Liberia, Africa’s Oldest Independent and Democratic Republic, Celebrates the 169th Anniversary of Its Independence

This guest post was excerpted from a post by Angel Batiste, Area Specialist for sub-Saharan Africa in the Library’s African and Middle Eastern Division. Click here to find the original post in the “4 Corners of the World” blog.

“Refugees awaiting transportation to Liberia at Mt. Olivet Baptist Chapel, New York City,” 1880

“Refugees awaiting transportation to Liberia at Mt. Olivet Baptist Chapel, New York City,” 1880

On July 26, 1847, Americo-Liberians declared the independence of the Republic of Liberia.

The West African country of Liberia shares special historical ties to the United States, dating back to its founding in 1822 by former slaves and free-born blacks from the United States under the sponsorship of the American Colonization Society (ACS). Established in 1816, the ACS was chartered to send freed slaves to Africa as an alternative to emancipation in the United States.

Between 1822 and the American Civil War, the Society assisted in the repatriation of nearly 19,000 American-born blacks to Liberia. Prominent supporters of the ACS efforts were Presidents Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe.

Both blacks and whites were divided on this movement back to Africa. Some blacks supported emigration because they thought that black Americans would never receive justice in the United States. Others believed African Americans should remain in the United States to fight against slavery and for full legal rights as American citizens. Many whites saw colonization as a way to rid the nation of its black population, while others believed that freed blacks could realize their potential better in Africa free of racial discrimination. Still others believed black American colonists could play a central role in Christianizing and civilizing Africa.

Joseph Jenkins Roberts, 1851

President Robert’s house, Monrovia

Initially the colony was run by the ACS, which maintained control over all aspects of governance. Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, was named after the United States president James Monroe, and its government was modeled on that of the United States. Joseph Jenkins Roberts, American-born native of Virginia, was elected the first African American President of the new nation. In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln extended official diplomatic recognition to Liberia. Ten of Liberia’s 23 presidents were American born.

The root of Liberia’s present-day political problems can be traced back to conflicts between the descendants of American freed slaves settled during the 19th Century and the indigenous ethnic groups. The African American colonizers formed an “Americo-Liberian” elite and recreated a two-tiered American society based on ethnicity and class, not unlike the one they had left in the hope of finding a better life and freedom. The colonizers spoke English and established in Liberia many of the customs of America’s southern states, including forms of social interaction, religion, dress, and architecture. They discriminated against the indigenous ethnic groups in the nation’s social, civic and political life, and attempted to replace their traditional religious beliefs with Protestant Christianity.

Students may examine and analyze early maps of Liberia, photographs of emigrants, images of homes built by settlers, correspondence, letters, and stories to better understand the complicated history of Liberia. They might consider:

  • Why did early-19th century African Americans seek freedom beyond the borders of the United States by emigrating to Liberia?
  • What were the opinions and motivations for freeborn and freed persons’ interest in returning to Africa?
  • What were the challenges of resettlement among Liberian emigrants?

What surprised your students about the history of Liberia?

 

 

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