An African Republic

Black and White Virginians in the Making of Liberia

By Marie Tyler-McGraw

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An African Republic

264 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 17 illus., notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-1518-9
    Published: March 2014
  • eBook ISBN: 978-0-8078-6778-5
    Published: March 2014

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Author Q&A

Copyright(c) 2007 by the University of North Carolina Press. All rightsreserved.

Marie Tyler-McGraw, author of An African Republic: Black and White Virginians in the Making of Liberia, on the founding of Africa's oldest republic by free and emancipated African Americans between 1820 and 1865.

Q: Why would anyone think it was a good ideato establish a colony in Africa with American free blacks?

A: Establishing colonies is anold and popular idea among nations. In 1588, English writers argued thatsending their "idle beggars" to America would benefit both England andthe impoverished migrants. This self-serving delusion helped to justifymuch European colonization. It was not hard to imagine sending Americanfree blacks to west Africa, especially when the possibility ofconverting Africans to Christianity was added to the proposal.

The founders of the American Colonization Society (ACS), all white men,had varied motives. Most hoped that African colonization would lead togeneral emancipation; some hoped to be rid only of free blacks. Northernfree blacks suspected the all-white Society of wanting to deport them,but Chesapeake free blacks saw merit in the plan. It was, basically, thekind of impossible plan that would appeal to many Americans: agingRevolutionaries who felt uneasy over slavery, evangelicals, urban freeblack traders, emancipated slaves tutoring as teachers and missionaries,Quakers, and opportunistic politicians.

Q: Why would any African Americans go? Wasn'tthere a very high death rate?

A: About one-fourth of theemigrants were free blacks who believed that they could never fulfilltheir potential or rise to true equality in the United States. Thisgroup became the leadership class, politically and economically.Three-fourths were emancipated slaves, many of whom had no choice. Someof the emancipated slaves were well-supplied and some were destitute.Malaria, called the acclimating fever, killed up to a quarter of theemigrants in their first year. Those adult men who survived the feverand had some money or supplies could usually make a living; families wholost adult men suffered?

Q: Were the black Americans who establishedLiberia more American than black?

A:  A: What it meant to be "black"or "African" American has always been a debated question, but it was acrucially unsettled question when Liberia was founded. Defenders ofslavery needed a theory of black inferiority, but emigrants to Liberiahoped to demonstrate black ability by creating a republic. Too often,these black Americans settlers are described as "freed slaves." In fact,about one-quarter were free-born and possessed some education and cash.But, free or emancipated, black emigrants were culturally American. Theywanted to "uplift" Africa without abandoning their American identity.

Q: In the decades before the Civil War, howwell known was the idea of colonizing American free blacks in Africa?

A: Few Americans know that, whilenever a large or well-funded organization, African colonization was asteady point of reference for all the political debates of the pre-CivilWar era. Thomas Jefferson suggested colonization in 1785. Americans aresurprised to learn that Lincoln explored colonization of freed slavesduring the Civil War, without understanding that emigration to Haiti,Central America, and Liberia had been part of the racial debate amongboth blacks and whites for two generations. (Nor do they understand thisas part of his strategy to make the Emancipation Proclamationacceptable.).

Q: When a military coup in 1980 overthrewPresident Tolbert, it was the end of rule by American descendants inLiberia that began in 1847. Were the African Americans in Liberia justone more example of western colonial domination?

A: No. Unlike European colonizers,they always set standards for citizenship on cultural bases, not racial.According to the Constitution of 1847, the tribal groups living in andnear the Liberian settlements could achieve citizenship by adopting theChristian religion, American dress standards, and occupations of theAmerican settlers. Few were interested. Currently, all the descendantsof American settlers constitute only 5% of the Liberian population andthey were never near a majority. Can a small minority absorb a majority?

Q: Did Liberia succeed? Was it worth themoney, struggle and sacrifice of life?

A: : Maybe not. The first twogenerations of surviving settlers believed they had succeeded inestablishing a nation and creating a republic. But internal dilemmas,European colonization of Africa, continued racism in the United States,and lack of a world trade commodity stunted development. Liberia'shistory was static, then violent and destructive. Something might beredeemed from this story if Americans understood that the settlement ofLiberia involved more than white racism and involuntary or ignorantcompliance by black Americans.