Last modified: Monday, April 5, 2004
African Americans and the making of Liberia
New book tells how emigration to Africa was seen as remedy for slavery
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The American civil rights movement of the 1960s sought a meaningful citizenship for African Americans in the country of their birth. In the previous century, however, there was also a movement to achieve full citizenship for African Americans -- by their emigration to the West African colony of Liberia. This earlier movement attracted an unlikely combination of supporters.
"The idea of sending black Americans to Africa as a remedy for both slavery and the whole race question attracted the attention of Quakers, antislavery activists, slaveholders and several presidents, including Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln," said Claude Clegg, professor of history at Indiana University Bloomington.
In Clegg's new book, The Price of Liberty: African Americans and the Making of Liberia (University of North Carolina Press), scheduled for release on April 14, he describes the 19th century migration of thousands of African Americans, both free-born and liberated, to the West African colony of Liberia, now an independent nation.
This exodus to Liberia had some remarkable effects in the United States, even allowing the possibility of a Southern antislavery movement linked to black removal to Africa. "Above all," Clegg said, "the Liberian colonization movement illustrated the extent to which various groups were prepared to go to avert a national crisis over the most contentious issue facing the republic, slavery."
The idea of migrating to Africa had romantic appeal, encouraging feelings of a transcendent kinship among people of African descent and offering an imagined return to an unspoiled ancestral homeland.
Instead, however, the emigrants constructed a society marred by many of the same oppressive characteristics common to modern colonial regimes, he said.
In The Price of Liberty, Clegg follows the experiences of 2,030 African Americans who left North Carolina and took up residence in Liberia between 1825 and 1893. By examining both the American and African sides of this experience, he provides insight into an important part of the historical evolution of the Atlantic world.
"For almost a century, Liberian emigration connected African Americans to the broader cultures, commerce, communication networks and epidemiological patterns of the Afro-Atlantic region," he said. "But for many individuals, dreams of a Pan-African utopia in Liberia were tempered by complicated relationships with the Africans, whom they dispossessed of land. Liberia soon became a politically unstable mix of newcomers, indigenous peoples and Africans recaptured from westbound slave ships."
Amos Sawyer, interim president of Liberia from 1990 to1994, has commented on Clegg's book:
"This is a brilliant and fascinating account that has filled in many gaps ... The narrative has a deep human quality, depicting the real predicament that the option of colonization posed for black people. This book will definitely illuminate the Liberia story and enliven an important period of American history ... There is a lot that Liberians can learn from this work that should provide a context for reconciliation and reconstruction."
For more information, contact Clegg at 812-855-3929 or email@example.com.