After the American Colonization Society (ACS) relocated formerly enslaved as well as freeborn Africans from the United States to the place we now call Liberia, it is not clear if the Society envisioned the establishment of a gentry comprising the descendants of the returnees.
It was in 1820 that the first 86 of thousands of ex-slaves set sail from the New York Harbor to their new home in West Africa as part of efforts by the Quaker-orientated ACS to restore some dignity to the Africans they had known in America. The Quakers were historically opposed to slavery and today, their abolitionist efforts in America are well-documented.
The ACS went on to purchase land for liberated Black people from some of the native peoples of West Africa who lived around Cape Palmas and Cape Mesurado. They called this land Liberia, and between 1821 and 1840, about 20,000 former slaves, fugitive slaves, freeborn Africans from the New World and Europe as well as Recaptives, illegally enslaved Africans who were freed by British naval courts, came to live in Liberia through the ACS’ initiative.
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The different sections of returnees however came to be identified as Americo-Liberians, having all been grouped under the tent of the first and majority group of returnees from the United States. This group also included the offspring of white-and-black relationships.
In the last 200 years, descendants of the Americo-Liberians have become a distinct ethnic who make up some 5% of Liberia’s population today.
Social evolution in Liberia over the last 200 years has for the most part been an interplay between the peoples who found themselves in the territory after the ACS arrived. But fundamentally, Americo-Liberians continue to be regarded as founders of the nation of Liberia necessarily as a result of the modernization undertaken by them.
Thanks to the education gotten through observing the early American experiment, by 1847, architects of the Liberian nation made sure the world spoke of Liberia in terms of what we would today call a constitutional republic. It was a democracy with parties such as the Republican Party, the True Whig Party and the National Democratic Party.
1847 was also the year the country technically “gained” independence from the ACS. Liberia drew up a constitution and elected its first president, an Americo-Liberian named Joseph Jenkins Roberts.
But the constitution of 1847 barred the native African population from participating in elections by enfranchising only property owners, i.e. Americo-Liberians. It was only in 1951 that the country allowed universal adult suffrage although the first native-born to lead the country, Samuel Doe, would not come until 1980.
Americo-Liberians consolidated their control over Liberian society simply by being the group that owned much of the means of mass production and distribution of material goods. Economic power was kept within this group through social relations, business partnerships and fraternal organizations, including Liberia’s Monrovia Masonic Lodge, established in 1822.
Although they constituted the minority in the population, Americo-Liberians were able to leverage their networks which extended beyond the country itself. They were the most educated and the moneyed class, which meant that political power was an expected consequence.
Native Liberians occupied the more menial and auxiliary roles with the political economy. Where they broke through barriers, natives still effectively operated within the grasp of Americo-Liberians.
The bloody and popular coup of 1980 that overthrew Americo-Liberian President William Tolbert was the culmination of constipated frustrations that were frankly barely hidden but overlooked by those in power. Since that cessation, Liberia has yet to resume living up to the promise of the first modern African republic.