come up with ideas that will be used to confront the challenges of the continent. Mr. Babawale also touched on governance on the continent. “Governance is too distant from the people, we have to reform political parties and develop a democracy that has democrats.” Minister of Tourism, Culture and National Orientation, Abubakar Sadiq Mohammed, who represented President Goodluck Jonathan said “it is no accident of history that we are gathered here at Osogbo, an historical town known for its rich cultural heritage and unparallel hospitality.” He also spoke on the growth of cities and problems of urbanisation. The president who decried the impact of slave trade, colonisation and globalisation on Africa’s cultures offered a solution. “To obviate the domineering influence of other cultures, Africans and people of African descent must build a bridge of understanding and a shield of cultural resilience so that a time tested African values of tolerance, chastity, mutual respect, respect for elders, sanctity of life would begin to exact its own residual influence on global trend.” The speeches dispensed with, the American Academy Choir comprising children opened the performance session with Michael Jackson’s ‘Heal the World’and Shakira’s 2010 World Cup song, ‘Waka Waka’.

To the gods

Eesa of Iragbiji, Muraina Oyelami and some drummers also treated the gathering to some drum recitals. Oyelami who disclosed he had prepared a 35 minutes presentation to introduce the functions of Dundun drum to the gathering was given about 10 minutes to do his thing and he acquitted himself well. He rendered homage to deities including Osun and the Egungun during the educative and entertaining recital session.

The Osun State Cultural Troupe was not exempted. They rendered some interesting cultural songs but the highpoint of their performance was a young man who looked and dressed like Aregbesola. He added the governor’s goatee for effect. The Aregbesola Junior Drummers, a traditional freestyle band also entertained before the summit got down to real business the following day.



In the face of rising inequality between leaders and followers, the World Summit of Mayors held at Osogbo, the Osun State capital once more beamed its searchlight on some endemic problems which have militated against grassroots development.

The summit was the rubbing of minds by those who have successfully managed their mayoral jurisdiction, particularly in the advanced world to nip in the bud the recurring dismal and retrogressive management of grassroots governance in Africa and other developing economies.

It will also remain fresh in the minds of participants from Africa and the African Diaspora who had the opportunity of examining such issues aimed at restoring, strengthening and uplifting working relationships and collaboration amongst the various participating leaders.

Expectedly, local leaders at the conference would harness some lessons from the conference, as the Osun State government promised to provide a template for others.

Osun State Governor, Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola, said given the abysmal interference in grassroots politics, particularly by state governments, most councils have not been able to meet up their statutory obligations to the people.

He said the undue meddlesomeness has impoverished the people, stalling development and making the councils unattractive not only to residents but also to potential investors. He added that in most cases, it has led to rural-urban drift further increasing cases of crime and social vices in the cities.

The governor said, henceforth, local governments in Osun State would no longer have their funds tampered with. According to him, it was better to allow councils to manage their statutory allocations to speed up development at the grassroots and to further engender true federalism.

The governor noted that the fundamental belief is that the unified work on the development challenges facing cities on the global landscape is essential to the improvement of the well-being of humanity.

Interestingly, the conference session provided opportunities to enhance capacities of local governments to discuss and develop strategies to solve universal problems. It noted that in the provision of housing, education, healthcare, gender equity, agricultural development, tourism, trade, good governance, environmental protection, justice and public safety, Africa has been the worst hit because of corruption in low and high places.

Prof Adebayo Williams, who represented the chairman of the occasion, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, said the benefit of the summit was a two-way traffic because Nigeria would learn from the American culture while the visitors would learn from the Nigerian culture.

He said there was no need crying any further about the era of slave trade or colonisation. Instead, Africans should examine how to get back what rightly belongs to them by engaging in constructive dialogue, which the summit has provided.

He said: “The only way you can get this back is to bring these people here and let them interact with us and that is the essence of the Summit of Black Mayors. And let me tell you the government of Osun State is already doing some fantastic jobs and you only need to see what is going on in terms of infrastructure, youth empowerment and the general peaceful atmosphere of the state.”

Prof Williams explained that he expected a book to come out from the deliberations for local and international consumption. He corroborated the state government’s position on the fact that Africans and, indeed, black people the world over are increasingly demonstrating their prowess in various field of human endeavour.

“We are also conscious of the fact that our brothers and sisters in the Diaspora are encouraged by development in culture and tourism in Africa, particularly Nigeria. And in Osun State, it is reputed for its works of arts and crafts which have gained international recognition.

“It would certainly interest you to know that Ile-Ife, an ancient settlement in the state, is believed to be the origin of black people all over the world. The Osun Osogbo festival and its grove have been recognised by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) as a world heritage site.”

The conference attracted participants from places such as Haiti, Caribbean, Europe and the America.

Dr Abubakar Momoh of the Lagos State University (LASU), Ojo said the concept of local government and the perspective of local governance in Africa generally have been misplaced. He noted that most times people are alienated from their leaders, thus the people are not connected to the grassroots. This disconnection, he said, works against the spirit of development.

According to him, a local government is supposed be the closest form of governance to the people where there is local participation and empowerment, but unfortunately the local governments have abandoned the grassroots people.

He said: “This summit itself is not mainly to look at local governance in term of what is happening on the continent and most especially our own black mayors in the Diaspora on what they are doing for their people and what we can draw and benefit from that. Some of our mayors will cross fertilise ideas with a view to enrich local inputs in grassroots administration.”

He stressed that the conference would fine-tune methods of knowing how they have achieved success in their area of jurisdiction, what they needed to benefit from each other and how to make it effective and touch on the lives of the ordinary people.

Chairman, Local Organising Committee of the summit, Prof. Siyan Oyeweso, told The Nation that Osun State would take the lead in addressing development problems at the grassroots. “The crux of this engagement is that local governments should exist for the people, which is our business and that is the basis for their relevance in the society. So far so good. Local governments in Nigeria have not been able to meet the need to the people except in some exceptional cases where they have been able to address issues of education, particularly in Osun, Adamawa and Nasarawa states.”

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