• Historic Columbus

Emigration to Liberia (Part II): The Departures

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

 

Emigration to Liberia from the Chattahoochee Valley of Georgia and Alabama was concentrated during the immediate post-Civil War period, although evidence suggests sporadic emigration occurred throughout the period of the national emigration, from the early to mid-nineteenth century through the early twentieth century. Before and just after the Civil War, organizations to send free Blacks and then emancipated slaves were well known in Columbus and the surrounding communities. The colonization program organized and run by the American Colonization Society (ACS) was the best known and was by far the best organized and most successful. The ACS formed and began activities at about the same time the city of Columbus was incorporated (1822 and 1828, respectively); thus, both white and Black residents brought an awareness of the ACS colonization plan to the new, rapidly growing town. Although few copies of early Columbus newspapers survived, the ACS and African colonization were certainly discussed in their pages, as was the case in newspapers of Columbus’ sister city to the east, Macon. Interest and support for the back-to-Africa movement can be documented in Columbus soon after the founding of the town. Columbus residents appear as early as 1837 in the donor and subscriber lists of the ACS’s monthly African Repository and Colonial Journal. This interest and support were sustained. A few Columbus citizens made donations for the years 1837,1841,1849,1850, 1852, and 1853 in increments ranging from $20 to $100. Lock Weems, Esq. and the Rev. C.B. King were identified as Columbus’ only “Life Members” in the ACS in 1849 and 1852, respectively. A single Eufaula donation was noted in 1854. The activity recorded in the Repository indicates that not only were Columbus residents aware of the Liberian project, but a few also supported it financially and wished to be kept apprised of the ACS’s progress.

Liberian emigration from Columbus and the Chattahoochee Valley was minimal before the Civil War. The slave owners of Columbus were generally reluctant to part with their income-producing property, and only a few free Blacks were willing to board ships for a land unknown. Although some whites in Columbus supported the ACS and the back-to-Africa colonization efforts, others were concerned that the very idea of Liberia was dangerous. To them, it was fine if the free Blacks volunteered to leave, but those remaining in bondage had no reason to concern themselves with freedom in a far off and unattainable land. Furthermore, the Liberian colonists themselves were proving incapable of running a successful government or caring for their own people. Thus, white opposition in Columbus had a twofold purpose: to maintain stability within the region’s enslaved population and to reinforce the righteousness of the slave system. This dual-purpose sentiment was reflected in newspaper articles published before the war. Although some items in antebellum Columbus newspapers concerned general, sometimes whimsical, information regarding the struggling republic, such as promising cotton production or an unusually large pineapple plantation, articles and reports more often told of Liberia’s troubles and the severe hardships of its colonists. Typical news included “Difficulties in Liberia” citing the “great distress and suffering among the colonists” and transcripts of gloomy letters from the country’s president. Stories of individual emigrant failures in Liberia were re-published in Columbus and held up as proof that slavery was the best and most benevolent station for the “negro.” An Atlanta article reprinted in the Enquirer, titled “Lo!! The Poor Slave!,” told the story of an emancipated slave, who, after transport to Liberia and “enduring all manner of privations and sufferings and witnessing the death of many of his companions, and the wretched condition of the survivors” begged to return to the United States and requested “the privilege of returning to bondage.” Other articles in Columbus newspapers, such as “Liberia a Swindle,” accused the ACS of over-charging freed people and not supporting them on their arrival in Africa. The common theme of slaves eagerly returning to the United States and to their former servitude in these pre-Civil War articles was starkly manifested in this same article from the Farmville (Virginia) Journal reprinted in the Enquirer. After indicating that two Liberian returnees were once again slaves, the Virginia editors claimed these two people believed: “that freedom to the negro in Africa is the greatest curse that could possibly befall him; and that had the Liberians means of getting away seven-eighths of them would gladly return to the United States and serve the hardest masters to be found in the South, feeling that the condition of the slave here is far preferable to that of the most favored of the inhabitants of Liberia.”

Bass Place (Slave Cabins), Columbus, Muscogee County, GA. 1933, Historic American Building Survey.


By the time of the Civil War, Columbus had developed into one of the South’s leading industrial centers. The falls of the Chattahoochee River provided abundant waterpower, and five- and six-story brick factories and warehouses lined the city’s waterfront. By 1860, Columbus was second only to Richmond in textile production, and a paper mill, furniture factory, cotton gin manufacturer, and iron foundries diversified the city’s industrial base. During the war, these same factories produced uniforms, guns, cannon, ammunition, swords, and other war material. Because of this industrial capacity, Columbus became a strategic target for raiding Federals late in the war. U.S. Major General James Wilson’s lightening calvary raid, meant to show the military potential of a speedy, large-scale, and exclusively calvary campaign, targeted the industrialized fall line cities of Alabama and Georgia. On April 17, 1865, Wilson’s quick and successful attack on Columbus, arguably the “last land battle of the Civil War,” left the town’s large factories and many of its principal buildings in ashes. Although very nearly spared as the war drew to a close, Columbus would not only have to adjust to a post-war reality, but also physically rebuild. Soon after the war, plantation owners, factory owners, and the press began contemplating the future of labor in the Chattahoochee Valley and the rest of the South. Slavery was finished, and many freedmen had left plantations and farms and congregated in Columbus. Although the city avoided any significant civil disturbances, idle whites and Blacks observed an uneasy peace in the city. The labor issue was pondered in the press: given their new-found freedom, would the freedmen return to the fields and be a reliable source of labor? Or should the Southern states actively recruit European immigrants, such as were beginning to arrive by the shipload to the North? Some feared that European immigrants and their culture would not be a good fit in the South’s climate and culture, and that any such immigration would take a lengthy adjustment period for employers and labor alike. These concerns shifted white focus to returning Blacks to the cotton fields as paid laborers and thereby producing raw materials for Columbus’ rebuilding factories. Thus, recovering Black labor became the Chattahoochee Valley’s best chance for a rapid economic recovery.

Bass Place (Slave Cabin), Columbus, Muscogee County, GA. 1933, Historic American Building Survey.


Post-war uncertainty was almost total for Blacks. Propertyless and penniless, freedmen had little to celebrate after the initial euphoria of emancipation. Prospects were few in the Chattahoochee Valley, white racism abounded, and the promise of Black political power was unrealized. During the early post-war years, Federal military rule in Georgia was temporarily withdrawn while defiant whites and former Confederates cleverly and effectively maneuvered to retain white supremacy in the new state legislature. To freedmen across the state, this political maneuvering was disheartening and perplexing. The Confederacy had lost the war, the slaves had been emancipated, Black men could now vote, and Black members had been elected to the Georgia legislature. Yet conservative whites, some of whom were ex-Confederates, still firmly controlled state government, and, during the summer of 1868, they managed to expel all the Black members from the state legislature. To some degree, in the early years of Reconstruction, the freedmen of Georgia and the Chattahoochee Valley faced a political status quo: despite their new freedom, political power remained in the hands of the old guard, white elite. Although Congress would eventually react against Georgia’s defiance, reinstating military rule in 1869, the years 1867 and 1868 remained uncertain ones for the state’s freedmen. However, with freedom came choice. Although most were destitute, Blacks at least had the opportunity to ponder leaving the South. Further, the ACS’s history of providing passage to Liberia was well known in the Chattahoochee Valley, as was that country’s free land and Black-only government. Thus, Liberia returned to the consciousness of the Chattahoochee Valley. To Blacks, the prospect of Liberia was escape, safety, and opportunity. They could own their own land in their own country and be governed by their own people. Liberia was the new start and a new future for families, far from the whites who had oppressed them.

By February 1867, the ACS had received 78 applications for emigration from Columbus and another 25 from LaGrange. At least eight persons from Columbus took advantage of the Golconda’s first May departure in 1867. Fifty-two-year-old John F. Simpson, his children and grandchildren, and Alfred Howard, 21 years old and apparently single, were the first eight Columbus emigrants sponsored by the ACS to leave for Liberia after the Civil War. They left together on May 30th, bound for Sinoe County in southern Liberia. Simpson and Howard were the only Chattahoochee Valley emigrants to declare for that area of the country. Simpson took with him a son, two daughters, and two grandchildren (aged 18 months and five years). Whether Alfred Howard was somehow related to the Simpson family is not known. Howard, John Simpson, and his son Frank Simpson, all identified themselves as farmers; three of the four Simpson adults claimed to be literate. The Golconda was described as “in every respect a superior vessel,” a “handsome vessel, heavily sparred” that sat “gracefully in the water.” Although “not built for an emigrant ship,” it had been well-adapted to comfortably carry 650 to 700 emigrants, farm more than the 321 on the vessel’s maiden voyage. The departure and the accommodations provided by the Golconda would await the two major emigrations from the Chattahoochee Valley later in 1867 and in the spring of 1868. As whites moved to consolidate political power, many freedmen pondered their futures. In Columbus and Eufaula, many would choose to leave.

As the November ACS expedition neared, the Columbus newspapers reported the Golconda in Baltimore, soon to set sail for Charleston and take on up to 600 emigrants for Liberia. On November 11, 1867, 235 Columbus freedmen left for Liberia. They departed Columbus on a Macon train bound for Charleston and then by ship to Liberia. The village of Bexley, south of Monrovia and on the St. John’s River, was their ultimate destination. 75 percent of the passengers were from Columbus. Others included emigrants from South Carolina and Tennessee. The May 1868 departure of the Golconda, this time from Savannah, carried Philip Monroe (a writer from Columbus and son of a wealthy African American) and another large Columbus contingent, as well as Willis Fort’s smaller group from Eufaula. On the morning of April 28th, the emigrants left Columbus by train for Savannah. Only a week later, they would be aboard a ship bound for Liberia. Of the 451 total emigrants aboard, 204 were from Columbus and 39 were from Eufaula, all of whom designated Bexley as their destination.

The 1868 sailing represented the last significant Liberian emigration from the Chattahoochee Valley. Two factors combined to reduce interest and to prevent further large-scale emigration. In July 1868 – not long after the May emigration – Georgia’s Reconstruction government ratified the Fourteenth Amendment, and the state was readmitted to the Union. This action was the first in Georgia that indicated meaningful change in the status of freedmen. Voting rights meant political power, a voice in decisions that would affect them, and reason for cautious optimism. Although the Georgia legislature would maneuver to remove the results of this enfranchisement and expel the Black legislative members in late 1868, Congress reacted by re-instating military rule in 1869, forcing passage of the Fifteenth Amendment assuring Black suffrage, and reinstating the expelled Black legislators. Furthermore, the ACS had lost most of its financial support following the Civil War and the subsequent abolition of slavery. Without additional resources, the ACS essentially depleted its remaining funds and sent as many emigrants to Liberia as it could. As hopes of Reconstruction faded in Georgia in the late 1870s and 1880s and as the Jim Crow era began in the early 1890s, Blacks were essentially disenfranchised and, in some cases, violently opposed, attacked, and even murdered. With the loss of political representation and the upsurge in violence, many Black again pondered their future in Georgia and the South. The depleted ACS, while still functioning, was no longer a viable, and the Black-led organizations that attempted to fill the void left by the ACS were ineffective. Although interest in emigration to Liberia from the Chattahoochee Valley appears to have revived during this period, no other significant departure occurred.

A brief survey of 1878 Liberian news reports provides numerous examples of the types of gloomy press coverage – some of it not without merit – that the country received in the Columbus newspapers. Among others, headlines included “Liberia the Deadliest Place on Earth” and “Liberia Not a Land of Promise.” In the “Deadliest” article, the Daily Enquirer-Sun paraphrased a latter from a former Black United States minister to Liberia, J. Milton Turner, stating that: “the climate is a deadly one; horses and cattle are poisoned by the atmosphere of the coast and die; people are sick six months out of the year; the republic has never been able to produce its own food, although everything can be grown there.” Continuing to rely on Turner, the newspaper indicated that emigrants are “penniless within six months” after their arrival, and that Turner had received a “dozen applications” per ship arriving in Liberia for return trips to the United States. Bad press for Liberia continued until the end of the nineteenth century. Yet emigrants for Liberia from other parts of the country would pass through Columbus by rail. The Enquirer-Sun reported on these passages and the emigrants, from as near as Hatchechubbee and Birmingham, and as distant as Kansas City, on their way to Savannah or New York for departure. Liberia must have remained a constant in the Chattahoochee Valley Black’s mind, in whatever form; however, by the turn of the century, emigration to that distant land, only a trickle before and after the brief spike during 1867 and 1868, was coming to its end.

Developing a collective portrait of who left the Chattahoochee Valley for Liberia is challenging. Although the American Colonization Society recorded significant demographic details on the more numerous 1867 and 1868 emigrants, this data is not comprehensive and may contain significant inconsistencies or errors. The ACS recorded its most detail demographic data on emigrants just after the Civil War and published it in its African Repository and Colonial Journal. The society gathered this information at the time of departure, recording emigrant names, ages, occupation, education, and religious denomination. Next Week: We will continue with more information on the Chattahoochee Valley emigrants and some of their stories. Please join us!

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