(The following is a post by Angel D. Batiste, Area Specialist, African and Middle Eastern Division.)
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.
The so-called “back-to-Africa” movement was an issue on which both whites and blacks were divided. Some blacks supported emigration because they thought that they 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.
Initially the colony of Liberia was run by the ACS, which maintained control over all aspects of governance. On July 26, 1847 (twenty five years after the first successful colonization), the Americo-Liberians declared the independence of the Republic of Liberia. Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, was named in honor of America’s 5th 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 African American colonizers formed an “Americo-Liberian” governing elite and recreated a two-tiered society based on ethnicity and class, not too dissimilar from the system of racial segregation that they had left behind in the United States. They spoke English and established in Liberia many of the customs of America’s southern states, including forms of social interaction, religion, dress and architecture. Like many Americans and Europeans of the period, the Americo-Liberian held beliefs in the religious superiority of Protestant Christianity and the cultural power of European civilization over indigenous culture. Although they never constituted more than five percent of the population of Liberia, they controlled key resources that allowed them to dominate indigenous Liberian peoples: access to the ocean, modern technical skills, literacy and higher levels of education, and valuable relationships with many United States government institutions, and other American organizations.
For scholars of Liberian history and culture, the Library’s extraordinary body of materials allow for considerable in-depth research. Twice, in 1913, and at its dissolution in 1964, the American Colonization Society donated its records to the Library of Congress. Numbering more than 190,000 items, the collection spans the years 1792-1964. The records of the ACS held in the Library’s Manuscript Division chronicle the foundation of the Society, its role in establishing Liberia, efforts to manage and defend the colony, fund-raising, recruitment of settlers, the status of slaves and freedmen in society, the advantages and disadvantages of emigration, and the way in which black settlers built and led the new nation. Of considerable research value is the Society’s quarterly, “The African Repository and Colonial Journal (1825-1850),” the primary medium for ACS propaganda. Included in the journal are a “List of Emigrants” containing the names of African-American emigrants who resettled in Liberia under the auspices of the ACS, dates of departures, and other information. Other noteworthy documents include diplomatic dispatches, correspondence and letters from early African American settlers written to friends and family in America or to ACS agents.
These primary documents offer details and insights on conditions Liberian settlers faced, as well as on the early relationship between these settlers and the indigenous populations. They also provide unique perspectives on the formative years of the Liberian nation-state and how African Americans went about institution-building in the emergent settler society. Important organizational records of the Quaker Young Men’s Colonization Society of Pennsylvania, Maryland Colonization Society, New York Colonization, and the Massachusetts Colonization Society, can also be found in the ACS collection.
Along with textual documents, more than 550 visual resources can be found in the ACS photograph collection to reconstruct antebellum America’s “back to Africa” colonization movement. These include photographs, prints, drawings, and watercolors produced by the ACS depicting founders and promoters of the American Colonization Society, 19th century Liberian officials, government activities, city views, vernacular architecture, as well as the life of the indigenous African community. Also included are several rare portrait daguerreotypes of well-known Liberian government officials, such as Presidents Joseph Jenkins Roberts and Edward James Roye, taken by Augustus Washington, the African American photographer and daguerreotypist. This visual imagery was used as a propaganda strategy by the ACS to promote the Liberian colonization scheme. Selected images from the collection are accessible via the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog.
Equally valuable in the ACS collection are several antique 19th century maps of Liberia showing early settlements, areas in Liberia that were ceded to the society by indigenous chiefs, and some of the building lots that were assigned to settlers. These include the 1870 map of African-American explorer Benjamin Joseph Knight Anderson’s first journey to Musardu, and his 1879 map of the Republic of Liberia, constructed from authentic charts and original surveys and geographic notes. Accounts of Anderson’s travels published as “Narrative of a Journey to Musardu, the Capital of the Western Mandingoes” (1870) and “Narrative of the Expedition Despatched [sic] to Musardu by the Liberian Government Under B.J.K. Anderson, Sr. Esquire in 1874” can be found in the Library’s Rare Book Division. The Library also holds a rare 19th century West African manuscript, written in Arabic, which relates to Anderson’s expedition to Musardu.
Complementing the records of the ACS, the Library holds important primary documents, written by Liberia’s leading statesmen, which chronicle the political construction of the new Liberian state. These include inaugural addresses, discourses and policy statements on Liberia’s social, civic, and political life by Presidents Joseph Jenkins Roberts, Stephen Allen Benson, James S. Payne, Edward James Roye, and Edwin J. Barclay. Additionally, there are significant holdings of speeches, essays and published writings by leading Liberian intellectuals of the 19th century, including the classic works of influential Africo-Liberian leaders Edward Wilmot Blyden, Alexander Crummell and Martin Delaney.
The records of the American Colonization Society are open to researchers in the Library’s Manuscript Division and in the Microform Reading Room. A microfilm edition of the American Colonization records is available for purchase from the Library’s Photoduplication Service.