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  • Writer's pictureHistoric Columbus

Emigration to Liberia (Part I): The Introduction to the Story

SOURCE: Emigration to Liberia from the Chattahoochee Valley of Georgia and Alabama, 1853 – 1903 by Matthew F.K. McDaniel. 2013.


Columbus, Georgia and Eufaula, Alabama share a largely forgotten historical bond with the small, struggling West African country of Liberia. Almost 150 years ago, just after the Civil War, 486 citizens of Columbus and Eufaula felt they had a better chance for safety, freedom, and prosperity in a small, struggling African republic than in the United States.

Today, the landscape of Columbus continues to evolve, and change has obscured the city’s historic past. Once one of the most prominent industrial cities in the antebellum and post-war South, the city has lost many of its old brick mills, factories, and warehouses to fire and the wrecking ball. In large part, cotton built Columbus, but a visitor to the city and region today would hardly make that connection. Although cotton is still a major crop in Georgia, little is grown near metropolitan Columbus or even the surrounding region – the northern stretches of the Chattahoochee Valley. Visitors are more likely to encounter suburbia or rolling pine plantations than a cotton field. Eufaula, about 45 miles south of Columbus, now lies on the shores of Lake Walter F. George rather than the narrow Chattahoochee River. The city has become a tourist town and service center for the many retirees and the new homes springing up around the lake.

Philadelphia: S. Augustus Mitchell, Jr., 1861; from Mitchell's New General Atlas.

Across an ocean, Liberia, on the Atlantic coast of West Africa, was the first republic on that continent and in 2005 elected the first female African head of state. Founded in 1822 as a haven for free Blacks and emancipated slaves from the United States, the colony became independent in 1847. Largely a project of the white-led American Colonization Society (ACS), Liberia was the result of conflicting motives: some hoped the colony would provide a means for the slow abolition of slavery; others, hoped sending free Blacks from the South would remove a troublesome demographic segment and better secure the institution of slavery. Those who survived Liberia’s many tropical diseases and adapted to its equatorial climate developed their own culture that, in many ways, resembled the white-ruled South left behind. These Americo-Liberians represented a minority in the country, but they asserted political, economic, and technological authority over the native peoples throughout the late twentieth century. Violence and sporadic fighting with the native peoples have occurred throughout Liberia’s history, but none matched the decades of civil warfare in the late twentieth century. To some degree, the conflict represented people of native descent rebelling against over a century and a half of Americo-Liberian rule. Many symbols of Americo-Liberian hegemony, such as the American-style, historic architecture (pictured below) and the country’s museums and archives, were destroyed.

Although Columbus and Liberia were both founded at about the same time (in 1828 and 1822, respectively), the two communities followed very different paths. However, they share a bond: 486 free Blacks and freed people left the Chattahoochee Valley for Liberia, most from Columbus. Indeed, of the 4,093 Black emigrants the ACS sponsored and sent to Liberia after the American Civil War, more than one in ten came from the Chattahoochee Valley, including 447 from Columbus and 39 from Eufaula. The vast majority of these emigrants left in two large groups just after the Civil War, in late 1867 and early 1868. Liberian emigration from the region before the Civil War and during and after Reconstruction appears to have been minimal. Thus, the Chattahoochee Valley emigrants represented a substantial number of all post-war emigrants and were a major contingent in the ACS’s short-lived, post-war emigration boom.

Grand Lodge of Liberia.

Before and after the Civil War, both whites and Blacks from North and South pondered the status of freed Blacks. For a variety of often conflicting motives, some whites and Blacks thought the best thing to do was for Blacks to return to Africa. Before the Civil War, some Northern abolitionists and moderates saw the return of free Black and manumitted slaves to an African colony as a means to chip away at the slave system itself. Colonization would provide some opportunity and safety for free Blacks who had presumably no prospects in a white supremacist society. Slave-holding Southerners, on the other hand, viewed African colonization as an excellent method of removing free Blacks who were a destabilizing influence on those still in bondage. These two conflicting concerns led to the establishment of the American Colonization Society (ACS) in 1816 and the colony of Liberia on the West African coast in 1822. Liberia became Africa’s first republic when it declared its independence from the ACS in 1847. The pre-Civil War ACS was essentially a white men’s organization meeting their own goals; as well as pro-slavery Southerners held important leadership positions within the organization. Following the Civil War, the colonization movement changed. Political and financial support for the ACS dwindled following the abolition of slavery, but Blacks themselves began writing to the organization in great numbers asking for assistance to emigrate. Although Blacks had their freedom, in the uncertain years following the war, many understandably desired to leave and try their lot elsewhere. Some whites, also believing the races could not live side-by-side, proposed internal colonization plans in the West and in Florida, as well as Caribbean colonies. These never gained momentum, and the established pattern of emigration to Liberia persisted. The depleted ACS also continued to struggle to meet the demand and essentially exhausted its remaining resources to send as many freed people to Liberia as possible. As Reconstruction governments took hold in the South, many Blacks responded with optimism, and emigration to Liberia slowed. However, in the late nineteenth century, the end of Reconstruction, the advent of Jim Crow laws, and the corresponding surge in white-on-black violence encouraged many Blacks to consider moving their families and seeking opportunities elsewhere. Interest in Liberia was renewed, and letters flooded the ACS with pleas for help. However, the society was only a shadow of its former self and could only send much smaller, more selective groups. As Blacks realized the ACS was no longer a viable option, Black leaders, most often clergy, formed new national and regional organizations, particularly in Black-majority areas where the violence tended to be the most extreme. Such Black-led societies formed in South Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas, but none approached the former success of the ACS. Many were outright failures. Back-to-Africa emigration organizations persisted well into the twentieth century, but no plan, the ACS included, was very successful.

The historiography of Liberia is also not expansive, but it is varied. Several books survey the history of the country. Others focus on Liberia’s origins, early history, and the genesis and role of the ACS. These studies are valuable for developing the context within which the Chattahoochee Valley emigrants made their decisions to leave and arrived and settled in Liberia. As the ACS declined at the end of the nineteenth century and closed its doors at the beginning of the twentieth, Black-led, grassroots, back-to-Africa emigration and internal migration organizations replaced it. The history and significance of these largely unsuccessful efforts have been recorded and partially explain why the interest in Liberia that persisted in the Chattahoochee Valley never led to any more significant emigration. Correspondence and related newspaper items provide the bulk of the evidence that can be studied to track the Chattahoochee Valley emigrants once they arrived and settled in Liberia. Most of the previously known letters that have survived from Liberian emigrants have been published. Randall M. Miller edited the early to mid-nineteenth century correspondence of the Skipworth family of Virginia and Alabama to their former owners in Dear Master: Letters of a Slave Family. Bell I. Wiley followed Miller’s work with Slaves No More: Letters from Liberia, 1833 – 1869, a comprehensive volume that included all known Liberian correspondence untainted by connections to the ACS. Wiley was skeptical of glowing letters written to the ACS or published in its African Repository and Colonial Journal and used few of them. Both Miller and Wiley identified common themes within the correspondence, such as the hardships facing the emigrants in a strange, new land, and their sometimes reliance on and affection for former owner families.

These themes were reflected in the letters of the Chattahoochee Valley emigrants. Many emigrants thanked God for true freedom in their own land, but never forgot the friends and families they left behind in the United States. One of the greatest hardships all emigrants faced was mere survival. A variety of diseases, particularly malaria, killed many emigrants, most shortly after their arrival. Antonio McDaniel, in his statistical analysis Swing Low, Sweet Chariot: The Mortality Cost of Colonizing Liberia in the Nineteenth Century, indicates that Liberian colonists may have paid the highest reliably recorded mortality cost in the history of human migration. More recent works include several regional studies and focus on events in the United States leading to emigration, as well as reception and settlements of emigrants in Liberia. Richard Hall provides a comprehensive history of Maryland’s colony in Liberia in On Africa’s Shore: A History of Maryland in Liberia, 1834 – 1857, and Kenneth C. Barnes’ study of the unique, late nineteenth century surge in emigration from Arkansas, Journey of Hope: The Back to Africa Movement in Arkansas in the Late 1800s, explains why almost half of the emigrants during that period came from Arkansas. Following Reconstruction, as that state’s rural whites and Blacks banded together against the white elite, that elite reacted violently against the weakest link in the coalition, and most importantly, Arkansas dramatically and rapidly shifted from a supposed place of Black opportunity to a place of Jim Crow oppression.

Claude A. Clegg’s The Price of Liberty: African Americans and the Making of Liberia uses nineteenth century, North Carolinian emigration to Liberia as a case study to examine the complex, invasive culture African Americans created there. Clegg’s use of ACS records to develop demographic statistics for all North Carolina emigrants provides an opportunity to compare that group with the Chattahoochee Valley emigrants. Journalist Alan Huffman’s Mississippi in Africa: The Saga of the Slaves of Prospect Hill Plantation and Their Legacy in Liberia Today finds the memory of Liberian emigration lost in a rural Mississippi county, but vital among descendants of emigrants in Liberia who dream of returning to the United States. Despite the significant scale of their post-war Liberian emigration, the Chattahoochee Valley emigrants do not appear in any historiography. Some of the more recent works, such as Clegg’s Price of Liberty, reflect the type of analysis possible for the Chattahoochee Valley emigrants: to identify the factors that drove emigrants to their dramatic decisions, to develop a portrait of who those emigrants were, and to piece together what happened to them after they arrived in Liberia. Thus, the present effort is an attempt to do just that – to tell the story of the Chattahoochee Valley emigrants. In large part, their story is one of misinformation, disappointment, and above all, hardship. But for those few who did succeed, they achieved what most had hoped they would find in Liberia: freedom, prosperity, and escape from a racist world where those things had been denied to them.

Liberian emigration has been largely ignored in the histories of Columbus and is at best a footnote in most histories of Georgia and Alabama. The Chattahoochee Valley emigration, however, is significant given its relative magnitude and timing. Who were these people? Why, when so many stayed in the South, did this group leave? What became of them? The answers to these questions are problematic. The historical record, including the records of the ACS, newspaper accounts, and a handful of letters, is limited, but it provides clues when piecing together an account of the Chattahoochee Valley emigrants. Despite the limitations of this evidence, enough remains to develop an idea of who they were, why they left, and to some extent, what happened to them. Next Week: We will continue the story - what was happening in Columbus at the time and stories of the emigrants who departed from Columbus and Eufaula. Above are two pieces of the list of names of the Chattahoochee Valley emigrants. The entire listing is included in Matthew McDaniel's book.

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