History, Migration and Settlement of the Americo-Liberians

A Speech Delivered at the Black History Lecture Series at the First United Methodist: Children’s Rescue Outreach International (C.R.O.I.) & Orphanage Benefit & Conference On “Africa: International Trade Conference Culture, Politics, Protocol, History, Leadership, Opportunities”
Dallas, TX
April 9th 2005

By Syrulwa Somah, PhD
Executive Director, Liberian History, Education and Development, Inc. (LIHEDE), Greensboro, NC
Associate Professor, Environmental and Occupational Safety & Health
NC A&T State University, Greensboro, NC


The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
April 13, 2005

General Introduction

Pastor Dan Williams, Pastor Ray Hampton, Missionary Lucy Roberts, Sister Cindy Lanier; Officers and members of the Children’s Rescue Outreach International (C.R.O.I.) Organizing Committee, faculty students, entrepreneurs, fellow Liberians and Friends of Liberia; Distinguished ladies and gentlemen:

I am honored by your invitation to be here, and I want to thank you for your warm welcome and introduction. I also want to thank the men and women of Dallas for organizing a conference on Liberia in Dallas. I think it is about time that every major U.S. city sought to establish a conference on Liberia to give Americans, especially African-Americans, the opportunity to learn about the history of some of their great, great grand parents who decided to brave all odds to return to Africa - the land of their ancestry - to establish a new homeland far removed from the segregated life in the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries.

In addition, you have asked me to speak to you about the “Americo-Liberians” of the Republic of Liberia, which gives me the sense that you already know that the coastal West African state of Liberia was founded by freed black American slaves, the same ethnic group known as “African American” in the United States today. In other words, at the end of the slave trade in the United States in the 19th century, those freed slaves who remained in the United States went from “Color” to “Negro,” then “Afro-American” and finally “African-American,” while those freed slaves who decided to return to their ancestral land in Africa settled on a land they called “Liberia” and called themselves “Americo-Liberian.” In essence, Americo-Liberians and African Americans are one and the same, with respect to a history rooted in slavery, social degradation, and societal segregation. The history of Americo-Liberian is therefore the history of African American, except for the geographical boundaries between the United States and Liberia, and the external and internal cultural influences that became unique to each group based on distance, climatic conditions, and so forth.

I am encouraged that you are curious to know about the historical conditions and impediments that created the need for some freed black American slaves to want to leave behind their families and personal possessions - no matter how little - in the United States to trek across the Atlantic ocean in search of a new homeland. I know you want to know their settlement patterns, customs, social institutions, political institutions, and belief systems. I think these are inquiries befitting of any individual, student or investor who wants to know about other cultures and peoples, while reserving his or her own prejudices, biases, and stereotypes of such people. I want to thank the Organizing Committee of the Organizing Committee and all persons affiliated with the effort for your interest in my country of origin, Liberia (By the way, I just arrived from Liberia less than 3 hours ago so I have some current events to share with you). I therefore consider your invitation as a genuine effort to learn about the Americo-Liberians in Liberia from the mouth a native son of Liberia. I should however tell you that I am not of the Americo-Liberian stock. My great, great grandparents migrated to the land of present-Liberia from nearby African kingdoms such as Songhai Empire, the Mali Kingdom, and so forth, long before the first group of freed American slaves set foot on the African soil in the mid 1800s. So by that historical gesture, I belong to the Bassa tribe, one of the major ethnic groups that welcomed the first group of freed slaves to the land of the present-day Liberia on January 7, 1822.

I will therefore speak to you on “History, Migration, and Settlement of the Americo-Liberian,” within the context of your invitation, based on historical facts and documentations. I plan to be very detail in my presentation, so as to give you the whole picture of the events as you have requested that I do. Again, ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your kind invitation.

How It all Started
To put history in proper perspective, the return of freed black slaves to Africa was not totally voluntary, nor was it an accident of history. The repatriation had economic, political, social, and security implications. In the early 1800s, the United States was the number one slave-trading nation in the world, buttressed by the “Jefferson Anti-Slavery Act” of 1803 and the “Way Showing Act” of 1807. But, as the slave trade was booming in the United States, a disturbing incident occurred in Santo Domingo that scare the daylight out of slave owners in the world at the time, especially slave owners in the United States. In 1791, a black leader, Pierre Dominique Toussaint Breda, led fellow slaves in a revolt against their slave-masters in Santo Domingo to win their freedom. Santo Domingo was a group of islands that spanned Hispaniola and others in the West Indies, which are represented in modern geography today as the Dominican Republic and Haiti. In the early 16th century, slavery was a thriving enterprise until the Breda-led slave revolt in 1791 under the theme, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.

Of course, upon learning of the revolt by slaves on the Santo Domingo islands, American slaves owners, fearful of similar revolts by black slaves on American soil, decided on a number of strategies to preempt the possibility of a slave revolt in the United States. A Rhodes Island slave owner and trader, the Reverend Samuel Hopkins first conceived the idea of creating an African colony of African missionaries in the western United States. In 1773, Reverend Hopkins enlisted the help of African-American church leaders Bristol Yamma and John Quamine. But John Quamine, himself a former slave in England, thought that the mission could be expanded to include transporting civilization and Christianity to people on the west coast. The Reverend Hopkins’ plans to establish an African colony on the western coasts of the United States did not materialize due to lack of resources and land grant by the U.S. government, coupled with the intervention of the American evolutional wars. After the wars, Rev. Hopkins shifted his focus from establishing an African colony in the U.S. to establishing a colony in Africa for freed black salves. Rev. Hopkins did not live to see his dream come true, but Paul Cuffe, a wealthy black ship-owner transported the first group of 88 immigrants Africa in 1815 in present-day Sierra Leone, before some members of that group and subsequent freed slaves from the United States migrated to present-day Liberia.

Rev. Hopkins’ dreams, however, live on after his death from within his own organization. Deacon Newport Gardner and Salmur Nibia embraced the “African colony” project initiated by Rev. Hopkins, so when in 1787 Dr. Thornton, a resident of Washington, called on free enslaved “Blacks of America” in Massachusetts and Rhodes Island to travel to their motherland in Africa and build a civilization for the people, Deacon Gardner and Nibia heeded his call (http://ourworld.cs.com/ceoofamcolso/id5.htm). But Thornton’s vision suffered the same fate as the Hopkins’ plan due to lack of funding. However, in December 1816, Dr. Robert Finley’s “Send Blacks Back To Black Continent Project,” with the help of the Presbyterian Church and New Jersey Africans, made a great breakthrough with a presentation of the idea before the U.S. Congress. That effort eventually led to the repatriation of free American blacks to Africa, although the effort came about 35 years after other freed black slaves had been settled on Sherbo Island in present-day Sierra Leone under a Great Britain initiative in collaboration with Paul Cuffe.
The Liberian Journey

In 1818, the American Colonization Society (ACS) sent Samuel J. Mills and Ebenezer Burgess to explore establishment of a “black colony” - a colony for freed black American slaves - in Africa. Mills and Burgess surveyed all points along a 120-mile track of land between Sierra Leone and Sherbro Island, during which they came across a small but prosperous colony of colored people built by John Kizzel, a freed slave. A report of the reconnaissance mission by Mills and Burgess led to the passage of an act by the U.S, Congress on March, 3, 1819, authorizing the return of freed blacks slaves to their motherland. With congressional approval, the ACS set into motion to establish a black colony in Africa. That black colony became known as the Republic of Liberia. The first group of freed slaves were formally settled on Providence Island in the present Liberian capital city of Monrovia, on January 7, 1822.
Earlier Map of Liberia (Source: http://personal.denison.edu/~waite/liberia/history/72-1916.htm)

The Establishment of Liberia
We learned earlier that Paul Cuffe settled the first group of 88 freed black slaves at Sherbro Island, near Freetown, Sierra Leone under a British initiative. While Cuffe’s trip to Africa was not purely benevolence - considering that he sought to make money by taking emigrants to West Africa and returning with valuable cargoes for profit, he did the first group of 88 freed slaves to Africa at his own expense. However, when Cuffe died in 1817, the ACS eventually filled the vacuum created by Cuffe’s death, although contrary to Cuffe’s mission, the ACS only concentrated on transporting freed black slaves to the new colony in Liberia.

It might interest you to know at this point that the American Colonization Society (ACS) comprised four separate colonies, which included the United Colonization Society of New York, The New York City Colonization Society, Pennsylvania Colonization Society, and the Monrovia group of colonies comprising New Georgia, Caldwell, Millsburg, and Marshall. Many of these colonies later merged as was in the case of the United Colonization Society of New York and the New York City Colonization Society in 1834. However, other colonies independent of the ACS such as the Maryland Colonization Society (1827) and the Virginia Colonization Society (1838) joined the repatriation efforts of freed blacks to Africa.

In 1838, the ACS, the Virginia Colonization Society, and the Quaker Young Men's Colonization Society of Pennsylvania merged to form what became known as the “Commonwealth of Liberia.” The "Commonwealth of Liberia" exerted control over all settlements and landmass between Cestos River and Cape Mount. In 1839, at the first session of the Colonial Council, a new constitution for the commonwealth was adopted and the first governor of the commonwealth was selected. The 1839 Constitution of the Commonwealth of Liberia states clearly “The American Colonization Society, hereby grants to the colonies settlements, on the Western Coast of Africa, under its care….” Article I, Sections 1-5 of the Commonwealth Constitutions read thus:

· Article 1. The Colonies or Settlements of Monrovia, New Georgia Caldwell, Millsburg, Marshall, Bexley, Bassa Cove, and Edina, and such other colonies hereafter established by this Society or by Colonization Societies adopting the Constitution of the American Colonization Society, on the western coast of Africa, are hereby united into one government, under the same name and style of the Commonwealth of Liberia

· Article 2. All legislative power herein granted, shall be vested in a Governor and Council of Liberia, but all laws by them enacted, shall be subject to the revocation of the American Colonization Society.

· Article 3. The Council shall consist of representatives, to be elected by the people of the several colonies or settlements, and shall be appointed among them, according to a just ratio of representation. Until other wise provided, Monrovia, New Georgia, Caldwell, Millsburg, shall be entitled to six representatives: and Marshall, Bexley, Bassa Cove, and Edina, to four representatives, to be appointed among them by the Governor.

· Article 4. The representatives shall in all cases, except treason, felony, and breach of the peace, be privileged from arrest, during their attendance at the session of the Council, and in going to, or returning from the same; and for any speech or debate therein they shall not questioned in any other place.

· Article 5. Until otherwise provided by law, the Governor shall appoint, and publish the times, places, and manner of holding elections and making returns thereof, and the time for the meeting of the Council.

As you can see, these five sections in Article I of the Commonwealth Constitution set into motion the power and authority to be enjoyed by the former colonies within the commonwealth, and the power and authority and limitations of the head of the commonwealth. A copy of the Commonwealth Constitution was deposited with the Office of the American Colonization Society in Washington on January 14, 1839 under the signature of ACS Recording Secretary Philip E. Fendall, attesting that the ACS Board of Directors adopted the constitution on January 5, 1839.

With the establishment of the Commonwealth of Liberia, the repatriation of freed black American slaves to their new homeland in African began in earnest. And, apart from the colonies making up the commonwealth, several other U.S.-based colonies sprung up to assist in the repatriation process. The Mississippi Colonization Society (1842), The Louisiana Colonization Society, The Ohio Colonization Society (1844), Liberia Exodus Association (1883)
and several auxiliary societies from the states of Alabama, Connecticut, Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, New Hampshire, New-York, New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Virginia, and Tennessee joined the efforts.

It should be borne in mind that the landmass that is the current Liberia called the “Grain Coast” by Portuguese and other foreign traders and explorers, and the current capital city of Liberia, Monrovia, was known as "Christpolis” prior to the arrival of the freed American slaves. However, on February 20, 1824, the ACS named the colony Liberia, for liberty, and the city, Monrovia," in honor of former U.S. President James Monroe. The commonwealth of Liberia became the Republic of Liberia on July 26, 1847 through declaration. In other words, the African colony was supported by an act of congress and the ACS, but Liberia was never a colony of the United States or any military and economic power during the time. In fact, the United States did not recognize the independence of Liberia until 1858, 11 years later.

The Americo-Liberian Experience

In his 2002 article in The Perspective, captioned, “Liberia: Who Are We?” Liberian native Nat Galarea Gbessagee set out to argue the Americo-Liberian vs. native-Liberian controversy this way. “It would seem to non-Liberians that Liberia lost her luster as a peaceful and progressive nation with the military takeover of government in 1980, and the brutal civil war of 1989-1997. Liberians, notwithstanding, know quite well that the 1980 palace coup and the barbarous seven-year civil war only brought to the fore the level of inequality, depravity, hatred, and resentment that had long existed, and continued to exit, in Liberia. From the time of its so-called founding in 1822 and declaration of independence in 1847, Liberia has always been burdened by a serious crisis of identity, of class, of education, of culture, of politics, of governance, of leadership, and of religion. These problems still persist, and are most likely the root of our present predicament as a nation and people.”
Midway into the article, Mr. Gbessagee sought to drive home the point that while efforts to return freed American slaves to the land of their ancestors were a good idea, no matter what the initial motivations, the main task was how the freed slaves themselves saw the repatriation back to Africa. And based on this uncertainty, Mr. Gbessagee set about various scenarios in these words:
To the emancipated American slaves, nonetheless, the voyage back to their ancestral land in Africa was as heroic as it was filled with promise and mixed emotions. First, it must be understood that the repatriation process from slave life in the American plantations to freedom in a new homeland in Africa was beset by conflicting goals at the very onset. Many white Americans saw repatriation as a means of getting rid of blacks who were thought of at the time as social misfits and an economic drain on American society. Some former black slaves thought the voyage to their ancestral land in Africa would restore their self-pride and self-worth in carving a better life for themselves and their children as compared to the slave life in the American plantations. Yet others black slaves thought the voyage would produce an economic bonanza to the extent that they could re-enact and relive the princely lives of the former slave masters in the Americas. So the die was cast, and it was only a matter of time before these conflicted or convoluted objectives were sorted out and made manifest at the end of the voyage depending on which group - the group in pursuit of freedom and self-respect or the group in search of economic bonanza -would prevail. (The Perspective, 2002).

Well, it is difficult to know from historical accounts which of the two groups of freed American slaves or Americo-Liberians Mr. Gbessagee alluded to settled on the landmass known today as Liberia, and what their motivations were. But the history of Liberia shows that from 1847 up to military coup in 1980, the Americo-Liberians enjoyed unparallel political, social, and economic opportunities in Liberia, far surpassing their numerical strength of about five to 10 percent of the current Liberian population of 3.4 million people. The percentage of Americo-Liberians was far less between 1847 and 1980, although Americo-Liberians dominated every political or social institution in Liberia, including the posts of president, vice president, house speaker, senate leader, cabinet minister, chief justice, ambassador, university president and so forth.

Americo-Liberians also dominated religious and cultural institutions in Liberia. Christianity became a de facto state religion in Liberia, as merchants were barred from selling on Sundays and Christian holidays. Traditional worships were frowned upon as heathenism and such traditional bodies as the Sande and Poro institutions were held in disrepute. Americo-Liberian powerbrokers imposed a dress code of shirt and tie and different styles of coat as official dress at public functions. As a result, wearing African attires in public for any purpose became associated with the wearer being “illiterate” or “country” (the preferred jargon), so that it became obvious that any Liberians who wanted to make something of himself or herself would do well not to wear African attires in public. Similarly, African names were frowned upon, so any person who wanted to excel in society, whether at school or work, had to adopt a western name. As a result, many Liberians have last names of ‘Smith, Tubman, Barclay, James, “and so forth.

In fact, some of the inequalities between Americo-Liberians and native-Liberians were codified in legal statutes. For instance, in “Liberia: Who Are We?” Mr. Gbessagee writes, ” In 1862, the Liberian Supreme Court ruled that the aborigines were nothing more than only subjects of the state who were required to abide by the laws of the land but not entitled to citizenship because of the "peculiar situation of the Africans in their incapability to understand the working of civilized governments." And in his inaugural address in 1900, President Wilmot David Coleman played to the stereotype inherent in the Supreme Court ruling this way: “I have not the least doubt that all intelligent citizens (Americo-Liberians) are desirous for the elevation of this class (indigenous Liberians) into complete citizenship, and as the Christian people generally believe, that the sooner the fall of the superstitious customs that now exist among them, the sooner the object will be attained. Therefore it is quite natural to expect that the effect of our civilization and Christianity has been to break down these greegress and other heathenish beliefs of our native brethren; this effect is just what is rightly to be expected as a result of our contact with them."

In my 1994 book, “The Historical Resettlement of Liberia and its Environmental Impact”, published by the University Press of America, I alluded to the fact that “Liberia is one of only three countries in the world …where victims of the social agendas of industrialized countries identify with their former oppressors. The enslaved freed Blacks built Masonic temples in an attempt to solidify their stronghold on Liberia. Unique and distinguishable were their Southern American dress code of the tail coats, top hats, cassock, tail coat, top hat firm hands shakes, social kissing, as a greeting, sometimes acceptable between men and women who know each other well and between women. The men rarely embrace each other or kiss on both cheeks. They held a superior attitude gained from their years of slavery, which started on April 1, 1555 in the United States. From the beginning they did not think of being reintegrated into indigenous society but of imitating the way of life they had learned during their years of slavery. They were recognized as Americans by their northern neighbors of Sierra Leone and its British colonial authorities, and by other Black nations in the region. They viewed the indigenes as uneducated, primitive people that they alone had the right to rule. Like Southern Whites they have maid system similar to that of Haiti where some children were “ripped from their families when they are too young to remember where home is, taken or given away in exchange for or kept promises of a better life”. I also spoke at great length about class marriages, western surnames, and other social and economic preferences and religious practices of Amercio-Liberians.

Under Americo-Liberian rule of Liberia, local politics essentially rested in the hands of two political parties. The Republican Party of Liberia and the True Whig Party. The first, the Republican Party of Liberia, which comprised light-skin Americos, dominated political and economic power in Liberia on the onset of the founding of Liberia, to the exclusion of dark-skin Americos and native Liberians alike. The second party, the True Whig Party comprised mostly dark-skin Americos. It lost power briefly to the light-skin Americos in an assignation of its standard bearer, Edward James Roye, not long after ascending to power, but the True Whig Party regained power in 1877 and refused to give up power again until its standard bearer, William R. Tolbert, Jr. was assassinated in a military coup in 1980.

However, in spite of the internal political rivalry between light-skin and dark-skin Americo-Liberians, each group of Americo-Liberian shared a common guarded secret to dominate the native populations through political, economic, and social exclusions enshrined in the apparatus of a one-party state that relied on a caucus system for elections. In other words, no one got elected or appointed to any post in Liberia unless that person proved to be a faithful member of the party, and the person got the endorsement of one of the godfathers of the party. This was the extent of “Liberian democracy” that a group of enlisted men of the Armed Forces of Liberia overthrew in 1980. The overthrow of the Americo-Liberian government of President William R. Tolbert, Jr. dislodged Americo-Liberians from power in Liberia, as the natural national leaders of Liberia from cradle to grave. However, Americo-Liberians still enjoy enormous political power and influence in Liberia. Only a fool would think that 133 years in power can vanish in the twinkle of an eye as a result of a military coup dominated by people who knew little or nothing about the act and craft of government.

Hence, in spite of statements to the contrary, Americo-Liberians held prominent cabinet and other posts in the PRC military government that dismantled the True Whig Party political hegemony. Americo-Liberians held similar high posts in the governments of Presidents Samuel K. Doe and Charles Taylor, and played prominent roles within the leadership of the various rebel groups that have been behind the various Liberian civil conflicts from 1989 to 2003. Americo-Liberians dominate the current interim leadership in Liberia, and Americo-Liberians are leading candidates in the forthcoming Liberian general elections in October 2005.

The Americo-Liberians, at the time of declaration of independence in 1847, set up a system of government in Liberia that shares power equally among the Legislative, Executive, Judicial branches of government just as in the United States. The Americo-Liberians also professed a preference of democracy, though 133 years of Americo-Liberians rule resembled nothing close to multi-party democracy or pluralistic democracy. The three branches of government were supposed to be independent of each other, but the presidency somehow overshadowed the other two branches of government.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I have provided for you in a nutshell certain historical facts about the Americo-Liberians in Liberia. I have plotted with you how the roots and circumstances of the Americo-Liberian, with respect to the American slave trade, and the social and economic factors that necessitated the return of freed black slaves to Africa. I also spoke about the dominance of political and economic power in Liberia by the Americo-Liberians. But these are just glimpses into the history of the Americo-Liberians as a linguistic, cultural, and ethnic group in Liberia.

Liberia has 16 major ethnic groups, including the Americo-Liberians. It is therefore difficult for anyone to give a complete history of the Americo-Liberians in a one or two-hour lecture. However, it is my hope that you will use the information I have provided as a starting point in your inquiries into the history of the Americo-Liberians in Liberia, and the general history of Liberia and all its peoples.

In an article I published earlier this year, “Ethnicity our Diversity, Not our Hinderance,” I called for unity amongst the ethnic groups of Liberia, including Americo-Liberians. I indicated that the landmass that later became Liberia was a series of traditional indigenous kingdoms whose people lived in city-states long before the freed slaves from America arrived, and before the advent of Europeans traders and explorers who frequented the land in search of Malaguatta pepper and other fruits and forest resources. Before Liberia, there were on the very landmass the Bassa Kingdom; Belle Kingdom, Grepo Kingdom; Mende Kingdom, Sapo Kingdom, Kpelle Kingdom, Kissi Kingdom, Prebo Kingdom, Gbii Kingdom, Via Kingdom, Dey Kingdom, Gio (Dan) Kingdom, Loma Kingdom, Mandingo Kingdom, Maih (Mano) Kingdom, and the Kloa (Kru) Kingdoms. Phoenicians and Egyptians knew the coast of present-day Liberia as early as 600 B.C. and the Carthagians in 500 B.C. Europeans first set up trading posts on the coast in the 14th century. Ofert Drapper provides ample evidence that the present Liberian coast, known former by Portuguese and western traders as the “Grain Coast” was a peaceful land whose people were well versed not only in their own customs and traditions but also in international trading. Drapper writes, “that the local populations enjoyed a high standard of political and social organization and that their institutions bare a strong resemblance to those of what was then the Sudan, probably as a result of contact with the North African Berbers who had been one of the most advanced and powerful nations in the world.”

Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, I could spend the whole day dissecting the relationship between the Americo-Liberians and peoples of the various traditional kingdoms I have listed, which now formed the major ethnic groups of Liberia. However, I was invited to talk about Americo-Liberians, and I think we have exhausted the topic. I want to thank you once more for the invitation extended me to participate in these lecture series.

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