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Back-to-Africa movement

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The Back-to-Africa movement, in the nineteenth century called the colonization movement, encouraged Americans of African ancestry to return to Africa—not to their original homelands, which in most cases were unknown, but to the continent. In general the movement was an overwhelming failure; very few Blacks wanted to move to Africa, and the small number that did—some under duress—initially faced brutal conditions. As the failure became known in the United States in the 1820s, it spawned the abolitionist movement. In the twentieth century Marcus Garvey, Rastafarians, and some other African Americans espoused the concept, but few actually left the United States.


Neither slavery nor free blacks were seen as major problems in North America in the eighteenth century. "At the time of the American Revolution, there had been few free blacks anywhere in the country."[1]:19 In 1776 slavery was legal in all 13 of the British colonies that became the United States. The small number of free blacks were able to find employment, or land to farm, and were not perceived as troublesome.

Pressures for ending slavery began small but grew steadily. Various philosophical and religious condemnations of it, especially by Quakers, were published. Slavery became illegal in the United Kingdom in 1772 by court decision (see Somerset v Stewart), and in the British colonies by statute in 1838. In France slavery was illegal at least since the sixteenth century, and as part of the French Revolution, it was abolished in French colonies in 1794 (although it was restored from 1802 to 1848). Starting in 1791 the slaves of Saint-Domingue revolted, gaining their freedom, and established the free Black country of Haiti. Starting with Pennsylvania and Massachusetts in 1780, slavery was gradually abolished in all the northern states. (Vermont, which at the time was not part of the United States, abolished slavery in 1777.) By the 1850 census there are no slaves in the free states; there were still hundreds in the 1840 census. In the South, sometimes influenced by appeals from preachers—abolitionism in the United States had a strong religious component—some individuals freed their slaves, or left in their wills instructions to free them upon their owner's death.

The number of free Blacks in the new United States skyrocketed, and the question of "what to do with them" steadily grew in importance. Even when free, most were second-class citizens, without the right to vote or to hold political office, or they were not considered citizens at all, with no legal rights. Usually seen as "racially" inferior, few believed them a desirable or even a possible part of American society. They were prohibited from living in some areas, and there was legal discrimination that is astonishing today. (Black passengers on river boats were not allowed in the cabin, but had to stay on deck, whatever the weather. In Florida, each free black man had to have a white man who could be sued for the negro's misdeeds, if any, since blacks could neither sue nor be sued.) The Quaker Zephaniah Kingsley, who believed that the amalgamation of the "races" was desirable, was forced to leave the country for Haiti. In the South, free Blacks, who could and did learn to read and write, were often in touch with abolitionist writings. The slave owners who controlled those states saw the free Blacks as a threat to the stability of their economy and society, and made no secret of their desire to get rid of them.

The new freed slave "problem"Edit

Much of the African-American population was freed people seeking opportunity. Many Southern freed blacks migrated to the industrial North to seek employment, while others moved to surrounding Southern states.[2] Their progress was met with hostility, as many whites were not used to sharing space with blacks in a context outside of chattel slavery. Many did not believe that free Africans had a place in America.[3]

In the North, many whites feared that they would lose jobs to free African Americans. Many whites were also opposed to integrating blacks within the population.[citation needed]

Such sentiment was not exclusive to Northerners. One proponent of the colonization movement, Solomon Parker of Hampshire County, Virginia, was quoted as having said: “I am not willing that the Man or any of my Blacks shall ever be freed to remain in the United States.... Am opposed to slavery and also opposed to freeing blacks to stay in our Country and do sincerely hope that the time is approaching when our Land shall be rid of them."[4]

Riots swept the nation in waves, usually in urban areas where there had been recent migration of blacks from the South. The height of these riots was in 1819, with 25 riots recorded, resulting in many injuries and fatalities.[5] The back-to-Africa movement was seen as the solution to these problems by both groups, with more support from the white population than the black population. Blacks often viewed the project with skepticism, particularly among the middle-class, who feared that the Colonization movement was a ploy to deport freed African Americans to restrict their efforts against slavery. Shortly after the foundation of the American Colonization Society, 3,000 free blacks gathered in a church in Philadelphia and issued forth a declaration stating that they "will never separate ourselves voluntarily from the slave population of the country." Similarly, black leaders, such as James Forten, who had previously supported the Colonization Movement, changed their minds as a result of widespread black resistance to the idea.[6]

Religious motivations for colonizationEdit

Following the Great Awakening, in which America was swept by a wave of religious fervor, many enslaved African Americans converted to Christianity. At the same time, many religious people in America struggled to reconcile slavery with their beliefs.

When the enslaved population of America was mostly Muslim or practiced indigenous African religions, slavery was substantiated on Christian evangelical grounds. In the 19th century, many religious Americans found it difficult to continue supporting the enslavement of their brothers in Christ, especially amongst the Quakers.[6] Two examples of such Christians are Reverend Moses Tichnell and Reverend Samuel R. Houston, who freed slaves and sent them to Liberia in 1855 and 1856 respectively.[4] These two men, believing that they were morally obligated to finance such voyages, played an important role in the colonization movement.

American Colonization SocietyEdit

The American Colonization Society (ACS) was an early advocate of the idea of resettling American-born blacks in Africa. Founded in 1816 by Charles Fenton Mercer, it was composed of two core groups: abolitionists and slave owners. Abolitionist members believed in freeing African slaves, along with their descendants, and providing them with the opportunity to return to Africa. Slave owning members believed free blacks endangered the system of slavery and sought to expel them from America.[7]

Since its inception, the American Colonization Society struggled to garner support from within free black communities. During the late 1840s and early 1850s, the creation of an independent Liberian state splintered the nearly uniform voice against colonization. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 provided the United States government ample power to recapture fugitive slaves. Following its passage, many black leaders promoted emigration and colonization to a nation that would provide and protect their rights.[8]

In spite of this, several black critics were outspoken against the Back-to-Africa movement and the activities of the American Colonization Society. A report from a free black political conference in New York warned: "all kinds of chicanery and stratagem will be employed to allure the people [to the colony]...the independence of its inhabitants; the enjoyment and privileges of its citizens, will be pictured forth in glowing colors, to deceive you."[9]

According to the Encyclopedia of Georgia History and Culture, "as early as 1820, black Americans had begun to return to their ancestral homeland through the auspices of the American Colonization Society." By 1847, the American Colonization Society founded Liberia, a land to be settled by black people returning from the United States of America.[10] Between 1822 and the American Civil War, the American Colonization Society had migrated approximately 15,000 free blacks back to Africa.[11]

Notable members of the American Colonization Society included Thomas Buchanan, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, Abraham Lincoln, James Madison, Daniel Webster, John Marshall, and Francis Scott Key.[12] All were white.

Other pre-Civil War attemptsEdit

In 1811, Paul Cuffe, "a black man who was a wealthy man of property, a petitioner for equal rights for blacks",[13] began to explore the idea of Black people returning to their native land; convinced that "opportunities for the advancement of black people were limited in America, and he became interested in African colonization."[14] With the help of Quakers in Philadelphia, he was able to transport 38 blacks to Freetown, Sierra Leone in 1815.[15]

Martin Delany, an African American, in 1854 led the National Emigration Convention in Cleveland, Ohio.[16] He visited Liberia and made plans, largely unrealized, to assist Blacks in relocating there.


The Back-to-Africa movement eventually began to decline, but would see a revival again in 1877 at the end of the Reconstruction era, as many blacks in the South faced violence from groups such as the Ku Klux Klan.[17] Interest among the South's black population in African emigration peaked during the 1890s, a time when racism reached its peak and the greatest number of lynchings in American history took place.[18] The continued experience of segregation, discrimination, and the belief that they would never achieve true equality attracted many blacks to a Pan-African emancipation in their motherland.

The movement declined again following many hoaxes and fraudulent activities associated with the movement. According to Crumrin, however, the most important reason for the decline in the back-to-Africa movement was that the "vast majority of those who were meant to colonize did not wish to leave. Most free blacks simply did not want to go "home" to a place from which they were generations removed. America, not Africa, was their home and they had little desire to migrate to a strange and forbidding land not their own."[19]

Florida Governor Napoleon Bonaparte Broward (1905-1909) called for blacks to be permanently moved to land the federal government would purchase, either foreign or domestic. After buying their respective properties, a territory would be established where blacks could not leave, and whites could not enter. This idea never came to fruition, and there is no known evidence of where this territory was intended to be.[20]

Early 20th century attempts at resettlement were made, such as those by Chief Alfred Sam between 1913 and 1915.[21] The eventual disillusionment of those who migrated to the North, and the frustrations of struggling to cope with urban life set the scene for the back-to-Africa movement of the 1920s, established by Marcus Garvey.[22] Many of those who migrated to the Northern States from the South found that, although they were financially better off, they remained at the bottom both economically and socially.[23]


African Americans depart for Liberia, 1896

The history of Liberia (after European arrival) is, with Sierra Leone, unique in Africa; starting neither as a native state, nor as a European colony. With the departure of the first ship to Africa in 1820, the American Colonization Society established settlements for free American blacks on the coast of West Africa.[24] The first American ships were uncertain of where they were heading. Their plan was to follow the paths that the British had taken, or simply take a chance on where they would land. At first, they followed the previous routes of the British and reached the coast of Sierra Leone. After leaving Sierra Leone, the Americans slowly reached a more southern part of the African coastline.

The Americans were eventually successful,[further explanation needed] Successful at what? arriving at what the British had named the Grain Coast. (The name of this region referred to the type of ginger spice used for medicine flavoring, aframomum meleguete.) Along the Grain Coast, local African chiefs willingly gave the Americans tracts of land.[dubious ] Over the course of twenty years, a series of fragmented settlements sprung across Liberia's lightly settled shore. Along with the difficulty of gaining enough land, life proved hard for these early settlers. Disease was widespread, along with the lack of food. Hostile tribes presented the settlers with great struggle, destroying some of their new land settlements. Almost 50% of the new settlers died in the first twenty years after their arrival in Liberia.[25]

Liberia declared independence on 26 July 1847.[26]:5 With an elected black government and the offer of free land to African-American settlers, Liberia became the most common destination of emigrating African Americans during the 19th century.[26]:2[27] Newly arriving African Americans to Liberia experienced many challenges, including broken family ties, very high mortality rates from disease, and a difficult adjustment period. A group of 43 African Americans from Christiansburg, Virginia left for Liberia in 1830, but suffered high mortality. "Eighty percent of the emigrants were dead within ten years of landing there, most of them victims of malaria; another ten percent quit the colony, with the majority fleeing to Sierra Leone."[28] Many African Americans who survived this period of adjustment in Liberia became fond of the country.[29]

Black interest in Liberian emigration emerged when the Civil War promised the end of slavery and meaningful change to the status of Black Americans. Some 7,000 enslaved people were freed by their masters, so at that point those free African Americans left the U.S. to escape racism and have more opportunities (mainly because they had lost all hope of achievement). In the 1830s, the movement became increasingly dominated by Southern slave owners, who did not want free blacks and saw sending them to Liberia as a solution. Slaves freed from slave ships were sent here instead of their countries of origin. The emigration of free blacks to Liberia particularly increased after the Nat Turner rebellion of 1831. Middle-class blacks were more resolved to live as black Americans, many rural poor folks gave up on the United States and looked to Liberia to construct a better life. Liberia promised freedom and equality; it also represented a chance for a better life for the South's black farmers. The Liberian government offered 25 acres of free land for each immigrant family, and 10 acres for a single adult, who came to the Black republic. In the early 19th century, Liberia evoked mixed images in the minds of black Americans. They viewed Liberia as a destination for black families who left the United States in search of a better way of life, returning to their ancestral homeland of Africa.[26]:2–9

As noted by researcher Washington Hyde, "Black Americans—who in the time of slavery lost their original languages and much of their original culture, gained a distinctly American, English-speaking Christian identity, and had no clear idea of precisely where in the wide continent of Africa their ancestors had come from—were perceived by the natives of Liberia as foreign settlers. Having an African ancestry and a black skin color were definitely not enough. Indeed, their settlement in Liberia had much in common with the contemporary white settlement of the American Frontier and these settlers' struggle with Native American tribes.... The Liberian experience can also be considered as anticipating that of Zionism and Israel - with Jews similarly seeking redemption through a return to an ancestral land and similarly being regarded as foreign interlopers by the local Arab tribes. It would take Americo-Liberians a century and more to become truly accepted as one of Liberia's ethnic groups.... All of which certainly contributed to most Black Americans rejecting the Back-to-Africa option and opting instead for seeking equal rights in America."[30]

Ex-slave repatriationEdit

Ex-slave repatriation or the immigration of African-American, Caribbean, and Black British slaves to Africa occurred mainly during the late 18th century to mid-19th century. In the cases of Liberia and Sierra Leone, both were established by former slaves who were repatriated to Africa within a 28-year period.

Sierra LeoneEdit

Many freed slaves were discontent with where they were resettled in Canada after the American Revolution and were eager to return to their homeland. Beginning in 1787, the British government made their first attempt to settle people in Sierra Leone. 300 former slaves were settled on the Sierra Leone peninsula in West Africa. Two years later, most members of the settlement would die from disease or conflict with the local Temne people. In 1792, a second attempt at settlement was made when 1,100 freed slaves established Freetown with support from British abolitionist Thomas Clarkson.

In 1815, Paul Cuffe brought the first group of thirty-eight emigrant freed slaves from the United States to Sierra Leone. In 1820, minister Daniel Coker led a group of ninety free blacks in hopes of founding a new colony in Sierra Leone. He intended to proselytize Christianity among the Africans. Leaving New York on the ship Elizabeth, his voyage ended on an island off the coast of Sierra Leone. Arriving just before the rains of spring, the group of immigrants were soon stricken with fever. The survivors ultimately fled to Freetown, and the settlement disintegrated.

The American Colonization Society came under attack from American abolitionists, who insisted that the removal of freed slaves from the United States reinforced the institution of slavery.

The repatriation of slaves to Africa from the United Kingdom and its dependencies was initiated by the Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor. This organization was later succeeded by the Sierra Leone Company. In time, African American Black Loyalists and West Indians would immigrate to the colony of Freetown, Sierra Leone, in smaller numbers in efforts led by black merchants or beneficiaries such as Paul Cuffe.

In 2006, African-American actor Isaiah Washington was adopted into a Mende family and bestowed with the title chief GondoBay Manga. In 2010, he received Sierra Leonean citizenship after a genealogical DNA test revealed his ancestral descent from the Mendes. This was the first instance in which DNA testing was used to gain citizenship to an African nation.[31]

Notable repatriated peopleEdit

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ foner, Eric (2015). Gateway to Freedom. The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad. New York: W. W. Norton. ISBN 9780393244076.
  2. ^ David Jenkins, Black Zion: The Return of Afro-Americans and West Indians to Africa (London: Wildwood House, 1975), pp. 41-3.
  3. ^ Kenneth C. Barnes, Journey of Hope: The Back-to-Africa Movement in Arkan (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 3.
  4. ^ a b Ailes, Jane, and Marie Tyler-McGraw. "Leaving Virginia for Liberia: Western Virginia Emigrants and Emancipators." West Virginia History 6, no. 2 (Fall 2012): 1-34. America: History & Life, EBSCOhost.
  5. ^ Ronald L. F. Davis, "Creating Jim Crow" Archived 2002-06-14 at the Wayback Machine, The History of Jim Crow. Accessed 14 October 2007.
  6. ^ a b White, Deborah Gray. "Slavery and Freedom in the New Republic." In ''Freedom on my mind''. S.l.: Bedford Bks St Martin's, 2012, pp. 186-188.
  7. ^ The American Colonization Society.
  8. ^ Mills, Brandon (2014). "The United States of Africa". Journal of the Early Republic. 34 (1): 98. doi:10.1353/jer.2014.0012.
  9. ^ Mills, Brandon (Spring 2014). "The United States of Africa". Journal of the Early Republic. 34 (1): 101. doi:10.1353/jer.2014.0012.
  10. ^ "Back-to-Africa Movement", The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture. 2007. The Central Arkansas Library System.
  11. ^ "July 26, 1847 Liberian independence proclaimed", This Day In History, History website.
  12. ^ Cox, Earnest (1938). Lincoln's Negro Policy. Richmond, VA: William Byrd Press. p. 13.
  13. ^ Campbell, M. Back to Africa: George Ross & The Maroons, From Nova Scotia to Sierra Leone, New Jersey: Africa World Press, 1993.
  14. ^ Lapsanskey-Werner, E., and M. Bacon (eds), Back to Africa: Benjamin Coates and the Colonization Movement in America 1848–1880, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania University Press, 2005.
  15. ^ Stewart, J. 1001 Things Everyone Should Know About African American History, New York: Doubleday, 1996.
  16. ^ "National Emigration Convention of Colored People". The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. Cleveland, Ohio: Case Western Reserve University. March 4, 1998. Retrieved May 30, 2013.
  17. ^ "The Ending of Reconstruction" Archived 2007-10-28 at the Wayback Machine, America's Reconstruction, People and Politics After the Civil War. University of Houston Digital History.
  18. ^ Kenneth C. Barnes, Journey of Hope: The Back-to-Africa Movement in Arkansas in the Late 1800s (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), p. 2.
  19. ^ Timothy Crumrin, "'Back to Africa?' The Colonization Movement in Early America" Archived 2015-05-24 at the Wayback Machine. 2007.
  20. ^ Olmeda, Rafael (29 September 2017). "Is Broward named for a racist? Courthouse statue controversy raises question". Sun-Sentinel. Retrieved 3 October 2017.
  21. ^ S. K. B. Asante, "Sam, Alfred", Dictionary of African Christian Biography, reprinted from The Encyclopedia Africana Dictionary of African Biography, 1977. Retrieved August 8, 2016
  22. ^ Daniel M. Johnson and Rex R. Campbell, Black Migration in America: A Social Demographic History (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1981), p. 62.
  23. ^ David Jenkins, Black Zion (1975), p. 43.
  24. ^ Hodge, Carl Cavanagh; Nolan, Cathal J. (2007). US Presidents and Foreign Policy. ABC-CLIO. p. 49. ISBN 978-1-85109-790-6. Retrieved February 5, 2013.
  25. ^ Butcher, Tim (2010). "Our Man In Liberia". History Today. 60 (10): 10–17.
  26. ^ a b c Kenneth C. Barnes, Journey of Hope: The Back-to-Africa Movement in Arkansas in the Late 1800s (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004).
  27. ^ James Campbell, Middle Passage: African American Journeys to Africa, 1787–2005. (New York: Penguin Press, 2006), xxiii.
  28. ^ Burin, Eric (Winter 2006). "A Manumission in the Mountains: Slavery and the African Colonization Movement in Southwestern Virginia". Appalachian Journal. 33 (2): 171.
  29. ^ Rommel-Ruiz, Bryan (Spring 2007). "Slavery and the Peculiar Solution: A History of the American Colonization Society". Journal of the Early Republic. 27 (1): 187–188. doi:10.1353/jer.2007.0013.
  30. ^ Dr. Washington Hyde, The Tortuous Route of Black American History, Ch. 3, 5.
  31. ^ Remoe, Vickie. "Reclaiming the Middle Passage: African-American Actor Isaiah Washington becomes first to use DNA Testing to gain Citizenship to an African Nation (Sierra Leone) - Sierra Leone News".

External linksEdit


  • Barnes, Kenneth C. Journey of Hope: The Back-to-Africa Movement in Arkansas in the Late 1800s. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
  • Campbell, James. Middle Passage: African American Journeys to Africa, 1787–2005. New York: Penguin Press, 2006.
  • Clegg III, Claude A. The Price of Liberty: African Americans and the Making of Liberia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
  • Jenkins, David. Black Zion: The Return of Afro-Americans and West Indians to Africa. London: Wildwood House, 1975.
  • Weisbord, Robert G. Ebony Kinship: Africa, Africans, and the Afro-American. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1973.