We welcome a guest post today from Lisa A. Lindsay, author of Atlantic Bonds: A Nineteenth-Century Odyssey from America to Africa. A decade before the American Civil War, James Churchwill Vaughan (1828–93) set out to fulfill his formerly enslaved father’s dying wish that he should leave America to start a new life in Africa. Over the next forty years, Vaughan was taken captive, fought in African wars, built and rebuilt a livelihood, and led a revolt against white racism, finally becoming a successful merchant and the founder of a wealthy, educated, and politically active family. Tracing Vaughan’s journey from South Carolina to Liberia to several parts of Yorubaland (present-day southwestern Nigeria), Lindsay documents this “free” man’s struggle to find economic and political autonomy in an era when freedom was not clear and unhindered anywhere for people of African descent.
In the following post, Lindsay responds to contemporary murmurs of emigration from disaffected American voters by looking at an earlier period of organized emigration in the country’s history.
The day after the American presidential election, Canada’s Citizenship and Immigration website crashed. Faced with a Trump presidency or despondent about the America that had elected him, an estimated 100,000 Americans were at least exploring the idea of leaving. If this seems to recall the Vietnam War era exodus to Canada, it is also worth remembering a much earlier mass movement out of the United States, especially considering the vulnerability in Trump’s America of those least able to move—the poor, the undocumented, the discriminated against. It was the most disadvantaged Americans who undertook the first large-scale voluntary exile in our history. Their stark choices are thankfully distant from most of ours today, but they offer a reminder of the persistent dilemma between flight and fight in American political life.
Between 1820 and 1880, more than 13,000 African Americans left the United States to settle on the west coast of Africa. The American Colonization Society, which made their emigration possible, had been founded in 1816 by a coalition of white opponents of slavery who believed that black people could only be truly free elsewhere, and supporters of the institution who hoped to rid the country of free blacks. Most African Americans who knew about it opposed the scheme. David Walker’s 1829 Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World insisted that “This country is as much ours as it is the whites”; decades later, Frederick Douglass called the ACS “the arch enemy of the free colored citizens of the United States.”
Yet desperation—starker than most of us can imagine today—pushed many to leave. After Nat Turner’s rebellion in 1831, when whites launched violent reprisals against free people of color, more than 1,100 African Americans, mostly from Turner’s home state of Virginia, set out for Africa. In 1850, Congress enacted the Fugitive Slave Act, mandating that authorities and ordinary people even in non-slave states help to apprehend runaways, in practice endangering all African Americans. Enrollment in the ACS scheme skyrocketed, as more than 2,000 free black people fled the United States for Africa by 1860. Emigration surged again in the late 1870s, as the promise of Reconstruction became the realization that, as one prospective African settler put it, “We are down here & can’t rise up.”
The outcome of this nineteenth-century emigration movement offers little comfort for those who would leave today. At least half of the African Americans who settled in West Africa perished of tropical diseases, while others struggled to eke out a living. And they were not welcome there. Though they called their colony Liberia and touted “the love of liberty” in their official motto, the settlers’ encounters with local Africans were marked by violence, condescension, and—ironically—conditions not unlike slavery.
One might argue that the opponents of emigration were right: over time, America was remade into a place where African Americans could be full citizens. Yet those who settled Liberia were not the only ones to vote with their feet. In the two decades after the Civil War, thousands of black southerners moved to Kansas in hopes of better lives. Generations after America’s attempted Reconstruction, so little had changed for African Americans in the South that once they had a viable alternative, an estimated six million between 1910 and 1970 were willing to leave their homes for the industrial North.
In 1970, as the war in Vietnam sowed bitter tensions in the United States, economist Albert O. Hirschman suggested that those poorly served by their organizations faced the choice between “exit” and “voice.” He argued that whether one tried to leave or exerted pressure for reform depended partly on loyalty to the system. But was it disloyalty that prompted so many African Americans to sacrifice their ties with family and community, while others stayed to fight for something better? Or was it simply a different assessment of the possible? In Liberia, American settlers based their own Constitution on that of the United States, with the additional proviso that slavery was officially prohibited. They were not so much repudiating American ideals as transplanting them—with some destructive American practices too—into a context that seemed more promising.
In moments of great insecurity, Americans have taken stands, made their peace, or sometimes looked for safe havens. The values of safety for all, political inclusiveness, and human dignity—or life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—have not always seemed attainable on American soil, at least not for everyone. Today, most of those talking emigration may be politically outraged but are not especially vulnerable themselves. They share with earlier voluntary exiles, however, the sense of an American promise betrayed.
Lisa A. Lindsay is Bowman and Gordon Gray Distinguished Term Associate Professor of History at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. She is author of Atlantic Bonds: A Nineteenth Century Odyssey from America to Africa, forthcoming from UNC Press in February 2017.