January 6th, 2023 marks exactly 203 years since the first organized immigration of freed enslaved people departed from New York Harbor on a journey to Sierra Leone, a place that established itself as a haven for all slaves and people of color. This expedition was a significant moment in history as it marked the beginning of the American Colonization Society’s efforts to resettle formerly enslaved African people in Africa.
It is important to note that this immigration was not solely the work of the American Colonization Society, but was also partially funded by the U.S. Congress. In 1819, Congress appropriated $100,000 to be used in returning displaced Africans, who had been illegally brought to the United States after the slave trade was abolished in 1808, to Africa. This program was modeled after the British government’s efforts to resettle formerly enslaved people in Africa following the abolishment of the slave trade in 1772.
In 1787, the British government settled 300 formerly enslaved people and 70 white prostitutes on the Sierra Leone peninsula in West Africa. Unfortunately, within two years, most members of this settlement had died due to disease or warfare with the local Temne people. However, in 1792, a second attempt was made when 1,100 formerly enslaved people, mostly individuals who had supported Britain during the American Revolution and were unhappy with their postwar resettlement in Canada, established the colony of Freetown under the leadership of British abolitionist Thomas Clarkson.
Over the next few decades, thousands of formerly enslaved people came from Canada, the West Indies, and other parts of West Africa to the Sierra Leone Colony. In 1820, the first group of formerly enslaved people from the United States arrived at Sierra Leone, marking a significant moment in history. This group consisted of 86 African Americans who boarded the Mayflower and set off on a journey to Sierra Leone, seeking a new life in a place where they would be free from the oppression and discrimination they faced in the United States.
In 1821, the American Colonization Society founded the colony of Liberia south of Sierra Leone as a homeland for formerly enslaved U.S. people outside of British jurisdiction. This move was met with mixed reactions from Americans of African descent, as most were not enthusiastic about leaving their homes in the United States for the West African coast. The American Colonization Society also faced criticism from American abolitionists, who argued that the removal of formerly enslaved people from the United States only served to strengthen the institution of slavery.
Despite this, between 1822 and the American Civil War, approximately 15,000 African Americans settled in Liberia. In 1847, the United States granted independence to Liberia under pressure from Great Britain. This marked the first time in African history that an independent democratic republic was established. In 1862, Liberia was officially recognized by the U.S. as a diplomatic entity.
It is important to remember and commemorate the journey of these formerly enslaved people, as it marks a significant moment in history and the foundations of Liberia as a nation. Their bravery and determination in seeking a new life in a place where they could be free and treated with dignity serves as a reminder of the resilience and strength of the human spirit.