In 1816 when the American Colonization Society (ACS) was founded by a group of Quakers and slaveholders, its mission was to help relocate freed Black people. And between 1821 and 1838 after the ACS had helped 86 freed Black slaves leave New York for the British colony of Sierra Leone, the ACS developed the first settlement, which would be known as Liberia.
The ACS had chosen relocating freed Black people over having an increasing number of freed Black Americans demanding rights, jobs, and resources at home. Some leaders in the Black community and abolitionists opposed the relocation of freed Blacks outside of the U.S., questioning why they should have to emigrate from the country where they and their generation were born.
Yet, the colonization idea received notable support from many, including Lott Cary (otherwise spelled Carey), who would become one of the first African-American Baptist missionaries to preach and work in Africa after helping found Liberia.
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Born in 1780 in Charles City County, Cary was an only child, who lived on a plantation with his parents and grandmother. His grandmother was a caretaker and a very religious person and she would later shape his religious beliefs.
At the age of 24, Cary was sent by his owner to work as hired slave labor in a tobacco warehouse, where he later got promoted to a supervisory position, enabling him to earn more than other enslaved people. Cary started to save as his main objective at the time was to buy his freedom and that of his wife as well as two children. Along the way, Cary got baptized at the First Baptist Church in 1807 after hearing a sermon based on the Bible’s third chapter of John that changed his life. He couldn’t read and write but he wanted to read the chapter on his own so much so that he eventually learned to read and write.
By 1813, Cary had bought freedom for himself and his children. Sources say his wife at the time had died, though he would later remarry. In two years after gaining his freedom, Cary became a popular lay preacher among Black Richmonders. Soon, the idea of Christian missions in Africa grabbed his attention, and in April 1815, he helped found the Richmond African Baptist Missionary Society. A year later, the ACS started making people know of its plans to resettle American freedpeople in West Africa. Cary, at that moment, began preparing to emigrate.
Fortunately for him, in 1819, he got approval from the Baptist Board of Foreign Missions as well as the ACS to set up a mission in West Africa. On January 23, 1821, Cary and 27 other colonists including his new wife and two children set sail for Liberia on a ship chartered by the U.S. government. It is documented that when he was asked why he was leaving, he said: “I am an African, and in this country, however meritorious my conduct and respectable my character, I cannot receive the credit due to either. I wish to go to a country where I shall be estimated by my merits, not by my complexion; and I feel bound to labor for my suffering race.”
Settling in an area that would later be incorporated into the new colony of Liberia, Cary and his group of colonists established a mission there. By 1825, his missionary work had expanded even though he and his members had to face regular attacks by natives of the region who were against the presence of colonists. Cary established schools, a joint-stock company and also became Liberia’s health officer before being elected vice agent of the colony in 1826. Two years later, Cary became governor of Liberia after the previous governor died.
Cary’s dream of spreading the gospel throughout Africa while helping to extend the settlement’s territory was cut short when he was killed in an accidental explosion of gunpowder in November 1828. Nevertheless, he left behind a legacy of leadership, commitment, and perseverance that continues to guide many, including Christians of all races.
As Mark Sidwell wrote: “As important as Lott Cary was as a ‘founding father’ of an African republic and as an inspiration to African-American Christians, even more notable was his example to Christians of all races. Cary became the forerunner to Christian work across the continent of Africa.”