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Home / Browse / Back-to-Africa Movement
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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January 5, 2011

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Wednesday, January 05, 2011

A ‘Priscilla’s Homecoming’ Journal
A week with ‘Priscilla’s Posse’
By Jeanine Talley
Freetown’s history
Antawn and Thomalind PoliteAntawn and Thomalind Polite
I spent a week in early summer 2005 with Priscilla’s descendant, Thomalind Martin Polite, her husband, Antawn, and an entourage of about twenty other Americans (and one woman from Britain) touring and experiencing the spirit and welcome of the “lion mountain” country of Sierra Leone. The small nation rests on the curve of Africa’s west coast, encompassing the continent’s farthest western point and its largest natural harbor. Its capital, Freetown, with a population of 1.2 million, rests just outside that harbor.
Freetown was founded in the late 1700s by a group of newly freed slaves who fought on the side of the British in the American Revolutionary War. These black soldiers came mostly from South Carolina and Virginia plantations. At first the British evacuated them to Canada but later decided to return the Africans to their homeland. A large, ancient cotton tree in Freetown is said to have started life when these settlers first arrived and remains a source of pride and nationalism to this day. Sierra Leone continued to exist as a British colony for another 169 years until it gained independence in 1961.
Who is Pricilla?
As the last notes of the uniquely composed narrative song written and performed by the Freetong Players, a local a cappella group, drifted through the large meeting room, the speechless crowd scarcely knew how to respond to such an emotional musical experience. Only a few moments ago, I watched Polite’s face shake with emotion as the song’s words embraced her almost as if the spirit of Priscilla was sitting in that very room. For the audience, it was an incredible, euphoric moment. Priscilla was a child of strength, resilience and determination; and after years of living in a foreign land, her descendant had brought her spirit home.
But Polite experienced an extra surprise. As JMU professor Joe Opala later said, “It wasn’t until that night at the embassy [when] the Freetong Players performed, singing [Priscilla’s] story, [that Polite] really believed that they were welcoming her home [too].” So the event honored not only the ancestor who was kidnapped from her land so many years ago but also the living descendant who, too, was returning home.
Priscilla’s Posse
A traditional dance A traditional dance
Our seven days spent as “Priscilla’s Posse” included a full schedule of meetings with Sierra Leone’s president, vice president and other high ranking governmental officials; presentations at the American Embassy and National Museum; theatrical performances at Fourah Bay College; boat trips to a traditional Susu village and slave castle; and a reception at the American ambassador’s residence.
It is not possible to describe all of the details or accurately capture the awe we felt during our visit. We witnessed hundreds of Susu village dancers and musicians compete for Polite’s attention and recognition in a Yeliba performance; we sang “Amazing Grace” to the beat of African drums during an early morning service honoring women (Polite included) in the Star by the Sea Catholic Church; and we laughed with Sierra Leone’s president when he joked that it may take parliament a while to “pass the paperwork,” after offering Thomalind and Antawn Polite dual citizenship to his country.
Nothing compares to the chartered bus ride through the country as children screamed “Priscilla! Priscilla!” and slapped the vehicle’s sides if they were close enough or to the experience of standing on the last piece of land where thousands of captured Africans last touched their beloved home. We finally understood the strength that the 10-year–old Priscilla must have had to withstand every imaginable obstacle and return home after 249 years.
Meeting Sierra Leone’s president
The Polites sat close together on a stiff, overstuffed couch; Antawn’s large frame seemed uncomfortable in his suit jacket and tie while Thomalind, looking even more petite when next to her husband, sat quietly in a black suit dress accented by a giant pearl necklace and bracelet. She absentmindedly occupied her restless hands by patting down her already perfectly set hair. It was obvious that she, too, was nervous. Or perhaps it was some kind of anxious expectancy, an emotion similar to that Priscilla must have felt when she finally reached her new home in the ‘Land Across the Big Water’ –– an experience completely new in every sense of the word.
But on this day the Polites were not starting an entire new life in a land unknown to them, they were waiting to meet the president of Sierra Leone. President Kabbah must have sensed their nervousness because as soon as he spoke he put everyone at ease with his laughter, wit and charm. The Polites were presented gifts of traditional clothing, jewelry and handicrafts and thanks from the amazing country that welcomed them. They immediately eased back into their seats and the atmosphere returned to what it had been all week –– that of comfort and family.
Bunce Island
Abandoned slave castleAbandoned slave castle
To a small crowd of American and African journalists, the U.S. Ambassador to Sierra Leone, and a few Sierra Leoneans from the neighboring islands, Opala described the slave castle as it would have looked in its prime operational years –– gravel walkways; 40–foot high fortress walls; iron cannons wth the crest of the king of England; offices, workshops, and storeroom providing space for the guns, cotton cloth and rum offered in exchange for slaves; and strong rooms to keep the gold and ivory bought from the Africans.
This place was indeed a “bizarre, inhumane juxtaposition of a rich man’s estate, prison and fortress” said Opala. Although a small space physically, it housed a huge Georgian–style two–story home, complete with a fireplace that was never used because of the region’s tropical heat and an upper level veranda where the commander of the castle could entertain guests. Directly behind the house were the slave yards. The prison’s enclosed spaces were divided –– men were in the wider, larger yard, and women and children were in the smaller, cramped one.
The African sun beat down, and the high prison walls and the towering “factory house” cut off the river’s breeze. The suffocating heat made the space feel smaller than it already was. “Overcrowded” could not justifiably describe these yards where crowds of people suffered.
Walking around the small fortress, one felt a depressing weight at the thought of such a misuse of land and resources. Awe for the obvious human ingenuity in creating such a magnificent physical space gave way to massive disappointment and rage for its purpose.
Polite was overwhelmed; her face reflected pain, sorrow and horror as the tortures the captive Africans would endure were described. She said that standing on Bunce Island was “the most incredible moment” of the entire trip. Despite the sadness and the history, or maybe because of them, she felt nearer to her great, great, great, great, great–grandmother than at any other time during the homecoming. “Just knowing that Priscilla was there 249 years ago, and there I was standing on the same ground made the cycle complete.”
Welcome home
Traveling with Priscilla’s Posse, indeed being in Africa itself, was one of the most privileged experiences I’ve ever had. It was more than a historical trip back to slavery times, and it was more than time spent honoring a determined survivor of the era. Priscilla’s Homecoming was the kind of welcome home many black Americans can only dream about. It embraced not only Thomalind Polite but also everyone else setting foot on the country’s white beaches and invited them to stay awhile so that they might hear the story of the many children whom Sierra Leone, “Mama Salone,” lost and those who have returned.
About the Author
Jeanine “Nina” Talley, daughter of JMU professor Cheryl Talley, worked with the JMU Honors Program and Furious Flower Poetry Center. She now lives in San Francisco, where she is a research and administrative assistant at the National Senior Citizens Law Center, Oakland Branch, located in downtown Oakland, Ca.


November 4, 2010


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« The Eagles Who Thought They Were Chickens (2 of 4) by Kwadwo Gyasi Nkita-Mayala
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Isaiah Washington- a true warrior for his people
Author: SEM Contributor
To many it was surprising when Sierra Leone’s President Ernest Bai Koroma decided to give citizenship to the 25 year acting veteran Isaiah Washington after he traced his ancestral roots through DNA to the Mende and Temne people of Sierra Leone. (Isaiah Washington at The Africa Policy Forum)
The ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ star became the first African American to get citizenship through DNA, and President Koroma became the first African leader to award citizenship based on DNA. It is not surprising when a few days ago Africa’s most populated nation, Nigeria, decided to follow the footsteps of Sierra Leone by granting citizenship to Mrs. Hope Sullivan Masters, an African American woman who also traced her roots to the Yoruba people of Nigeria.
In an interview earlier for Holland based, Washington recalled on one occasion when he was travelling with President Koroma in New York for the United Nation General Assembly meeting as a Special Adviser: “As the train pulled out of the station I could see that Minister (Zainab) Bangura and President Koroma were tired. I knew I had to make my case, and quick. Before I could finish my spiel on the importance and historical significance of obtaining my dual citizenship, President Koroma smiled at me and said: ‘I understand what it is that you are trying to do and I support it. I am aware of W.E.B. Dubois’s teachings and I am of the same school of thought. I have had many ask me, ‘Why are you giving this man citizenship?’ and I say to them, ‘What are you all so afraid of?’ I sat there silent for several seconds and then said, ‘My sentiments exactly sir. Thank you for your time. I will shut up and let you rest.”

Inspired by this discovery Washington decided to set up an elementary school through his Gondobay Manga Foundation in Sierra Leone. He uses his personal resources and commits himself to make a better life for the people of Sierra Leone.
I first met Washington on his last visit to Sierra Leone. By then he was in the country to take oath as a Sierra Leonean and collect his passport. We had a three hour meeting at Hotel Barmoi in Aberdeen. We shared our dreams and aspirations and how we intend to make Sierra Leone a better place. During the conversation, I noticed Washington had bigger plans, but what I could not comprehend was how is he was going to make these plans come through. It was after I arrived in the United States for The Africa Policy Forum that I understand what the father of three was actually talking about.
Washington has been criss-crossing the United States all in the name of Sierra Leone. He has had over dozens of interviews on high profile TV networks and making statements as guest speaker at over 100 events for Sierra Leone. During the five days Africa Policy Forum he introduced me to several people including investors, philanthropists and celebrities, who will soon visit the former war-torn nation to contribute their quota to the development of Sierra Leone.
Furthermore, a US$2 million dollars worth of medical equipment, which was made possible by him, is on its way to the Bo Government Hospital in Southern Sierra Leone. He has also negotiated for two other companies that will provide prosthetics for amputees, clean water from rain catching systems and also garbage collection for communities in Sierra Leone.
Whether in his professional life as an actor, producer, writer, motivational speaker or activist Washington has passionately committed himself for the development of Sierra Leone. His new documentary film – ‘Passport to Sierra Leone’ produced by The Africa Channel is now playing on cable. He recently appeared as Coach Brian “Buddy” Simmons in ‘Hurricane Season’ starring Forest Whitaker. He will produce and star in the upcoming Brazilian film ‘Area Q’, which is expected to be in theaters in March 2011. ‘A MAN FROM ANOTHER LAND: How Finding My Roots Changed My Life’ is also expected on stands in April 2011.
Washington has and continues to work as a Goodwill Ambassador for the people of Sierra Leone.
“Making history as an African American accomplishing my “dual citizenship” based on DNA is a great thing. Finally, I have a people and a nation to connect with on the African continent to learn from and grow with as I have learned and grown in America. I will not let the people of Sierra Leone down,” he said.
By Murtala Mohamed Kamara
About the Author: Murtala Mohamed Kamara is the Founder and Chief Executive for . He is a specialist on West Africa and has written over one thousand articles for major publications including
Kamara is presently in Atlanta , Georgia for an official visit
Stay with Sierra Express Media, for your trusted place in news!
October 27th, 2010 | Tags: Actor, Isaiah Washington, Sierra Leone | Category: Pan-Africanism, Sierra Leone
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