@X: Making America White 200 Years Ago

In the latest edition of our anniversaries series, Brandon Byrd examines resistance to the American Colonization Society’s attempts to remove free blacks from the US.
In January 1817, more than three thousand African Americans gathered in Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia ...

In January 1817, more than three thousand African Americans gathered in Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Philadelphia, PA. Skilled artisans, domestic workers, and underpaid manual laborers filled the pews. So did black elites including Richard Allen, the founder and first bishop of the AME Church; Absalom Jones, Allen’s friend and cofounder of the Free African Society, the leading black mutual aid society in Philadelphia; and James Forten, a wealthy sailmaker and outspoken abolitionist. As historian Benjamin Quarles noted, there was only one cause that could bring together a gathering of that size and diversity. Weeks earlier, some of the most influential white men in the United States had formed the American Colonization Society (ACS), an organization whose official title—the Society for the Colonization of Free People of Color of America—made clearer its goal of removing free blacks from the United States. Now, as the ACS began its work, black Philadelphians gathered to respond as one to the proposition that their futures lay not in what was for many their country of birth but in Africa.

Standing behind a platform at the front of the church, Forten brought the meeting to order. The well-to-do businessman, born free in Philadelphia, first called for all in favor of colonization to respond with an “aye.” Nobody said a word. He then asked for those who opposed colonization to respond with a “no.” The response was thunderous. Unambiguous. Unanimous. In fact, Forten later wrote that it seemed as if the outcry “would bring down the walls of the building.”1

One year later, the ACS gathered in the chamber of the US House of Representatives for its first annual meeting. Participating members included Francis Scott Key, the slaveholding author of what became known as “The Star-Spangled Banner” and a prominent Washington, DC–based attorney who later demanded in court that his fellow white men not “abandon your country; to permit it to be taken from you by the Abolitionist, according to whose taste it is to associate and amalgamate with the Negro.”2 Henry Clay was there too. The US congressman who would bring about the Missouri Compromise was also a Kentucky slaveowner who believed that “amalgamation”—interracial socializing or sex—was “impossible” because the “God of nature by the difference of color & of physical constitution, has decreed against it.”3 He was, put simply, a man who admired the racial thought of Thomas Jefferson, the exalted Founding Father whose antislavery views coexisted with his slaveholding and his “suspicion . . . that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.” He, too, wanted them removed from his country.4

The meeting of white colonizationists opened with an address from Bushrod Washington. Standing before Key, Clay, and men of similar mind and social status, the slaveholding Virginian, nephew of George Washington, and president of the ACS praised its illustrious members and patrons for their role in “the magnificent plans now carrying on for the improvement and happiness of mankind in many parts of the world.”5 Their efforts to realize Jefferson’s dream of a white republic, he proclaimed, were providential. To his mind, they were the workings of God’s plan for the United States, its white citizens, and expatriated free blacks.

After Washington finished his opening remarks, Elias B. Caldwell, the secretary of the ACS and Clerk of the US Supreme Court, rose from his seat to deliver the annual report from the society’s board of managers. He admitted that there was evidence of an “objection on the part of the colored people” to the plans for their removal from the United States.6 An excuse came next. Caldwell, a man whom black abolitionist David Walker later rebuked for insisting that education only made black people “more miserable . . . in their present state,” told his colleagues that black resistance to colonization was the result “entirely of ignorance & misapprehension.”7

Still, Caldwell could only accomplish so much. He could promote the propaganda that colonization was guided by “the good hand of an overruling Providence.”8 But, try as he might, he could not drown out the cries of protest that had filled the Mother Bethel. Their echoes reverberated in the nation’s capital and beyond.

A little more than two hundred years ago, the ACS was born. Its first annual meeting in Washington demonstrates that the ACS enjoyed the support of wealthy slaveholders who favored colonization as a means of ridding themselves of a seditious element in a region where slave and black were supposed to be synonymous. But it also hints at the spirit of reform that shaped the influential organization. As recent studies by Eric Burin and Beverly Tomek show, antislavery impulses motivated some white Southerners to consider colonization as a condition of their individual acts of emancipation, while a considerable number of white Northerners, especially Quakers, came to see colonization as an incentive for wholesale gradual emancipation and a means of bringing Protestantism to Africa. A conviction that white and black people could not coexist in the same country united these lines of thinking. This belief in the righteousness of racial separation, a doctrine made gospel in Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, was always premised on the assumption that black people could not become part of the nation because of the degrading effects of slavery, their biological inferiority, antiblack racism, or some insurmountable mixture of all three. Put simply, black people were regarded as the problem and removal was the suggested answer.9

For African Americans, it was not difficult to see the racist overtones of what passed for 19th-century white liberalism. In his pioneering Black Abolitionists, Benjamin Quarles argued that the “colonization scheme had a unifying effect on Negroes in the North, bringing them together in a common bond of opposition.”10 He was right. A new generation of scholars have provided further proof of the considerable extent to which African Americans opposed colonization, a term that they associated with the ACS and Liberia, the West African colony that the ACS founded in 1822 for the resettlement of free blacks and manumitted enslaved people. To them, the grounds for opposition were simple. Funding for the ACS would do greater good if put toward supporting black uplift in the United States, a country that was just as much theirs as it was that of white Americans. Besides, they reasoned, their enslaved kin—fictive and literal—required support. To leave was inconceivable.11

For African Americans, it was not difficult to see the racist overtones of what passed for 19th-century white liberalism.

For most. In September 1829, Jamaican-born editor John Brown Russwurm set sail from Baltimore for Monrovia, Liberia. His decision to abandon his adopted country with the funding of the ACS was controversial to say the least. Critics, some of them former friends, called Russwurm foolish, corrupt, and morally bankrupt. They labeled him a black Benedict Arnold. Yet, as biographer Winston James shows, he was none of those things. Instead, Russwurm was a Pan-Africanist, an intellectual who believed that black people in Africa and her diaspora had a common history, present struggle, and destiny. To him, the battle against slavery and racism and the related fight for black self-determination could both be better waged in Liberia than in the United States.12

Thousands of African Americans reached related albeit distinct conclusions. Foundational, recent, and forthcoming works by scholars including Christopher Dixon, Sara Fanning, Dennis R. Hidalgo, and Westenley Alcenat confirm that, even more than Liberia, Haiti held unique significance for African Americans who thought about fleeing the antebellum United States, a country in which racism and slavery were founding principles. In many ways, Haiti was a mirror to the slaveholding republic to its north. It was the site of the Haitian Revolution, the only successful slave rebellion in modern history. It was the “Black Republic,” the only independent nation governed by people of African descent in the Western Hemisphere. In fact, it was a nation whose then-president, Jean Pierre-Boyer, beckoned African Americans—a people he called his “brethren.” Accordingly, while about 10 thousand black migrants left for Liberia in the four decades after the ACS’s founding, approximately 13 thousand fled the United States for Haiti during the 1820s alone.13

What motivated them to leave? What caused them to distinguish colonization from emigration, a term that African Americans associated with Haiti and voluntary, black-led movements? An answer comes from Washington. Six months after the first annual meeting of the ACS, the Daily National Intelligencer, a paper that supported leading colonizationists including President James Monroe, published a letter from a black mutual aid organization calling itself the Resolute Beneficial Society. The letter, signed by a group of officers that included Scipio Beans and Archibald Johnson, announced the opening of a school for “free people of color and others that ladies or gentleman may think proper to be instructed in reading, writing, arithmetic, English grammar or other branches of education.” The announcement went on to suggest that although the school sought the “improvement of the intellect and morality of colored youth” it would not challenge the authority of potential white benefactors, those “benevolent ladies and gentlemen” who subscribed to the Intelligencer. To that end, the black male leaders of the Resolute Beneficial Society promised that “no writing are to be done by a teacher for a slave.” There would be—could be—no free passes or freedom papers handed out at their school.14

The surveillance of the Resolute Beneficial Society by white Washingtonians laid bare the imposing barriers to black progress in the United States. It presaged the failure of one of the earliest sanctuaries for free blacks in the nation’s capital. Within a few years of its founding, Beans, Johnson, and their colleagues shuttered their school. The culprit for that dream deferred was racism in the guise of insufficient funding.

The disappointment was a tough pill to swallow for the officers of the Resolute Beneficial Society, some of whom were once enslaved. In fact, it was indigestible. Shortly after the closing of the school he helped found, Scipio Beans left Washington for Port-au-Prince, Haiti. He traveled at the behest of the AME Church, as its first missionary tasked with uplifting Haitians through education and the Gospel. He went with a renewed set of frustrations, hopes, and dreams. For Beans, recent events had not only dimmed his opinion of the United States but also highlighted the prospects of Haiti. They had underscored the importance of a nation where black people might truly be free and prove themselves a civilized and nationalized people.

Accordingly, Beans never came home. According to AME lore, he held his usual church service one Sabbath and then “went home to heaven the next morning.” In the end, he was “content to remain and die in Haiti,” believing until his last breath that “Heaven is as near Port-au-Prince as to Washington.”15

Maybe it was nearer. In 1826, the Genius of Universal Emancipation, then the leading abolitionist newspaper in the United States, published an excerpt from a letter written by Archibald Johnson, “an intelligent colored emigrant” who now lived in Haiti but remained “well known” in Washington. In the letter, Johnson, possibly the same officer who helped found the Resolute Beneficial Society alongside Scipio Beans, asked a friend in his former city to

Say to the people, in general, that I have adopted myself a Haytian; and I bid an eternal farewell to America. Here I repose under my vine and banana tree, contented with Hayti and all its errors. I feel determined to live and die under the safe-guard of her constitution, with the hope of aiding to open the door for the relief of my distressed brethren.16

“I have adopted myself a Haytian.” That statement captured the complex ideas about race and nation and equality at the heart of the debates about emigration and colonization. While the foremost white colonizationists railed against amalgamation with inferior blacks and equated the modern nation-state with whiteness, some black people protested that they were, in fact, American, while others declared themselves Haitian or even Liberian. Those actions, seemingly at odds, rested on the shared understanding that the white supremacists who founded the ACS and the United States were wrong. Black people were fully capable of self-government. They had potential. They had not given up on racial equality. And they believed that God was working toward the elevation of black people, not their elimination.

In a recent reflection on the bicentennial of the ACS, historian Nicholas Guyatt argues that “colonization matters profoundly to our understanding of race in the early republic, confirming [that] while North and South came to disagree profoundly over slavery, their views of black potential . . . were not so different.” That is a critical insight. Guyatt, however, amends it with the more dubious caveat that “the achievements of the Colonization Society were meager.”17

Unfortunately, they were not. On January 20, 2017, the inauguration of Donald J. Trump as the 45th president of the United States began with the singing of Francis Scott Key’s “Star Spangled Banner.” It was a fitting song for the occasion. Trump rose to political prominence on the back of birtherism, the racist lie—or perhaps just a Jeffersonian “suspicion”—that President Barack Obama was neither born in the United States, nor a real American, nor capable of sound governance by dint of his blackness. Moreover, just as the anti-abolitionist Key once begged his fellow white citizens not to “abandon your country,” Trump repeatedly implored crowds of white followers to “take our country back.” The thousands of them who came to hear his apocalyptic visions of “American carnage” at the recent inauguration now believe that they have done just that. Indeed, the millions of white evangelicals who cast ballots for him now hear the voice of God and see the “good hand of an overruling Providence” in Trump’s promise to “Make America Great Again,” to return it to heights more imaginary than real.

No, the Founding Fathers of this country and the ACS did not bring about a wholesale deportation of free blacks. But their accomplishments are clear. The descendants of the ACS demand white supremacy and deny black equality. They worship a God who aids the powerful rather than the righteous and yearn for racial segregation. They build walls, unaware that there are millions swelling their lungs, preparing to bring them down. Again. icon

  1. See Benjamin Quarles, Black Abolitionists (Oxford University Press, 1969), pp. 3–4. The black response to colonization was also transnational. See Richard J. M. Blackett, Building an Antislavery Wall: Black Americans in the Atlantic Abolitionist Movement, 1830–1860 (Louisiana State University Press, 1983).
  2. The Trial of Ben Crandall, M.D., Charged with Publishing and Circulating Seditious and Incendiary Papers, &c. in the District of Columbia, with the Intent of Exciting Servile Insurrection, Carefully Reported, and Compiled from the Written Statements of the Court and the Counsel, by a Member of the Bar (1836), in Slavery, Race, and the American Legal System, 1700–1872, vol. 2, edited by Paul Finkleman (Lawbook Exchange, 2007), p. 364.
  3. Henry Clay, letter to John W. White, December 15, 1838, in The Papers of Henry Clay: The Whig Leader, vol. 9, edited by Robert Seager II and Melba Porter Hay (The University Press of Kentucky, 1988), p. 257.
  4. Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), edited by William Peden (The University of North Carolina Press, 1982), p. 143.
  5. “Colonization Society,” Daily National Intelligencer, January 16, 1818.
  6. See David Walker, Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World, in Pamphlets of Protest: An Anthology of Early African-American Protest Literature, 1790–1860, edited by Richard Newman, Patrick Rael, and Philip Lapsansky (Routledge, 2001), p. 95; “Colonization Society.”
  7. “Colonization Society.”
  8. Ibid.
  9. See Eric Burin, Slavery and the Peculiar Solution: A History of the American Colonization Society (University Press of Florida, 2005), and Beverly C. Tomek, Colonization and Its Discontents: Emancipation, Emigration, and Antislavery in Antebellum Pennsylvania (NYU Press, 2011).
  10. Quarles, Black Abolitionists, p. 7.
  11. See Ousmane K. Power-Greene, Against Wind and Tide: The African American Struggle against the Colonization Movement (NYU Press, 2014).
  12. Winston James, The Struggles of John Brown Russwurm: The Life and Writings of a Pan-Africanist Pioneer, 1799–1851 (NYU Press, 2010).
  13. See Chris Dixon, African America and Haiti: Emigration and Black Nationalism in the Nineteenth Century (Greenwood Press, 2000) and Sara Fanning, Caribbean Crossing: African Americans and the Haitian Emigration Movement (NYU Press, 2015). On Liberian emigration, see Claude A. Clegg III, The Price of Liberty: African Americans and the Making of Liberia (University of North Carolina Press, 2004) and Marie Tyler-McGraw, An African Republic: Black & White Virginians in the Making of Liberia (University of North Carolina Press, 2007).
  14. “A School,” Daily National Intelligencer, August 29, 1818.
  15. George F. Bragg, Men of Maryland (Church Advocate Press, 1925), pp. 41–42.
  16. “Hayti No. II,” Genius of Universal Emancipation, June 24, 1826.
  17. Nicholas Guyatt, “The American Colonization Society: 200 Years of the ‘Colonizing Trick,’Black Perspectives, December 22, 2016. Guyatt shows the ACS’s central role in the development of US racial segregation in his excellent book Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation (Basic, 2016).
Featured image: Bishops of the A.M.E. Church (c. 1876). Lithograph. The scene on the middle right depicts the “Missionaries to Port-au-Prince, Hayti,” including Scipio Beans. Library of Congress