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Colonization After the War: The Back-To-Africa Movements

The colonization of African-Americans through the Antebellum years is often seen as a ploy by wealthy and perhaps well-meaning white men to convince the free black people to go back to Africa. While this was certainly true in many cases, the later history of colonization, the back-to-Africa movement of the 1890s, needs to be better understood.

From the post-war years until the turn of the century, thousands of black people willingly emigrated from their Southern homes to Africa in order to escape the disfranchisement, abuse, and lynching by white Americans. Many thousands more attempted and dreamed of making the voyage. Though colonization was condemned by black leaders such as Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, the back-to-Africa movement within black America took hold through the black community in two separate waves, mirroring the rises and falls of violence against African-Americans.

Of His Own Kind – A Short History of Pre-War Colonization

The American Colonization Society was founded in 1816 not as an anti-slavery society, but as a way to allow free blacks to move back to Africa. While their intent was clear, the reasons behind it were varied. Some of the founders, like Charles Mercer, referred to slavery as “the
blackest of all blots, the foulest of all deformities.” 1As quoted in Beverley B. Munford Virginia’s Attitude Toward Slavery and Secession (Longmans, Green, and Co., 1900) 98 Others, such as John Randolph, though he freed his slaves in 1797, viewed freedman as dangerous to the slave population. In an early meeting of the ACS, Randolph was quoted as saying that “the existence of this mixed and intermediate population of free negroes was viewed by every slave-holder as one of the greatest sources of the insecurity and unprofitableness of slaver property.” 2Archibald Alexander A History of Colonization on the Western Coast of Africa (Philadelphia: William S. Martien, 1846) 87.

John Randolph, one of the founders of the American Colonization Society.
John Randolph, one of the founders of the American Colonization Society.

Despite the differing views of slavery and how colonization might help either the black community or the enslavers best, the ACS grew. In 1821, the society was instrumental in founding the colony of Liberia on the western coast of Africa. Between then and the Civil War, over 10,000 free blacks volunteered to leave America for the colony. 3Sixty-ninth Annual Report of the American Colonization Society (Printed for the Society, 1886) 25. This can be found here. While the figure may seem surprisingly large, it should be remembered that there were 4.4 million African-Americans in the United States at the time of the Civil War. While only about a half-million were free, 10,000 is still but 2% of the total. 4This is, of course, bad math. While there were around 500,000 free blacks in 1860, the total of free blacks who had existed between 1821 and 1860 was much higher. Figuring out the exact number would take more skills and time than are available to me.

Though the black community never rallied to the idea of colonization, significan numbers of black leaders supported the plan, some actually moving there themselves. This was mostly due to the belief that slavery would continue for decades. Even the most progressive and workable plans dreamed up by Abraham Lincoln prior to the Emancipation Proclamation were slow, gradual changes that would only be done voluntarily by the individual slave states. These proposals, of course, often went hand-in-hand with the promise of colonization. 5Abraham Lincoln, “Message to Congress Recommending Compensated Emancipation,” March 6, 1862. As printed in Complete Works, Vol. 2 (New York: The Century Co., 1894) 129.

Senators, such as John Sherman of Ohio, believed that in every emancipation bill “there ought to be some provision which will enable any person affected by it to seek freedom elsewhere, where he may have all the benefits of free society of his own color, of his own kind; where he will not have to meet the prejudices of caste all the days of his life.” 6John Sherman, Remarks … in the Senate, April 2, 1862. This can be found here.

1820s map of Liberia.
1820s map of Liberia.

Though the rhetoric in favor of colonization flowed from Washington, and especially the White House, during the early and middle war years, it had virtually nothing to do with the American Colonization Society. Lincoln had taken it upon himself to look for a place on the American Continent – somewhere in Latin America, he hoped – to relocate any African-American who volunteered for the experiment.

The aim of the American Colonization Society itself was not changed by the war. They did not look toward the Caribbean or Central America, but continued to populate Liberia with any African-Americans who volunteered.

The war, however, did effect the coffers of the ACS. While there had been nearly a million dollars in donations flooding into the organization in 1859, that number had greatly diminished through the war years. By 1868, their cash flow was more than halved. Three years later, the society couldn’t even pull in $14,000 in donations. 7Annual Report of the Colonization Society of the State of New York (New York: Baker & Godwin, 1872) 5. The figures given are for the American Society, not just the New York branch.

For a long while, the ACS had been receiving more donations than they could effectively spend. In 1859, they actually had a surplus of nearly $84,000 for that year alone. By war’s end, however, this had changed. By 1868, their expenses and donations were equal, and by 1871, the donations had fallen off so drastically that it wasn’t even half of the $30,000 expended. 8Sixty-ninth Annual Report of the American Colonization Society (Printed for the Society, 1886) 25.

Reconstruction and the Beginnings of Back-To-Africa

The end of slavery did not mean an end to the ACS. In fact, with so many more free black people, the pool of potential volunteers was drastically increased. The four years of war saw only 169 blacks make the journey to Liberia, but starting in 1865, the society was seeing numbers rivaling their most productive years. 9Ibid., 24.

This was largely due to national moves by the Johnson administration to give the South the freedom to treat what he viewed as their freed slaves (rather than fellow citizens) how they saw fit. Whatever hope that Lincoln had given the black community, especially in his final year in office, had quickly been trampled by Johnson. 10Obviously, this is a huge topic in and of itself. For more specifics, see Eric Foner Reconstruction; America’s Unfinished Revolution, especially the chapter “The Failure of Presidential Reconstruction.”

Table of ACS Emigration from 1820 - 1885.
Table of ACS Emigration from 1820 – 1885.

The black community also saw many moderate Republicans turn their backs upon them for white votes. Fearing that Democrats would win the racial prejudice vote, during the 1865 election season, these Republicans refused to take up the cause of black suffrage. Delegates to Republican conventions in more conservative northern states, such as Ohio, worked diligently to get suffrage removed completely from the platform. 11Robert Dixon Sawrey Dubious Victory: The Reconstruction Debate in Ohio (University Press of Kentucky, 1992) 32.

Because of this backsliding, the number of emigrants to Africa increased following the war. In fact, a glance at the numbers through the various years mirrors the various states of race relations. When the war ended, states such as Mississippi enacted strict slave-era black codes that reduced the freedmen’s freedom to almost none at all. But after the ratification of the 14th Amendment in 1868, the numbers dropped dramatically. And then again, when the former slave-states battled back, disenfranchising the majority of blacks, the numbers rose once more. 12Sixty-ninth Annual Report of the American Colonization Society (Printed for the Society, 1886) 24.

In the years following the ratification of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendment, blacks gained for themselves immense political power. Beginning in 1872, they didn’t just vote, but were elected to local, county, and even state offices across the South. This period, lasting until around 1877, saw the lowest emigration figures – merely 347 over those five years. These were roughly on par with the war years, so full of hope. 13Ibid.

With the election of Rutherford B. Hayes, Federal troops were removed from the South, and Reconstruction was sacrificed. The formerly-seceded states did all they could to dismantle, ignore, and work around the new Constitutional Amendments. Their focus was strictly upon controlling the black population. This meant ensuring that few blacks could vote and virtually no blacks could hold office. Some states even went as far as to rewrite their constitutions. This wasn’t an immediate change, but a gradual one. The numbers of black voters and office holders steadily decreased until 1901 – the last year a black man held a Southern seat in the US House until the Civil Rights Movement. 14See Foner’s Reconstruction, especially the chapter “Redemption and After.” This was George Henry White of North Carolina. He tried to introduce a bill in 1900 to make lynching a federal crime, but it was defeated in committee by Southern Democrats.

The Beginnings of the Exodus

Through the 1870s and 1880s, when race relations began to crumble completely, the numbers of emigrants sent to Liberia by the American Colonization Society did not increase to any alarming degree. While there was a spike in the years immediately following the surrender of Reconstruction, it quickly fizzled. 15Sixty-ninth Annual Report of the American Colonization Society (Printed for the Society, 1886) 24.

A quaint chart drawn by Peter John Murdza for his masters thesis.
A quaint chart drawn by Peter John Murdza for his masters thesis.

This was due not to lack of interest. These same years saw a mass exodus of blacks from the South to Kansas. Other black leaders suggested a move west to New Mexico in the hopes that the Federal government might provide them with an entire territory. Others preferred Nebraska. And while some, such as Frederick Douglass, spoke out against it, many entertained the idea through the 1870s. By 1880, nearly 8,000 black people had moved to Kansas – a small number when taken as part of the whole, but nevertheless significant. 16Foner, 600.

While many blacks contemplated a move west, others considered making the journey to Liberia as the black vote was systematically destroyed across the South. They did not, however, turn to the American Colonization Society – at least not at first.

Even by 1875, blacks in Louisiana were contemplating such a move. Founding the Colonization Council, they discussed whether to make their exodus to the west or Liberia. Rather than petitioning the ACS, however, they wrote to President Hayes, asking him to either restore their full rights as citizens or for territory out west where they could govern themselves. If he could not make such a provision, then they wanted passage to Africa. With no response, they finally wrote to the ACS, explaining that there were 69,000 black people in Louisiana, Texas, and Arkansas who wanted to emigrate to Liberia.

The South “had got into the hands of the very men that held us slaves,” they explained. They had “lost all hopes,” and lamented that “there was no way on earth … that we could better our condition” in the South.

Emigrants waiting to board the Horsa, 1895.
Emigrants waiting to board the Horsa, 1895.

But the ACS was no where near able to meet this request. The Louisiana emigrants were encouraged to raise their own funds and do what they could to get themselves to Liberia. Once more they turned to Washington, and once more they were ignored. Despite all the effort and meetings, only seven black Louisianans were able to make the move to Liberia during this period. 17William Cohen At Freedom’s Edge: Black Mobility and the Southern White Quest for Racial Control (Louisiana State University Press, 1991) 164-166.

Also during this time, the Liberian Exodus Joint Stock Steamship Company was formed in Charleston, South Carolina. It was in response to the particularly violent election of 1876, and its holders believed that there was no longer a place for them in America. The following year, they purchased the ship Azor and cast off with 206 black Americans aboard, with nearly that many waiting in the wings for a second voyage. Due to expenses – something with which the ACS could commiserate – there was only ever one such passage for the Azor. 18George Tindall “The Liberian Exodus of 1878,” in The South Carolina Historical Magazine, Vol. 53, No. 3 (Jul., 1952), 133-145.

The Arkansas Exodus

Nowhere was this movement greater than in Arkansas, though it took a little while to catch on. It started in earnest in 1877, along side the movements in South Carolina and Louisiana. Rather than attacking civil rights, Democrats in Arkansas focused upon the economy, impoverishing the black community, and creating for them a debt insurmountable.

Seeing this as damaging as disenfranchisement, black leader Anthony L. Stanford wrote the ACS, asking for the sponsorship of 5,000 black Arkansans. In response, the ACS asked how much the emigrants could contribute to the $100 it would take for each to make the voyage. Knowing that he couldn’t raise such funds immediately, Stanford began to create his own colonization society.

The Liberia Exodus Arkansas Colony grew quickly to twenty-eight chapter across the state. Their own rhetoric made them sound more like missionaries than asylum seekers. They wished to raise Liberia up with mechanics, teachers, doctors, lawyers, and overall refinement and Christianity. The immediate outcome of these meetings was the emigration of fifty-five African-Americans aboard the ACS ship Liberia. In early 1878, they left New York City, arriving in Africa a month later.

Laurada, 1896.
Laurada, 1896.

Stanford himself made the journey both there and back, returning to Arkansas via a circuitous preaching tour where he touted the glories of African emigration. When he finally arrived back home, he found 100 more willing to make the trip immediately, and another 5,000 nearly ready to commit. Due to the contractual obligations of share cropping and financial constraints, the 100 ready to go melted away to around twenty-five, who made the journey.

With the ACS unable to handle even this many, nearly 150 Arkansans became stranded in New York City and Philadelphia the following year, waiting for passage to Liberia. Through public donations, the society was able to help the refugees, but that only encouraged more to come. By some counts, as many as 5,000 were preparing on making the journey from Arkansas to the east coast just for the chance of passage. 19Most of this section was distilled from Kenneth C. Barnes Journey of Hope; The Back-to-Africa Movement in Arkansas in the Late 1800s (University of North Carolina Press, 2004).

The following year, 1880, saw a huge spike in emigrants, especially from Arkansas, which made up 83% of those crossing. The reports returning from Liberia were mixed, however. This, and a couple of returning families, stayed the feet of many black Arkansans contemplating emigration. Through the 1880s, the numbers dipped drastically, and few from Arkansas made the journey. Those who did were generally from North Carolina, though some people from Texas, Alabama, Nebraska, even Kansas bade farewell to America.


A closer look at the make up of emigrants over the 1880s gives a good impression of how recruitment for the exodus was spreading. While North Carolina almost always represented well, the Plains states showed up in 1883, making up 65% of the total for that year. In 1886, they were almost exclusively Methodists from South Carolina. The next year, North Carolina and Indian Territory (Oklahoma) made up the bulk. Half of the emigrants in 1888 were from Florida, and were mostly Baptists. In 1890, Mississippians made up 59%. The entire decade saw few from Arkansas, but that was about to change. 20The figures from other states come from a masters thesis submitted by Peter John Murdza entitled “The American Colonization Society and Emigration to Liberia 1865 to 1904.” It’s available as a PDF here. Pages 61 and 62 of the PDF.

Beginning in 1890, and greatly increasing the next year, applications from Arkansans to the ACS numbered in the thousands. Though the 1880s, race relations across the state had turned ugly. Understanding that the black community could not be kept away from the polls by the economy, they resorted to threats, intimidation and voter fraud. As violence escalated, the urge to leave not just Arkansas, but the United States as a whole, increased.

In 1890, Arkansas began implementing “separate but equal” Jim Crow style laws in a successful attempt to break any kind of alliance between poor white farmers and the black community. With the implementation of a poll tax and different colored ballots for Republicans and Democrats, a wedge was driven that many felt could not be extracted but by emigration. Nearly 1,000 African-Americans applied to the ACS for passage in 1890, and nearly 3,000 more in 1891. 21Barnes, Chapter 3.

A Sunday Lynching
A Sunday Lynching

This influx pushed the ACS to its limits. The year 1891 saw 164 emigrants make the voyage, with 76% coming from Arkansas. 22Murdza, 62 of the PDF. As many, if not significantly more, Arkansans were once again clamoring to emigrate to Liberia. The back-to-Africa movement seemed to have just begun, spreading throughout the entire state.

But everything changed the year following. William Copperinger, head of the ACS for decades, died in February of 1892. Prior to his passing, many black Arkansans were about to set off for New York. Scores had already made the trek and were waiting for the next ship. They left behind not only their homes, but a veritable massacre of lynchings by whites, with nine in 1891 and around twenty-five in 1892.

With Copperinger’s death, the ACS changed its focus. At the time of his passing, over 200 Arkansas refugees were stranded in New York. Only fifty were allowed to board the Liberia to complete their move. For the most part, this was where it all ended. The ACS all but shuttered its doors, sending only twenty people – mostly teachers – to Liberia over the rest of the decade.

Left behind in Arkansas, the violence of whites against blacks spiraled out of control. This was the story across the country, which saw upwards of 160 lynchings of black citizens in 1892 – the most deadly year on record. Arkansas had the second most total, behind only Louisiana, but when figured as a percentage of the population, Arkansas had more per capita. It was indeed a dangerous place to be black. This completely beat down black activism. Even in counties where black people held the majority, the Democratic party won elections through fraud and intimidation. Thousands were desperate to leave, fearing for their very lives, and with the collapse of the ACS, there was nothing more they could do. 23Barnes, Chapter 4. The figures on lynchings were taken from the Tuskegee figures, and are probably a bit low. See here for more information.

It would take several more years for this to be sorted out. In 1894, a few white businessmen thought they could make a fortune in fulfilling these dreams. Forming the International Migration Society, they began accepting members from the black community. These dues purchased for the society two ships that would take emigrants to Liberia over the next year or so.

For forty dollars, they promised safe passage to Africa for any black person wishing to go. Though some were understandably skeptical, the fears were somewhat dispelled when the IMS sponsored thirteen emigrants in 1894. Two larger voyages were made over the next two years, carrying well over 500 emigrants, half of whom were from Arkansas. The rest were made up of citizens from every Southern state, and even a few from the North.

Lynching in Arkansas, 1890.
Lynching in Arkansas, 1890.

Unfortunately for the IMS, both of their ships, the Horsa and Laurada, weren’t fit for sea travel. The money had quickly dried up, which immediately put an end to the contributions coming from the society’s members.

With both the ACS and IMS virtually tanked, the African-Americans wishing to leave the United States had nowhere to turn. The new century, however, saw the mood of the black community shift and push back against institutionalized racism. Some few would continue to pay for their own passage to Liberia, but, for the most part, by 1905, even that would end. 24Barnes, Chapter 8.

The history of colonization is not simple to understand. The push for black emigration to Africa meant different things to different people of both races throughout the 1800s. For some, it was a product of their racism. For others, it was out of compassion. Nearly all black Americans who made their egress did so to escape the prejudicial brutality of white America. The nation had failed them so utterly that they were willing to give up all they had ever known for a place they had never seen.

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Eric has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, he wrote the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, he decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.