The Republic of Liberia was controversial when founded by free Black emigrants from America during the darkest days of slavery. Today, it stands as a symbol of a successful colonial experiment by African Americans. Yet the country holds little sway in the U.S. public imagination today, a neglect that needs correction during Black History Month — and all the more so during an election year when politicians neglect history for advantage.
The history of Liberia should be honored as much as the independence holiday of Juneteenth, and the Congressional Black Caucus and Library of Congress should include it in commemorations. Black tourists seeking to connect with the African past should consider it as well. Many tend to visit countries like Senegal or Ghana and pay homage to historical landmarks of imprisonment like Goree Island and El Mina Castle. Yet, when one considers the community’s long experience with incarceration, and the physical and psychological trauma therein, why travel so far to touch base with something so familiar at home? And especially when there is an alternative with a far more inspiring backstory directly connected to their past.
That is the land of liberty known as Liberia, set on the west coast of Africa at the bend of the Gulf of Guinea. It was the second Black republic after Haiti, founded two centuries ago by free people as most of their peers were in chains.
The region that became Liberia was long known by European traders as the “Grain Coast” for its agricultural products. That distinction vanished when the demand for slaves made selling people more lucrative than selling pepper.
The Liberia project was controversial within the small and hard-pressed community of free Black people, which comprised about 10 percent of the African population of around 500,000 in the antebellum period. One reason for suspicion was the promotion by white powerbrokers of the American Colonization Society (ACS), founded in 1817.
The group included prominent figures such as the Henry Clay, the senator from Kentucky, and John Randolph, a congressman from Virginia. They endorsed a relocation project for free Blacks interested in a new start. These white supporters wanted to cull the free population as it expanded after the Revolutionary War, in part as a result of the emancipations of some 5,000 Black soldiers who fought alongside the Americans against the British.
The question of emigration became a major topic of discussion in Black conventions throughout the early 19th century. Most objected to the idea as a scheme to rid the land of people best positioned to challenge the perpetuation of slavery. They also argued that, after 200 years of sacrifice in labor and blood, they were entitled to citizenship and a piece of the turf.
Supporters of the project, always a minority viewpoint, argued that life was too short to wait on citizenship and the end of slavery. Whatever the motives of the ACS, they viewed it as an opportunity to pioneer a new life away from the slavocracy of America.
So, like the Pilgrims who fled religious persecution in 1620, a group of free Blacks fled racial subjugation in 1820. And like the Pilgrims, they encountered years of hardship, hunger, disease and death, but they persevered until the colony was stable.
By 1824, they began a gradual process of separation from the ACS. They drafted a constitution and formed a government — and, unlike the United States, their constitution forbade slavery and participation in the slave trade. The largest settlement was named Monrovia in honor of President James Monroe, and the unification of several settlements became Liberia.
Who were some of the early settlers to establish the first African Republic? There was Lott Carey, one of the founders of Monrovia. Born into slavery in Virginia, Carey bought his freedom in 1813 and became a popular lay preacher. He organized the Richmond African Baptist Missionary and emigrated to Liberia with members of the mission in 1821. He organized a native workforce for export crops, established a trade company and was appointed governor of Monrovia in 1828.
And there was John Russwurm, only the third free Black person to graduate from an American college, Bowdoin College in Maine. In 1827, he cofounded Freedom’s Journal in New York, believed to be the first Black-owned newspaper. He went to Liberia as the colonial secretary for the ACS in 1830. There, he established the first Western-style newspaper in Africa, The LiberiaHerald, and was appointed governor of the Maryland settlement.
No one was as important as Joseph Jenkins Roberts, the first president of the republic. In 1829, Roberts emigrated from Virginia at 20 years of age, becoming a merchant and aide to the white governor of the colony. In 1842, he was appointed the first Black governor of Liberia, with an agenda to cut ties with the ACS.
On July 26, 1847, Liberia declared its independence to the world. Roberts was elected president and negotiated peace treaties with indigenous nations, ending a series of tit-for-tat skirmishes. The new republic was recognized by Britain, France, Portugal, Austria, Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Haiti. The U.S. dragged its feet until 1862, when President Lincoln recognized it during the Civil War, no doubt with an eye on the growing number of slaves abandoning plantations.
Liberia drew the attention of thousands of Blacks with skills and education in the second half of the century. One was Edward Wilmot Blyden, born in the U.S. Virgin Islands in 1832, and living in the U.S. around 1850. He went to Liberia to teach high school and flourished under the freedom of the Black state. He became a renaissance man teaching theology, the classics, geography and mathematics. He authored five books, including “African Life and Customs,” a pioneering work of tribal anthropology.
After the Civil War, Blyden, then secretary of state and professor of classics at Liberia College, returned to the U.S. to recruit others, attracting a final wave of settlers after the disappointment of the Reconstruction experience.
Today, Liberia is a stable constitutional republic of 5.5 million people, and one of only two African states (along with Ethiopia) to avoid European colonization. It was an ally of the U.S. during World War II, providing the critical commodity of rubber. After suffering two civil wars in the late 20th century, it bounced back in 2006 under President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first woman elected to head an African state and the recipient of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize.
What is important for Black History Month is the appreciation of the daring shown by the early pioneers — how they dreamed of building a free and prosperous state during the time of slavery, how they embarked on that dream, and how the dream might be applied in Black communities today.
Roger House is associate professor of American Studies at Emerson College and the author of “Blue Smoke: The Recorded Journey of Big Bill Broonzy” and “South End Shout: Boston’s Forgotten Music Scene in the Jazz Age.” His forthcoming book is “Five Hundred Years of Black Self Governance,” published by Louisiana State University Press.
Copyright 2024 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.