Hey, why don't you people go back to Africa?
This question was posed to me one afternoon while walking home from school by a somewhat angry freckle faced teenager. The incident took place in Boston during the "forced busing" initiative of the 1970s. I never really gave the question much thought back then; I just added it to the list of insults I had become accustom to as a black boy growing up in one of the most racially charged environments on the East coast. But more than thirty years later, I still remember the angry teen and his simple question. Did he seriously believe that African Americans could just pick up and return to Africa? Did he have a particular country in mind or did he think Africa was a country? If he's still alive, I'm sure he's long since forgotten our onetime encounter but more than thirty years later I've decided to look at this question from a historical perspective.
The Origins of the Back to Africa Movement in America
When you think about back to Africa movements in the United States, the first person that should come to mind is Marcus Garvey. In the early 1900s, Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). The organization's main goal was the segregation of whites and blacks. Garvey wanted blacks to leave the United States and return to Africa. But it might surprise you to know that organized efforts to return blacks to Africa began, not after slavery, but during slavery.
Shortly after the American Revolution, free and enslaved blacks began to openly challenge slavery. They would ask, "How could such an institution continue to exist in a nation where men had died for the right to govern their own lives?" "Why weren't black men included in this new constitution?" For some whites and blacks, the answer was clear, blacks and whites would be better off separate. One of the first organized returns to the African continent took place in 1815. Paul Cuffee, an African American Quaker and mariner, used his own money to finance a voyage for a small group of freed slaves to Sierra Leone in West Africa. Cuffee wanted to establish an African trade network that would be controlled by the westernized freedmen. Cuffee worked hard to fulfill his dream and even had the support of Presidents Jefferson and Madison. Sadly, Cuffee died in 1817, never seeing his dream fulfilled. But the colony he helped to establish in West Africa would inspire similar efforts.
The American Colonization Society
In 1816, a group of Quakers and slave owners formed the American Colonization Society. The group shared some of Cuffe's vision and went to work on a plan of their own. The partnership was an unlikely one. The majority of Quakers condemned slavery on moral and ethical grounds. Slave holders wanted to rid the country of freed slaves and the "negative" influence they might have on the overall slave population. The one thing that both groups agreed on is that African Americans could not live peacefully as freedman in a country still caught in the grips of slavery. A few of the organization's most prominent members included James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Francis Scott Key, and Daniel Webster. With support from Congress and third party donations, the group was able to raise enough money to finance their colonization project.
The Founding of Liberia
The Elizabeth set sail for West Africa in January of 1820. It left New York with 88 black emigrants and three ACS representatives. The majority of the emigrants were born free and had never experienced slavery. Within weeks of landing in West Africa, yellow fever claimed the lives of all three ACS representatives and 22 of the emigrants. Despite this, the ACS would continue to send free-born and recently freed slaves to the West African colony. By 1824, the colony was well established and was officially named Liberia, which means "Land of the Free." The capital was named Monrovia in honor of former president James Monroe, a key backer of the project.
As part of an agreement with the American Government, slaves and Africans liberated from captured illegal slave ships were also added to the colony. Within 30 years, more than 15,000 freed blacks had been added to the colony's population. This expansion angered local tribes. The conflict between the two warring groups would play out well into the twentieth century. In 1847, at the urging of the ACS, Liberia declared its independence. The Republic of Liberia became the first independent democratic republic in Africa and Joseph J. Roberts, a free black man who immigrated to Liberia in 1929, became its first president.
The country has had a turbulent history. The conflict between the local tribes and the citizens of Liberia has resulted in thousands of deaths. But the country has persevered and continues to work toward economic and social stability. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a Harvard graduate and Nobel Peace Prize winner, became the first female President of Liberia when she was elected in 2006. To many, she represents a new hope for the country.
For people of African descent to truly return to the land of their ancestors, they would need to know not only which part of the continent they came from but which tribes as well. These types of records do not exist. With advances in DNA testing, many African Americans can narrow down their lineage to a broad area of the continent but an exact match is virtually impossible.
If I could talk to my childhood tormentor today, I would tell him about Paul Cuffee and the Quakers. I'd share the successes and the failures of a return to Africa. I would take his ignorance and turn it into a moment of true knowledge. What, can't a guy dream?