African Americans - Colonization and emigration

Opinion leaders on both sides of the slavery question during the antebellum period expressed fears about the consequences of emancipation. Some abolitionists believed that slavery was morally wrong but did not think that freed slaves could be assimilated into American society for racial reasons. Certain proslavery advocates used these doubts about assimilation to argue that slavery could not be eradicated. A third alternative to slavery or abolition was the removal of freed slaves from the United States. The option appealed to blacks who wished a homeland of their own, and to proslavery and antislavery advocates alike who thought blacks could not be assimilated into American life. Paul Cuffe, a black New England shipowner, was committed to civil rights for African Americans and an outspoken opponent of slavery. He nevertheless employed his own resources in a back-to-Africa project in the early 1810s. After correspondence with prominent British abolitionists, including the parliamentarian William Wilberforce, Cuffe sought to repatriate selected emigrants to the British African colony of Sierra Leone. His plans were interrupted by the War of 1812 and by his own death not long thereafter, but he did succeed in settling some thirty-eight persons in Africa.

In 1821 the American Colonization Society resumed Cuffe's work. Members of the organization included such figures as Henry Clay, Francis Scott Key, and other prominent white Americans for whom the United States had to remain a white man's country. The society purchased African land from local rulers, and in 1847 the settlement, called Liberia, became an independent republic. Many antislavery activists opposed the American Colonization Society, believing that it was simply a stratagem to solidify slavery by removing from the United States the only blacks in a position to contest it. Others endorsed colonization and emigration in principle, reserving their objections for the society per se. There were, accordingly, other colonization ventures. In the 1820s and 1850s, two emigration movements to Haiti were organized with the cooperation of the Haitian government. A project in the 1830s involved the removal of American blacks to the island of Trinidad. President Abraham Lincoln, who endorsed colonization as a strategy to prevent a civil war over the slavery question, researched the possibility of a black homeland on the isthmus of Central America. These schemes involved negotiations with heads of state for land grants and concessions. Foreign leaders had their own reasons for endorsing these programs. Haiti had traditionally offered itself as an asylum for blacks in the Western Hemisphere and in the 1820s wanted to create a buffer on its frontier with Santo Domingo (now the Dominican Republic) by settling African Americans there. Great Britain in the 1830s sought labor to work on the Trinidad plantations abandoned by the beneficiaries of its own emancipation laws, a need for which it later recruited workers from India.

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