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American While BlackAfrican Americans, Immigration, and the Limits of Citizenship$

Niambi Michele Carter

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9780190053550

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2019

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190053550.001.0001

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Emigrants, Immigrants, and Refugees

Emigrants, Immigrants, and Refugees

Emigration as a Strategy for Black Liberation (1815–1862)

(p.68) 3 Emigrants, Immigrants, and Refugees
American While Black

Niambi Michele Carter

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter presents a historical view of black opinion on immigration. In particular, it looks at the colonization movement of the nineteenth century and the ways in which blacks employed the concept of immigration as a way to escape racial oppression. In fact, blacks applied the term immigrant to their community and seriously considered leaving the United States, with some relocating to Canada and Liberia, for example. The goal of this chapter is to demonstrate blacks’ long-term engagement with the issue of immigration as part of their political tradition. Using primary documents, the chapter helps to demonstrate the depth and range of ways in which blacks have viewed immigration over time.

Keywords:   emigration, immigration, colonization, American Colonization Society, convention, Africa, Liberia, Canada, slavery

THE PREVIOUS CHAPTER outlines how American attachment has been expressed by blacks in attempts to assert their citizenship. In particular, Chapter 2 demonstrates black ambivalence on immigration, which is the result of the capriciousness of white racism. This chapter offers a different lens with which to understand African American engagements with emigration. In particular, it looks at African American attempts to use emigration as a tool for liberation and how they cast themselves as emigrants in the nineteenth century, in an effort to understand blacks’ long history of engagement with the issue and its emancipatory possibility. It is worth spending time in the past to understand the present, because one cannot fully appreciate black opinion on immigration if one does not understand how African Americans, disinherited from American citizenship until 1868, utilized their liminal status to push for greater inclusion through emigration. While it seems counterintuitive that contemplations of exiting the United States would bring greater African American equality, attempts to leave America produced a vigorous intra-racial dialogue about the meanings of freedom, American identity, and citizenship for black people.

To this end, this chapter revisits the (African) colonization movement beginning in the early nineteenth century and effectively ending in 1862 with Abraham Lincoln’s failed attempt to persuade free blacks to leave the United States. This historical moment’s significance is often read as either (p.69) a black nationalist fantasy of independence or a white supremacist project to rid the nation of free blacks. Both of these are useful, albeit limited, lenses for thinking through what repatriation meant for blacks, whites, and the nation. Going “back to Africa,” and the conversations generated around repatriation in the black public sphere were paramount in how blacks defined themselves in the nineteenth century and for the future. In particular, the emigration debates gave blacks a vocabulary for highlighting the unique nature of their position as a stateless people; essentially unmoored through the process of enslavement and civil rights denial, blacks came to see themselves, in some respects, as a people with no nation. This statelessness created more than a sense of despair. Statelessness gave blacks a lexis that allowed them to register their in-between status. More importantly, as a people with no nation in a literal and figurative sense, the emigration debates gave blacks a freedom to think through the possibilities of a robust, dynamic independence. By working through these important challenges of the nineteenth century, this chapter shows that blacks have thought and continue to think deeply about emigration, not only as a political issue but one that captures the very essence of what it means for a group to have agency. Individual agency matters, because that is at the heart of who can be a citizen. In the United States, where citizenship is not defined by culture but an allegiance to certain ideals like life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, being a sovereign person means that one is “fit” for citizenship. In this way, the purest expression of being an American is being able/free to find a place in the world, literally, and contribute to its advancement. This freedom was denied to all blacks who, during the period under study, had no status as Americans, even if free. Thus, both repatriation and colonization were immigration schemes whose sole aim was to get black people freer.

Blacks who were not wedded to the United States were seeking this ability to define themselves. They conceived novel ways of creating identity and crafting citizenship that were not defined by the machinations of whites. Rather, they defined themselves alternatively as emigrants, immigrants, and refugees, ideas that were not only more agentic but filled with prospect. How did blacks in this period come to define and redefine American identity in the face of more draconian racial policies? I contend the issue of colonization, which uses immigration as a tool for black liberation, frames blacks as central to the issue of immigration and immigration’s attendant questions. More importantly, this moment not only creates blacks as emigrants and makes it possible for them to remake (p.70) themselves in a non-slavery context, it gives them a space to critique the exclusivity of American citizenship and hypocrisy around freedom and democracy. Therefore, as noncitizen residents of America, blacks craft a narrative of self-remaking that predates the so-called immigrant narrative.

By repositioning African American immigration, which includes colonization, as an attempt at self-determination, I hope to destabilize notions that immigration is of little consequence to African Americans. In fact, immigration has long been a liberatory strategy discursively deployed by black people through time to demonstrate their displeasure with the direction of the United States. Whether we are exploring maroonage in Georgia, Lousiana, and South Carolina; discussing the Black Star Line envisioned by Marcus Garvey; or #blaxit, where African Americans considered moving to Africa after the election of Donald Trump, all of these movements and moments have a rich tradition in black American life and discourse. Therefore, I use this chapter to show how descendants of enslaved Africans are central to the immigration narrative, and, ultimately, to redefining American citizenship. Foregrounding this history moves blacks from the margin to the center of contemporary discussions regarding immigration because they were among the many people defined as not belonging to America, yet who forced America to concede to their inclusion through their commitment to remaining on this land. Nevertheless, colonization and emigration were necessary in the black public sphere because people were looking for whatever means they had available to become free. For some, this was to relocate to the shores of Africa or other hospitable climes.

Although Africa occupied much of the conversational real estate, what I demonstrate is how blacks used immigration, writ large, as an attempt to find a place where they could exercise the full measure of their humanity. Thus, as early as the nineteenth century, immigration was a way for blacks to claim and disrupt their own statelessness and what it meant to be excluded from the civic, social, and economic possibilities of American citizenship. By bringing this history into the conversation, I highlight that black public opinion about immigration is far less about who is allowed into the country and far more about the ways in which the antagonisms of white supremacy become reified and do real harm to black communities. Understood in this way, it becomes easier to see that blacks are not, in general, resistant to immigration. Instead, they are attempting to resist the grudging and conditional nature of their inclusion. Therefore, this chapter does not adjudicate whether blacks should have gone “back to (p.71) Africa” or remained in America. White supremacy renders the dichotomy moot given the ways in which anti-blackness has been exported across the world (Bashi 2004). Instead, this chapter focuses on what I feel are the real lessons of the emigration debates of this period, which is that immigration was viewed as a remedy to black statelessness. By entertaining immigration as a viable strategy for their freedom, blacks were attempting to obtain greater inclusion in America where possible.

The discussion begins with looking at how free and enslaved blacks were separated from American citizenship, and how this necessitated black movement in an effort to find some manner of freedom. Next, it analyzes how black freedom is viewed as incompatible with American identity, and how colonization becomes the method for addressing this “problem” under the auspices of black and white institutions. Taken together, the purpose of this chapter is to recast immigration as a proxy for a whole host of issues surrounding black citizenship in this earlier, seminal period, to understand the evolving nature of black attitudes on immigration. What I find is that most black conversations on immigration are about their community, not some fierce nativism that defends the nation from incursions by interlopers.

Becoming Emigrants

For most of their existence in the United States, black people were noncitizens. Regardless of status, whether free or enslaved, blacks were not deemed members of the American body politic. In fact, they were not inaugurated as full citizens until 1965. Their noncitizen status was cemented in the Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) Supreme Court decision, which stated all people of African descent—whether free or enslaved—could not become citizens. Chief Justice Taney, delivering the majority opinion, stated “they are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word “citizens” in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to the citizens of the United States. On the contrary, they were at that time [the Founding] considered as a subordinate and inferior class of beings who had been subjugated by the dominant race, and, whether emancipated or not, yet remained subject to the authority, and had no rights or privileges but such as those who held the power and the Government might choose to grant them.” More importantly, the language of “alien” in this decision is used to describe blacks, as Taney uses (p.72) care to preserve the right of the federal government alone to allow naturalization and confer citizenship to said aliens. In observing the primacy of the federal government, Taney said the state “cannot introduce any person or description of persons who were not intended to be embraced in this new political family which the Constitution brought into existence, but were intended to be excluded from it” in the minds of the Founders.

However, this sensibility did not begin with Chief Justice Taney and the Supreme Court. Prior to Dred Scott, blacks were already having to relocate to have some measure of agency. Because of the limited sphere in which they were allowed to operate as free citizens, many blacks were forced to become emigrants. Most definitely, their moves often were guided by the desire to achieve better opportunities—but they were also driven by a real fear that their freedom would not last long if they were to remain too close to their former owners (Trotti 1996). This forced mobility challenges the notion of “choice,” which is often central to emigration, but blacks knew freedom often required some movement (Berlin 1975, 2000). This usually meant moving to “free states,” larger cities, or going abroad.1 This “choice,” whether to stay in the United States or go, is where the colonization movement, considered as early as 1804, becomes significant. Although the term colonization was employed at the time, it is an inaccurate representation of this project. This project was a repatriation plan, not colonization as properly understood. Black people were not empowered to take land and extract wealth for the betterment of blacks living in the United States, which is what colonization implies.2

Quite simply, early colonization efforts were attempts by free blacks to move themselves out of the United States and into a space, preferably with blacks at the helm, to be truly independent. Efforts at these types of settlements were made as early as1804, with a small number of blacks moving to Haiti after the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804). However, the most well-known attempts were made by Paul Cuffee in 1815, as he and other free blacks made one of the earliest recorded attempts to resettle in Africa. Although the maiden trip proved disastrous, it provided an option and opportunity to those blacks willing and able to take advantage. Despite the fact they employed the term colonization, which was common parlance, they saw themselves as emigrants, and in some cases refugees,3 and deployed these terms deliberately. Thus, their primary motivation for entertaining this idea was the potential creation of better lives, much in the way of other immigrant groups. If we consider this moment in light of the fact that blacks, free and enslaved alike, were a stateless people,4 it (p.73) makes clear that blacks have long been steeped in conversations around immigration.

Blacks born in the United States were without a country until the 14th Amendment was enacted in 1868, which conferred upon them some semblance of citizenship. To this point, blacks represented a “nation within a nation,” to borrow from W.E.B. DuBois.5 Consequently, I argue that movement on the part of blacks, domestic and international, represented an act of emigration because any place they went, whether to the northern states of this country or to the shores of Africa, was an attempt to start over and try to achieve some version of a “good life.”6 This is an important intervention because it inserts blacks into the conversation of immigration long before the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Because blacks are thought to be “native,” they are rarely considered to be more than mere commenters on immigration. Additionally, black immigration is considered to be largely the product of the late twentieth century and has an African or Caribbean face (Greer 2013; Rogers 2006). Although this is significant, I want to revisit black Americans’ intimate connections to immigration as a practice of self-remaking where limited options were available. As I highlight throughout, blacks very much saw themselves as sojourners, and this longer view helps us understand black opinion in the contemporary moment. It is necessary then to look at how blacks redefined this movement and its usage within their own communities during this period, and their eventual rejection of this plan.

These community driven efforts were, in some ways, usurped by white organizations that had the same end goal but divergent reasons for pursuing colonization. What this movement often turned into under the auspices of whites was moving free blacks to make life more convenient for whites. As such, I think it vitally important to include the voices of blacks, how they saw themselves, and how they understood American citizenship in the face of a nation unwilling to claim them.

Colonization and the “Negro Problem”

As early as 1815, Paul Cuffee7 took at least 38 free blacks to Sierra Leone,8 before the existence of any U.S. government entity working for the purpose of repatriating blacks to Africa. Concerns about what to do with free blacks appeared in the late eighteenth century and hastened in the wake of the so-called Prosser Rebellion of 1800. The attempted rebellion, spearheaded by Gabriel and over twenty other enslaved persons, petrified (p.74) white Virginians.9 White lives were fair game because black resistance to enslavement did not preclude violence against whites and necessitated cooperation between free and enslaved blacks. Thus, in anticipation of the next rebellion, whites not only cracked down on the already limited liberties of blacks in Richmond, but other states and localities followed suit, hoping to thwart potential revolts. Although these places had not experienced a rebellion, they were being proactive in dissuading black protest. What is more, moments like the Prosser Rebellion and the reactionary responses from whites seemed to draw them closer to the institution of enslavement. It also seemed to confirm their ideas of a black and white difference that made their living in harmony impossible.

Thomas Jefferson, for example, was a supporter of early efforts at colonization, arguing in 1811 that it was “the most desirable measure which could be adopted for gradually drawing off this part of our population” (personal correspondence to John Lynch). This was a particular concern in the South, where blacks in some jurisdictions outnumbered whites.10 Nevertheless, blacks and whites seemed to agree that blacks would be unable to become part of the citizenry, albeit for different reasons.

Early black pro-emigration supporters were not monolithic in their reasoning. Yet, there was a common sensibility that America was too committed to its racism to let black people be free. This was expressed by Abraham Camp, a free man living in the Midwest circa 1818, who said “we love this country and its liberties, if we could share an equal right in them; but our freedom is partial, and we have no hope that it ever will be otherwise here; therefore we had rather be gone;” he goes on to say such a move would “open the door of freedom for us” (Aptheker 1973). What Mr. Camp and others felt was a profound sense of frustration with their lack of autonomy in the United States, despite constitutional musings about the protection of freedom. Although Camp expressed a love of this country, he could not see how he and other blacks would be able to make a life, because whites made it too difficult for blacks to do the most mundane tasks. This was because, as David Walker so forcefully expressed in his Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the United States (1829), whites were unwilling to treat blacks as equals. As Walker states, “Treat us like men, and there is no danger but we will all live in peace and happiness together. For we are not like you, hard hearted, unmerciful, and unforgiving.” For Walker, interracial harmony was achievable if only whites ceased investment in black degradation. However, whites preferred to use colonization as a way to further their investment in racism rather than redress their own racism, (p.75) making the prospect of leaving the United States more of an inevitability than a choice.

The American Colonization Society (ACS) stepped into this breach in 1816 as they saw repatriation of blacks to Africa as a way to deal with the “problem” of free blacks. The group, composed of anti-slavery Quakers and slaveholders, believed the most humane way to prevent rebellion and bring about peace between blacks and whites was to return them to their homeland. They believed if free blacks were not present, it would quell the spirit of rebellion among the enslaved and forestall collaboration between free blacks and those enslaved. Likewise, free blacks would have the opportunity to live without the color prejudice they faced in this country. It was reasoned this was the most beneficial solution for all parties involved.

Still, there were more nefarious reasons why some whites supported colonization. A belief in black criminality was as common then as it is now, and many whites felt that blacks without the benefit of masters would devolve into a permanent class of criminals (Berlin 1975; Fitzhugh 1966; Higginbotham and Jacobs 1992). Because blacks were believed to be susceptible to vice, some whites felt they would become a scourge on the nation and unable to be socialized into American culture. Therefore, sending them back to Africa was ultimately saving whites from having to deal with the inevitable fallout of black freedom. In either case, the ACS was composed of a number of whites who believed blacks’ return to Africa would fix current problems and prevent future skirmishes between the groups. Undoubtedly, it was believed that by exorcising the black population, the system of enslavement by white people would be made safer.

In some ways, Walker’s take on colonization was not too far afield, because whites’ support of colonization seemed purely self-interested. For example, Thomas Jefferson in his Notes on the State of Virginia thought there was too much resentment on the part of blacks for them to coexist with whites. Jefferson’s commitment to scientific racism dictated that blacks would never be able to be educated to citizenship, which made colonization a far more appealing alternative than actually treating black people like human beings. This was because Jefferson and others lacked a fundamental understanding, or at least refused to admit, that white racism was the root cause of black suffering. Blacks did not want to leave the United States, but the push was great. Of course, the sense that the ACS was uninterested in black well-being was not helped by the fact that Henry Clay11 and John Randolph,12 both slaveholders, were founders of the organization. Still, for all of the potential advantages offered by colonization, (p.76) the removal of blacks from the United States was slow to become a mainstream political issue. Aside from resolutions passed by Virginia, Indiana, Georgia, and Tennessee legislatures barring the entry of free blacks, the national political climate did not support mass emigration, particularly among blacks as the targeted group.13

Although there was a real sensibility among whites that something had to be done with free blacks, there was no consensus as to what to do about them. On the one hand, the nation’s founding documents enshrined principles of self-determination; on the other hand, America was invested in enslavement and black dehumanization, as the protection of slavery and the three-fifths clause attest. The ACS was framed as a partial solution to the ongoing conflict created by having free and enslaved blacks existing simultaneously. ACS efforts focused solely on free blacks, as they were defined as the problem. By attempting this strategy, the ACS tried to serve multiple masters on the pro- and anti-slavery fronts (Forbes 1990).14 Thus, some early supporters of ACS framed the organization’s colonization scheme as a type of “moral obligation” to pay penance for the sin of enslavement. Still, other whites simply viewed colonization as the best of all possible outcomes. The primary issue facing pro-colonizing white forces was how to convince free blacks, and whites skeptical about pledging the necessary resources, this was a practical and desirable solution to their mutual problems.

Given the abolitionist sentiment of the period and concerns about the feasibility of this scheme, proponents knew they needed federal support to achieve their ends. Federal government backing meant the ACS would have the tactical and financial means to do the initial surveying and eventual relocations. More importantly, federal government patronage legitimized their efforts. Federal support brought the colonization movement from the fringes of American politics and made it official policy of the U.S. government.15 Undoubtedly, the pedigrees of the ACS’s founding signatories, as well as the common interest in solving the “Negro problem,” made it possible for the ACS to obtain federal funding and the other assistance it needed to make black emigration a reality.

While government support was key to the success of the movement, it meant little if they could not convince free blacks to leave the country voluntarily. Therefore, a significant portion of the ACS’s time was spent figuring out how to convince blacks that leaving the United States would be advantageous. Thus, the ACS was prepared to make blacks an offer they could not refuse. “With the promise of equality, a homestead, and free (p.77) passage,” they reasoned blacks would be more likely to leave (Sherwood 1917). For blacks so inclined, the ACS was correct.16 Blacks who saw Liberia as the only possibility were willing to risk the homeland they knew in an attempt to create a new vision of nationhood that was inclusive of black people. Regardless of the risks of infectious disease, an inhospitable native population, and the general unknown, those who braved the journey did so not necessarily because they had faith in the ACS, but because they were willing to bet on themselves. They gambled on their own industry to provide a measure of progress in their lifetimes in their new country. Of course, many of those who opted for relocation faced many difficulties adjusting to their new environs, but this was nothing compared to living under the yoke of white supremacy. William Burke, an emigrant from Virginia and formerly enslaved by Robert E. Lee, wrote this of his experience in Liberia:

Persons coming to Africa should expect to go through many hardships, such as are common to the first settlement in any new country. I expected it, and was not disappointed or discouraged at anything met with; and so far from being dissatisfied with the country, I bless the Lord that ever my lot was cast in this part of the earth. The Lord has blessed me abundantly since my residence in Africa, for which I feel that I can never be sufficiently thankful.

In a similar fashion, Mrs. Rosabella Burke stated, “I love Africa and would not exchange it for America.” The positivity of these letters rests, in part, on the prosperity the Burkes found in Liberia. Mrs. Burke became an entrepreneur and Mr. Burke a Presbyterian minister, and they were able to become part of the upper echelon of the Liberian emigrant community. Their enthusiasm for Liberia was informed by their ability to reach their full potential. There were not the same barriers to success and social mobility in Liberia as existed in the United States. The push of white supremacy was more powerful for emigrants than the pull of familiarity. Nevertheless, the majority of blacks chose to stay in the United States rather than emigrate. It is estimated that in the 150-year existence of the ACS, only 12,000 blacks were transported to Liberia. Therefore, those who chose to emigrate were atypical of most blacks at the time.

The internal conversation blacks were having vacillated between leaving and staying; the merits of both positions were understood by all, as blacks had to grapple with what it meant to be both free and black. Being free but (p.78) black negated all claims to American citizenship, so in what ways would a free black populace define itself in relationship to the United States? These were unresolved questions, but the colonization debates helped clarify the nature of white supremacy and the ways in which blacks were harmed by America’s continued devotion to its maintenance and practice.

Under the law, there was not much light between free blacks and poor whites. Consequently, the delicate balance that elite whites were able to maintain under enslavement, by selling poor whites the promise of upward mobility, ceased to operate in the same way when dealing with free black people. If blackness was as much about a status as it was about ancestry, then how were free blacks to be treated? Freedom and blackness seemed to be oxymoronic. If black people could ostensibly walk around and occupy a station identical in most dimensions to that of poor whites, then what separated black people from the family of citizenship? Because enslavement would remain in force throughout the nineteenth century, this was not a query that required an answer.17 Still, the specter of a strata of free blacks raised anxieties because they would eventually make demands to be incorporated into the body politic. In fact, citizenship and inclusion remained a part of the black political agenda even as they contemplated colonization.

The Black Counterpublic and the American Colonization Society

In the black public sphere, the issues of colonization and enslavement were not understood as “Negro problems.” Rather, the problem black people had was white supremacy, regardless of whether they decided to live in the United States or abroad. Enslavement, properly understood, was the result of a dogged adherence to a worldview that denigrated non-Europeans as less than human. In this way, the treatment of African people was not surprising given the ways in which their humanity was questioned and outright denied. Consequently, as blacks were considering the options before them in the nineteenth century—to stay or to go—they considered solutions that addressed these deeper concerns.

In January 1817, at a meeting of blacks in Philadelphia, it was determined by attendees that colonization was not a viable solution for the problems facing the black community. Not because the attendees were against Africa, but they felt that if blacks left the United States, they would (p.79) concede to the false belief that America belonged to whites. Blacks had paid for permanent status in the United States with their blood. They wrote:

Whereas our ancestors (not of choice) were the first successful cultivators of the wilds of America, we their descendants feel ourselves entitled to participate in the blessings of her luxuriant soil, which their blood and sweat manured; and that any measure or system of measures, having a tendency to banish us from her bosom, would not only be cruel, but in direct violation of those principles, which have been the boast of this republic (Aptheker 1973).18

In this meeting, attendees frame blacks as “true Americans” because they and their ancestors labored to make America possible. Moreover, because enslavement remained a fact of American life, these convention goers were unwilling to migrate while members of their community remained enslaved. They resolved they would never “separate ourselves voluntarily from the slave population in this country; they are our brethren by the ties of sanguinity, of suffering, and of wrong; and we feel that there is more virtue in suffering privations with them, than fancied advantages for a season” (Aptheker 1973). In this statement, free blacks were demonstrating their solidarity with less fortunate blacks who were suffering under slavery. Although free blacks had their freedom and could enjoy greater possibilities abroad, they were expressing a sense of linked fate with the enslaved. They reasoned that to exit at this point would have simply extended the life of slavery rather than providing them with greater autonomy. As such, free blacks would only have the most illusory gains while enslavement survived, and emigrating would not have made this less true. Some argued that all emigration would establish was a precedent for black removal.

Many blacks saw the ACS as simply the handmaiden of yet another racist project that sought the exclusion of black bodies from the public sphere. Even for those blacks who may have been seduced by the idea of perfect equality, they could not trust the motives of confirmed racists. Or, from a more charitable perspective, they could trust the very same people who supported the forced removal of Native Americans to not provide for their best interests with a plan that looked an awful like forced emigration. As participants of the Third Annual Convention of the Free People of Color resolved, “the life giving principles of the Society [ACS] were totally repugnant to the spirit of true benevolence,” and the “inevitable tendency (p.80) of this doctrine was to strengthen the cruel prejudice of their opponents, to still the heart of sympathy to the appeals of suffering Negroes, and retard their advancement in morals, literature and science, in short, to extinguish the last glimmer of hope and throw an impenetrable gloom over their fears and most reasonable prospects” for freedom and inclusion (Mehlinger 1916). Consequently, it was a matter of principle, not necessarily preference, that caused the majority of free blacks to turn their backs on the ACS and its goals.

This was not a decision easily made; blacks had dialogues throughout the period dedicated to debating the merits of colonization. Some of the earliest meetings of free blacks were held in Philadelphia, home of many independent black organizations like churches, newspapers, and benevolent societies. Representatives met to hear proposals for emigration to other parts of the world, mainly Canada. The impetus for these early meetings was the increasing hostility of state legislatures to free black settlers, as well as the everyday incursions against their dignity. Free blacks were not only facing restrictions on their movements in the wake of slave revolts, but throughout the 1830s and 1840s some states, like Indiana, refused to allow blacks to enter the state at all. This was shocking, because Indiana was never a slave state. Still, the black presence was defined as an incursion that needed to be beaten back. Where they were not outright banned, other states like Ohio required free blacks to register and pay a tax to reside in the state. This was intolerable, and the Ohio delegation of free blacks was the most in favor of blacks relocating to Canada to escape the confines of American race relations. For all of its anti-emigration fervor, the free blacks seemed to be supportive of black Ohioans as well as others who sought refuge elsewhere. Yet, they were opposed to emigration as a matter of national policy to address race relations.

Still, emigration was something to consider given the racial climate of the day. In September 1830, the first of several Negro conventions was convened in Philadelphia for the purpose of discussing the problems facing blacks and their possible remedies. Hosting delegates from the mid-Atlantic and greater Northeast region, a chief concern was the issue of colonization. The ACS had been founded in the previous decade, and blacks, both pro- and anti-emigration, had yet to formulate an official response to the policy on behalf of the larger community.

As reported by the Anglo-African “in 1829–30, the colored people of the free States were much excited on the subject of emigration: there had been an emigration to Hayti [sic], and also to Canada, and some had been (p.81) driven to Liberia by the severe laws and brutal conduct of the fermenters of colonization in Virginia and Maryland. In some districts of these States, the disguised whites would enter the houses of the free colored men at night, and take them out and give them from 30 to 50 lashes, to get them to consent to go to Liberia” (Aptheker 1973). Given the racial environment, this meeting was handled with a great deal of urgency. Free blacks wanted some relief from the ongoing stream of abuses against them; therefore, bondsmen and emigration had to at least be considered.

At this Philadelphia convention, emigration to Canada was the primary issue. In a time where there seemed no safe place for blacks, Canada’s offer of sanctuary was taken seriously. By the conclusion of the meeting, there was a great deal of support for emigration to Canada. Conventioneers stated that “every man whose sable skin divests him of his freedom, and impairs his usefulness in this country,” should seek a home up North (Hazard 1830: 143). They reasoned Canada was more convenient for organizing purposes given its proximity to the United States; it was already “civilized,” and Canadians were open to blacks. Although pro-Canada, the same convention goers were ardently anti-ACS. They argued that the ACS’s true purpose was “white interests,” which they seemed to define broadly as a commitment to anti-black prejudice. In considering Canada, blacks were not professing sympathy with the ACS mission but were thinking about their own survival. They had been cast out of several states, like Ohio, and the rest of the country was not doing much to make blacks feel like stakeholders in the nation. For those on the fence about emigration, Canada was seen as the most preferable option for a short-term move. Relocating there made it possible to observe what was happening at home and held out the hope for relocation back in the United States once the institution of enslavement was abolished. In either case, blacks on both sides of the debate felt very strongly they were doing what was in the best interests of their community.

Although some blacks did move to Canada, the spirit of support for emigration dissipated in subsequent conventions. Not only had prominent blacks like Frederick Douglass, Absalom Jones, and Richard Allen come out squarely against emigration, it was unclear what these other countries would offer blacks (Garrison 1832). Although they promised unfettered access to the bounties of Africa, blacks were unsure this would actually come to pass. Most blacks had no direct linkages to Africa beyond the psychic. Most importantly, they questioned how they would be independent if they relied on the financial resources of white patrons. For (p.82) those few blacks who wanted to go, many reasoned they would do so on their own dime. They did not want a handout from whites regardless of their stated intentions. Accepting money from whites to return to Africa seemed like a bribe and implied they could be bought, which was a bit too close to replicating the conditions of slavery they were trying to escape.19

It is in this vein that blacks made their most consistent and persuasive anti-emigration argument: to leave the United States would be forfeiting their contributions to the development of this nation. Although remuneration would never come to them, if they simply left it would be as if they never existed in the first place. Therefore, blacks were going to be steadfast in their commitment to staying in the country and eradicating slavery, thereby denying whites this most primordial claim: that it was whites who built the country. Consequently, the colonization movement never really captured the imaginations of a majority of blacks.

Still, by engaging the issue of emigration, blacks were able to frame colonization in such a way as to bring America’s failures to light while also showing their nebulous position with respect to America. Although some blacks did genuinely believe emigration to be a viable alternative to their continued oppression, these conversations drew attention to the desperate situation facing blacks because of the practice of white supremacy, which was foundational to the United States. Thus, much of the dialogue blacks had about emigration was about their being scapegoated as dangers to domestic tranquility, their statelessness, and being asked to remove themselves from the country rather than having whites reform their behaviors.

Moreover, because ACS’s sole focus was free black emigration, the ACS did not work on securing manumissions for the enslaved or abolition of enslavement for most of their existence, which did little to evoke black faith in the organization (Burin 2005; Forbes 1990). For black opponents of emigration, to support the ACS plan was tantamount to enabling the continuation of slavery. By defining (free) blacks as the problem and removing them from the country, slavery would remain intact because there would no longer be a direct confrontation to the peculiar institution and fewer supporters to offer refuge to fleeing slaves should they escape. Those in the ACS missed this crucial distinction and would ultimately find their plan to be a failure, not because there was no sympathy for their cause but because in this instance, principle trumped self-interest.

(p.83) Emigration and Elevation

Although black critiques of emigration were swift and bold, there were some who believed emigration was a viable solution. Henry Highland Garnet, Martin Delany, David Walker, William Wells Brown, and many others encouraged blacks to consider the possibilities of leaving the United States to secure their futures. In 1852, Delany published The Condition, Elevation, Emigration and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States. In this text, Delany argues many of the same points as his anti-emigration brethren. Namely, the ACS is a cover for racists and is not motivated by an interest in the social ascendance of blacks, but rather the base desires of slaveholders to continue their degradation of blacks. He designates “the American Colonization Society as one of the most arrant enemies of the colored man, ever seeking to discomfit him. . . . We believe it to be anti-Christian in its character, and misanthropic in its pretended sympathies” (Brotz 1991: 47). Because of their outright refusal to help blacks unless they self-deported to Africa, the ACS could not purport to care about black interests. Indeed, Delany felt the ACS, with its continued focus on black removal, was trying to extricate blacks from their birthright as the true makers of America.

Despite his misgivings about the aims of the ACS, Delany understood the situation of blacks in the United States was too precarious for free blacks to remain. This sensibility was furthered by the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. The act, part of the Compromise of 1850 between southern slave states and northern non-slave states, allowed for the capture and extradition of escaped blacks back to their owners. Although this was framed as a simple, lawful return of property, free blacks like Delany knew this was an extremely dangerous statute, because without freedom papers, blacks had no way of proving their status as free people. Even though the line between free and slave was narrow, Delany reasoned this law made it thinner still. To his mind, the Fugitive Slave Act made free blacks vulnerable to unscrupulous slave catchers who were known to kidnap and sell blacks, irrespective of status, down river. Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir 12 Years a Slave brought more attention to this practice, but he was far from the only free black person who met this fate. Deeper still, the North offered little to no protection for blacks because the region was not invested in the well-being of black people. Although the mythical North promised freedom, it offered little more in the way of (p.84) security for the well-being of black people. Northern racism was no less vitriolic or exclusionary (Melish 1999; Tate 1998).

Therefore, Delany and other blacks set their sights on relocation for safety reasons. However, it is interesting that Delany was less sanguine about the ACS’s proposed return of blacks to the colony of Liberia. Liberia was billed as a free black nation, but Delany stated frankly what all others knew—Liberia was a colony of the United States, not a free country. Although Delany wanted there to be an opportunity for the “civilization and enlightenment of Africa,” he did not see this future in Liberia because “it originated in a deep laid scheme of the slaveholders of this country to exterminate the free colored of the American continent.” Because Liberia depended on the United States for survival, Delany felt Liberia was “but a poor miserable mockery—a burlesque on a government” (Brotz 1991: 78). Because Liberia was being propped up by American slaveholding interests, he reasoned this was not a place for free black people because Liberians would be at the beck and call of American policymakers. Consequently, freedom would never be found in Liberia.

However, the world was bigger than Africa and, according to Delany, there was a place for black people. Like the citizens who attended the Philadelphia convention in 1831, Delany felt the Americas were among the most viable places to begin looking for relocation opportunities. Either south to Mexico or north to Canada, Delany argued, would be useful because they were beyond the jurisdiction of the United States and could not be pressed into slavery. Moreover, these countries were proximate enough that those escaping enslavement could seek freedom relatively close by. As he stated, “fly to the Canadas, as well the number of the twenty-five thousand already there,” until a more suitable place could be found (Brotz 1991: 80). In Canada there would be a ready community, and it was easier to locate there than some place across the ocean. Further, the proximity of Canada and Mexico allowed free blacks to continue their abolition activism with greater effect. In Mexico there was a sizable population of African-descended people, and while the weather in Mexico may have been preferable to Canada, the freedom was the same and that was the object. Of course, there were more possibilities, but what Delany and others were more concerned with was that whatever the locale, there should be room for black people of all positions. Thus, it was not enough to simply leave America—the aim was to move toward opportunity for upward group development educationally, socially, economically, and politically. Wherever (p.85) that place was, it had to be financed and operated by blacks for blacks. That place was not the United States.

Delany was not alone in his sentiments regarding black emigration. James T. Holly, a noted clergyman who eventually settled in Haiti, had long been involved in the emigration movement by the time he relocated to Haiti in 1861. Prior to his relocation, Holly spent time in Canada, and from there he took black Americans and Canadians with him to Haiti, where he became a citizen. For Holly, Haiti’s distinction as the first black republic demonstrated black peoples’ capacity for self-government, which had not been allowed to flourish under white rule. Haiti was the most obvious place for blacks to locate if they wanted to experience freedom and the full realization of their talents, because the Haitian people had a history of resistance, nation building, and were independent of white control.

Haiti was distinguished because the revolution was a movement of enslaved people who fought for their right to self-determination and that of other blacks. Because of Haitian efforts, blacks had a place where they could see a realized national project helmed by blacks—an opportunity unavailable on the continent of Africa because of colonization. Therefore Haiti, with a stable government, industry, and independence, presented blacks with an opportunity for self-improvement and an obligation for group advancement. As Holly states, “rather than to indolently remain here, asking for political rights,” blacks should seek Haiti, which he felt “will solve all question respecting the Negro, whether they be those of slavery, prejudice or proscription” (Brotz 1991: 170). Even if blacks received rights in the United States, Holly believed these were of little value because blacks were still viewed as inferior beings by the majority of Americans. If blacks wanted to be treated as equally human, they needed to relocate to a space where that proposition was a given, not a debate. The only choice was Haiti, where blacks occupied all statuses in society, and the reign of white supremacy had been ejected.

For Delany, Crummell, Holly, and later Marcus Garvey, colonization to Africa was not just an opportunity for self-enrichment but an obligation to their “benighted brethren” who were not yet Christianized. Going back to Africa would allow blacks to fulfill their desires for office holding and social enrichment, but would also fulfill their Christian duty of spreading the gospel to nonbelievers. In this way, Africa was the fulfillment of a terrestrial and spiritual destiny. Therefore, Africa was instrumental to the material and spiritual progress of black Americans. However, for all their (p.86) philosophizing about Africa, it was not as if pro-colonizing forces did not feel the pull of America. Garnet said this of his home country in 1848:

America is my home, my country, and I have no other. I love whatever good there may be in her institutions. I hate her sins. I loathe her slavery, and I pray Heaven that ere long she may wash away her guilt in tears of repentance. I love the green-hills which my eyes first beheld in my infancy. I love every inch of soil which my feet pressed in my youth, and I mourn because the accursed shade of slavery rests upon it. I love my country’s flag, and I hope that soon it will be cleansed of its stains, and be hailed by all nations as the emblem of freedom and independence (Brotz 1991: 202).

However, that day was much too far off for Garnet and others who would pursue their emigrant dreams under the auspices of the African Civilization Society (the Society). Founded in 1858, with Garnet as its first president, the Society viewed itself as significantly different from the ACS on a few different fronts. For starters, this was an organization that counted blacks among its founders. Garnet, like the other members, believed if black people were going to be in charge of their own destiny, they had to be the main drivers of the project. As Society members stated, the “ulterior objects in encouraging emigration shall be—Self-Reliance and Self-Government, on the principle of an African Nationality, the African race being the ruling element of the nation, controlling and directing their own affairs” (Brotz 1991: 194). This meant the role of whites was defined as “aiders and assistants,” but this was going to be a black-led movement leading to a black-led nation. More importantly, in Article II of the constitution for the Society, the chief aim of this organization was defined as “the civilization and Christianization of Africa, and the descendants of African ancestors in any portion of the earth, wherever dispersed” (Brotz 1991: 191). This is significant because although the Society also had the goal of teaching cotton cultivation to the continent, African souls were its first priority. In fact, Crummell (1860) stated that black emigration to Africa was critical because of the lack of a Christian presence on the continent, as in the Caribbean and other parts of the African diaspora. The destruction of slavery was not mentioned until Article III of the organization’s founding constitution.

The programmatic goals of the Society,20 while parochial, patriarchal, and problematic, were an attempt to develop salvation as well as industry (p.87) on the continent independent of slave labor. Most importantly, the Africa Civilization Society was not interested in the forced removal of blacks for the appeasement and comfort of whites. Garnet believed in emigration as the primary way for blacks to achieve the agency they needed and desired. Only a short time after the founding of the Society, its constitution was amended to bring more clarity to the organization’s mission.

In revisiting the Society’s mission, it was decided the Society would not encourage the general emigration of black people. Rather, it was committed to “aid only such persons as may be practically qualified and suited to promote the development of Christianity, morality, education, mechanical arts, agriculture, commerce, and general improvement” (Brotz 1991: 194). This was in keeping with the aims of the Society as primarily a proselytizing organization, but it was also elitist. Until this time, proponents of emigration had encouraged blacks to leave the United States with promises of the possibility for becoming better selves without the hindrance of race. Yet, by the 1861 adoption of these supplemental clauses it was clear that the notion of progress would and should be limited to the “carefully selected and well recommended,” which seemed to leave out the majority of free blacks who were particularly in need of the possibilities emigration would bring. As such, emigration had been redefined and reimagined by the Society as the province of skilled blacks and not those who would be seeking literacy and other education after freedom.

Emigration and Framing Black “Americanness”

Although scholars may disagree about the level of altruism of the ACS and the Society, blacks of the time were far less measured in their critiques of these organizations, particularly the ACS. Blacks viewed the ACS as racist, complicit in the maintenance of enslavement and white supremacy. Specifically, blacks made several important claims about ACS that caused a majority of them to refuse the overtures of this group (Mehlinger 1916).

As stated previously, the chief complaint from blacks was the ACS’s concern for preserving white dominance by the removal of free blacks. For many blacks, the idea that whites were genuinely concerned with their well-being was hard to accept. Not to say white allies did not exist, but the idea that southern planters would support any movement that would help them achieve independence and a better quality of life was doubtful (Burin 2005). After all, it would be foolhardy to trust the motives of those who (p.88) did not believe black people were human beings and wanted to maintain their abjection at home while claiming to support their freedom abroad. In the case of the ACS, blacks felt the organization was talking out of both sides of its mouth. ACS members wanted blacks to believe its aims of relocating them were in their best interest, but they were in league with the very same people who were the cause of black suffering. Because of these connections, the ACS had little credibility with free blacks. Although some blacks did believe they would be better off should they repatriate to Africa, it escaped few of them how contradictory it was to work toward their interests with the very same people who usurped their freedom.

By avoiding the issue of enslavement, the ACS tacitly supported the foundation of white supremacy. Blacks critical of the ACS felt the organization was using emigration as a vehicle to foster white solidarity (Garrison 1832; Mehlinger 1916). By working with white racists, their sympathizers, and making the displacement of free blacks their core mission, the ACS effectively told blacks their suffering was their responsibility. If they would simply move, their lives would improve. It was not whites that needed to change; rather, it was black existence that needed to be changed. The basic message was that if not for black people, white people would behave.

This opposition to emigration by free blacks also stymied the efforts of the Society. Although the Society was a black-run organization that did not subscribe to the notion of forced removal, their steadfast commitment to leaving the United States raised the cockles of many blacks, none more prominent than Frederick Douglass. The noted abolitionist, statesman, author, and former slave was unwavering in his opposition to the proposals of the ACS and the Society. For Garnet, president of the Society, Douglass had particular venom as Garnet publicly suggested that Douglass had not been clear in his opposition to colonization and, in fact, could offer no reason to oppose the scheme. In some of his most plainspoken writing, Douglass proffers multiple reasons for his objection to the entire idea of colonization.

It is important to note that Douglass did not oppose one’s individual choice to emigrate. For Douglass, it was a matter of free will. If some blacks wanted to go to Africa, he was unopposed, but he felt this expression of free will could not be framed as an imperative or obligation of all black people. He also thought the Christianization and civilization of African people was a worthy goal, and this was not a point of contention for Douglass and men like Garnet and Delany. Furthermore, Douglass chafed at the idea that “Africa, not America, is the Negro’s true home” (p.89) (Brotz 1991: 264). For Douglass (1969), the belief that blacks were not “real Americans,” shared by blacks and whites, was dangerous and sustained by emigration schemes because it supported the same ideas that led to black denigration and exclusion from the body politic. If it was believed that blacks in America were simply displaced Africans, then they had no claims to citizenship, rights, or respect. Despite the anti-black, pro-slavery sentiment of the time, there was reason to be optimistic the United States could change and turn away from the institution of slavery if all efforts, black and white, were directed against this institution.

Douglass felt strongly by conceding that America held no possibilities for blacks, it allowed bigotry to flourish. Rather than challenging America to live up to its promise of equality, sending blacks to Africa simply let whites off the hook and did not force them to confront black humanity. In some ways, Douglass presented emigration as a distraction from the real issue which, to his mind, was the abolition of slavery. America was not black people’s problem. Instead, a commitment to an institution that depended on the dehumanization and usurpation of the agency of another was the problem.

By simply leaving enslavement untouched, emigrationists were not going to have a better chance of defeating the institution in Africa. In his skepticism, he writes there is “no reason to believe that any one man in Africa can do more for the abolition of that trade, while living in Africa, than while living in America” (Brotz 1991: 265). According to Douglass, the non-Christian slave traders of West Africa were no more willing to end their centuries-long participation in enslavement than those in the United States. He felt the emigrationists would be less successful in Africa at defeating slavery because there was already a strong abolitionist movement here, and more institutional arrangements that supported the ending of the institution. In the end, for Douglass, colonization was a foolhardy scheme that duped black people into believing their lives would be easy anywhere else, and it capitulated too much to racism. For opponents of colonization, the scheme was a failure because it rested on the idea that blacks were not American. Blacks were American by birth, and leaving this country would not change that fact. The only thing emigration would accomplish is letting the racists and the bigots win by allowing them to continue in their belief and practice that America was a white man’s country.

Nevertheless, one of the most damning charges against emigration was made by pro-colonization supporter President Abraham Lincoln. Soon to be known as the “Great Emancipator” because of his signing of (p.90) the Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862, in the month before this order’s passage Lincoln was still working out some way for blacks to be sent “back to Africa.” In the midst of the Civil War, President Lincoln argued to a committee of free blacks, headed by Edward M. Thomas, that theirs was a mutual suffering. Blacks suffered because whites would never see them as their equals, and whites suffered because a free black presence was too much to bear. This is how Lincoln begins his conversation to a group of heretofore unconvinced blacks committed to remaining in the United States. Although Lincoln attempts to draw parallels between the white and black experiences, he is very clear in his belief and support of the notion that the United States is a white man’s country. In his attempt to reason with blacks, he argues that “on this broad continent, not a single race of your race is made the equal of a single man of ours” (Fredrickson 1975: 55). In short, free blacks could not hope to attain equality with whites regardless of their status. For Lincoln, the strife of the nation was the result of slavery and the presence of black people.

Lincoln thought the problem of black resettlement was about their selfish desire to be close to whites. If free blacks simply would see that “his comfort would be advanced by it [colonization],” they would cease wanting to live in the United States. Because whites did not wish to be discomfited by the presence of blacks, Lincoln reasoned that if some number of them started to leave the country, this would encourage whites to consider ending enslavement. He says:

But you ought to do something to help those who are not so fortunate as yourselves. There is an unwillingness on the part of our [white] people, harsh as it may be, for you free colored people to remain with us. Now, if you could give a start to white people, you would open wide a door for many to be made free. . . . If intelligent colored men, such as are before me, would move in this matter, much might be accomplished. It is exceedingly important that we have men at the beginning capable of thinking as white men, and not those who have been systematically oppressed.

Lincoln suggests that rational blacks would see that if they simply offered a good faith gesture to whites by leaving the country, then whites would be less reluctant to give up enslavement as a practice. Yet, Lincoln overlooked the economic and psychic imperatives of remaining invested in the system of enslavement. Moreover, Lincoln’s claim that blacks would gain far more (p.91) from leaving than they would lose if they stayed rested on the assumption that blacks could not hope for a better future as long as they remained in proximity to whites. In short, for Lincoln white supremacy was not the problem, blacks were, because they disrupted whites’ ability to deny their equality.

For Lincoln, the disruptive presence blacks presented far outweighed any potential gains to be had by their continued presence in the United States. Although he hoped blacks would leave, he obviously had not taken into consideration how essential blacks were to the functioning of the United States. Not only were blacks an essential part of the labor force, they were a significant part of white identity formation. The black presence was necessary for the functioning of an effective white supremacist system. If blacks were suddenly deported to Liberia or Central America, as Lincoln proposed, how would white identity function? The visibility of blackness, as marked by physical differences, gave whiteness a raison d’etre (Mullen 1994). If blacks were suddenly gone, not only would the economic life of the nation be upset but the substance of a white identity.

To be identified as racially white carried with it a presumption of autonomy and freedom and gave all whites at least partial membership in the polity. Even though the revision of citizenship requirements would expand to include poor whites at the conclusion of slavery, white privilege was used as an inducement to forge unity among upper and lower class whites. Prior to the introduction of grandfather clauses and the like, poor white men were not guaranteed the right to vote because they were not property owners; they were seen as not being real stakeholders in the American enterprise. It was believed that a full citizen had to have material possessions to have a stake in the nation-state. It was reasoned that the propertied classes provided funds to direct local, state, and national projects, and thus had a better sense of the general will. They were the leadership class; these were the men who were the most learned and able to discern the complexities of policy, to sort out what was the greater good. This paternalism meant that those without the full possession of the self in terms of property, autonomy, and the other markers of the ideal citizen were subject to the whims of this property-owning class. Consequently, the kind of “blanket whiteness” that covers all people with white skins is a modern invention. The type of liberated whiteness we are familiar with today is the result of enslavement, immigration, and the abolition of the institution of slavery. This is not to suggest these are the only causes for the development and evolution of whiteness, as Jacobson (2001) aptly (p.92) demonstrates. Nevertheless, when blacks were enslaved, lesser whites had a way to discern their place in the American racial hierarchy. They were better than the enslaved, even if they had no status to show for it (Roediger 1999). However, this sensibility of being barely better-than was threatened as slavery waned because without slavery, who were poor whites?

Therefore, to be white was already to be valued by the republic. It was unclear what freedom meant for blacks, who were certainly not citizens and were not even thought of as entirely human. Consequently, the specter of free blacks caused a real crisis for whites, because if black did not automatically equal slave, then what separated white from back? The result was a type of juridical and emotional limbo for free blacks, who were noncitizens of the nation but expected to perform the duties of citizens (i.e., paying taxes) without any of the guarantees and protections of citizens. This partially explains the disconnect between emigrants and those who remained in the United States. Although proponents and opponents of colonization could agree the living conditions of blacks in America were undesirable at best, they differed significantly as to the cause. More importantly, they disagreed about what they saw as the possibility for America to reform itself into a racially inclusive nation.


What this chapter seeks to demonstrate is that this moment referred to as colonization be reconsidered as a moment of em/immigration for blacks. The opinions of black America would vacillate greatly on the question of whether they should leave or stay in the United States. Where one ended up in that conversation largely depended on whether one believed the United States was fundamentally a racist country, or if there was room for blacks to become part of the founding vision of the nation that had yet to be fulfilled. For those who believed the United States was closed to demands for black inclusion, emigration seemed like a viable alternative. However, for those who were ethically opposed to emigration, there was some acknowledgment that true freedom may prove elusive in an American context.

The language of “colonization” belies the fact that this was essentially a forced removal of blacks—not through violence but by creating an environment so hostile and inhospitable that blacks would prefer leaving the country rather than continue to stay. Although the ACS necessarily did not use violence, their flaccid response to the institution of slavery made them (p.93) untrustworthy partners in the repatriation of blacks to Africa. If neither white supremacy nor enslavement were going to be challenged, blacks could not safely rely on the goodwill of whites for their safe resettlement abroad, when whites were so profoundly misguided at the outset of the process.

Consequently, although emigration represented a proactive, rational response to the dangerous conditions posed by continued residence in the United States, the ties of racial fealty proved the deciding factor. This is significant because although the majority of blacks had decided against emigration, the issue became a way for blacks to air their grievances. Acknowledging blacks both as em/immigrants and as a community with a long-standing vested interest in the question of immigration firmly places American blacks as more than observers within historical and contemporary conversations around immigration.

As such, blacks placed themselves directly in the discourse surrounding immigration. By discursively positioning themselves as immigrants within, blacks were not eschewing American identity per se. Rather, they were attempting to highlight American hypocrisy with respect to them. Thus, emancipation was only the first step in black freedom. For proponents of emigration, a full exodus of the black population from the United States was the next step toward full freedom.

As Martin R. Delany21 states in his famous pamphlet The Political Destiny of the Colored Race on the American Continent, “the color of the blacks is a badge of degradation, acknowledged by statute, organic law, and the common consent of the people” (1854: 340). Thus there was no way to remove the mark of race, because this color coding was too ingrained in white American minds. Therefore, if blacks wanted to be free, Delany states that black attentions should “be turned in a direction toward those places where the black and colored man comprise, by population, and constitute by necessity of numbers the ruling element of the body politic,” because it is only then that blacks could be recognized as equals. This would never be the case in the United States. Thus, continuing to stay in the United States, or any other majority white country, was a fool’s errand because whites had sought the destruction of nonwhite people the world over.

In the early period of abolition beginning in the early nineteenth century, blacks were more than passive recipients of the organizing efforts of whites. They were active as abolitionists. Free blacks saw their fates inextricably linked to those of their enslaved brethren because of the (p.94) color prejudice engendered by white supremacy; of course, asserting that freedom became especially difficult as the country increasingly stymied black efforts through legal and extralegal means. As a result, free blacks often felt as claustrophobic as those enslaved because they were threatened with (re)enslavement, and their freedom of movement became increasingly curtailed—not to mention the continual violations of their most basic human rights and their lack of inclusion in the citizenry despite their birth in this country. Consequently, many blacks saw themselves as outsiders within, and many felt they needed to leave this place to secure some type of life for themselves and their loved ones. Whether it was free blacks leaving the slave South, or the strictures of the relatively freer North, blacks saw themselves as emigrants (from the South) and immigrants (to other parts of the world).

As members of a globally oppressed group, blacks knew there were few spaces that would welcome their presence and even fewer locales that would allow them to be full participants. However, supporters of colonization were undeterred, because whether it was Haiti, Canada, or the continent of Africa, it had to be preferable to the racial limbo in which they existed. Thus, the first immigrants that blacks acknowledged and were concerned with were themselves.

This chapter pulls the lens back on the immigration debates in black America by highlighting the many internal dialogues black communities were having in this country regarding emigration. From the early nineteenth century through the beginning of the Civil War, and again in the twentieth century, black America entertained a number of possibilities including emigration that would lead to their elevation. Although emigration was not heavily supported in black communities, I do not read colonization as a failed project. Rather, I view these early emigration conversations as demonstrating blacks’ ambivalence about this issue, which helps to frame the major argument of this text. That is, blacks have always viewed immigration as a major concern for their group. Although this has not necessarily come in the form of advocacy for or against a given immigration policy, what I want to show is that blacks have thought long and hard about the issue, and their sensibilities about immigration are informed by what immigration will mean for the sociopolitical advancement of their group. In this chapter in particular, what I demonstrate is that blacks see themselves as (internal) immigrants because they had to leave their homeland, generally the southern region of the country, to live relatively more freely. Moreover, this movement did not necessarily stop with moving to (p.95) the mythical North, but for some included moving abroad. Although immigration in the form of repatriation to the continent of Africa was much discussed, it demonstrates the degree of conflict American-born blacks felt about their continuing presence in this country, particularly as the majority of blacks remained in bondage and the United States was thoroughly committed to the continuance of the institution. By examining the historical record, it is apparent blacks were unsettled about what to do with respect to immigration, primarily because white supremacy was not being directly confronted.

Using interview data, the next chapter highlights the “everyday talk” of blacks about immigration. In this series of interviews, it becomes clear that blacks use the past to understand their present circumstances. Through the particularities of their circumstances, I am able to show that blacks use immigration as a way to critique their systematic exclusion from the body politic. This offers a more nuanced analysis of black public opinion that is often characterized as being in opposition to immigration.


(1.) This is not to suggest a majority of free blacks lived in the North. Free blacks, like the enslaved, lived primarily in the South. Still, they often lived in larger cities away from rural areas where they may have been enslaved. As Ira Berlin notes in Slaves without Masters (1975), women composed the majority of free blacks in (p.197) the South because men had a tendency to leave the region. Moreover, free blacks tended to be older than the enslaved population because they may have had to accrue the funds to buy their freedom, or their owners manumitted them when they became less valuable. Please consult Berlin for a more detailed discussion of the free black population.

(2.) Colonization has typically been used to refer to the process of inhabiting other lands for the purposes of empire building. In the case of blacks it was more akin to setting up an expatriate community, which is not typically done for the purposes of expanding national territories and influence.

(3.) The term refugee is typically used to refer to those persons who have fled their country because of conflict or various forms of persecution. An internally displaced person is similar, with the important distinction of not having crossed an international boundary. Legalities aside, I employ the terms that blacks used to describe their status during this period.

(4.) According to the United Nations, a stateless person is one without nationality or citizenship. Blacks prior to 1868 were de jure stateless people. They were essentially unclaimed by the United States as citizens; in fact, the primary legal definition for black people until this point was that of property. Thus, because of their primary status as enslaved—or at least that had been the beginning of their narrative in what would become the United States—they struggled with identifying their place in the American body politic because the country was so thoroughly bifurcated by color as slave (read as racially black) and free (read as racially white). Consequently, because race had become shorthand for who belonged and who did not, being a free black person did not confer citizenship. Black non-citizenship was affirmed by the Supreme Court decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857). This is not to suggest that this was a settled matter, because the fact the Supreme Court entertained a suit filed by a black person can be read as acknowledgment that blacks were in some small measure a part of the American landscape, even though the standing of Dred Scott to bring the case was at issue. Nevertheless, the fact that black citizenship had to be conferred by Constitutional amendment, despite the colorblind language employed in the Constitution, suggests blacks were not citizens as properly understood by the Founders, as highlighted by Justice Taney in his decision. If nothing else, these seeming contradictions provide limited evidence of the uncertainty regarding blacks and their status as members of the republic. For a more detailed discussion of stateless persons, refer to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (http://www.unhcr.org/4cb2fe326.html).

(5.) In 1934, as he resigned from the NAACP, DuBois delivered a speech entitled “A Negro Nation within a Nation,” wherein he reasoned that because of the indefatigable nature of white supremacy, integration would be thwarted at every turn. Because of the social segregation, blacks represented a quasi-nation within the United States because they had their own religious, educational, and economic (p.198) institutions. Therefore, blacks had to take care to nurture these institutions and use their significant educational and financial resources for the betterment of their own communities, because the majority of whites were invested in maintaining black exclusion from the public sphere. Black communities had to be invested in and focused on their own survival, and perhaps turn away from their integrationist hopes in the moment in favor of strengthening the black community.

(6.) The term emigration is usually employed when talking about the moves made on the part of black Americans because their movements were part of an exodus; essentially, they were moving out of the country. Immigration is employed to talk about people moving into a new homeland. The term chosen is largely about perspective: because of the liminal space occupied by blacks, they were both emigrants and immigrants at different points in time. Moreover, where they use the term emigrant I have preserved that usage.

(7.) Paul Cuffee was a wealthy, free man from Massachusetts. A devout Quaker of Ghanaian origin, Cuffee left Philadelphia in 1810 on an expedition to present-day Sierra Leone to investigate the possibility of black resettlement in the country. Although he remained committed to emigration, he worked outside the auspices of organizations like the ACS because of the endemic racism of these groups. For a more detailed discussion of Paul Cuffee and his work, see Lamont D. Thomas (1988), Paul Cuffee: Black Entrepreneur and Pan Africanist (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press).

(8.) In 1787 the British established a settlement in Sierra Leone, West Africa, for black Loyalists who had to leave the colonies at the conclusion of the American Revolution.

(9.) Gabriel, popularly referred to as Gabriel Prosser, was a skilled blacksmith hired out by his master. Historian Doug Egerton posits that Gabriel was probably inspired, in part, by the Haitian Revolution (1791), which established Haiti as the first independent black republic in the western hemisphere. This rebellion was supposed to take place in Richmond with the main aim of negotiating an end to slavery in the state of Virginia. The rebellion was thwarted as other enslaved persons told of the plan. Although the rebellion did not occur, the state subsequently more carefully tracked the movements of enslaved persons and was less hospitable to free blacks. In 1806, the state of Virginia passed a law requiring free blacks manumitted on or after May 1, 1806, to leave the state within a year or risk (re)enslavement; those who wished to stay in Virginia had to petition the state government for permission. In many ways, this law turned blacks into forced immigrants because the only alternative was voluntary enslavement (Maris-Wolf 2015). Conditions for blacks would only worsen in 1831 after Nat Turner’s Rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia. At this time, the state of Virginia and other southern states prohibited blacks from gathering for religious purposes without white supervision, banned all manner of education and literacy, and restricted black gun ownership.

(10.) Because of the demand for free labor, the black populations of South Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, and Mississippi outnumbered whites. For extensive maps of the slave population, see the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture’s project on Black Migration (http://www.inmotionaame.org/gallery/?migration=3&topic=7&type=map).

(11.) Henry Clay served the state of Kentucky as senator and representative in the U.S. Congress. He is best known for negotiating several compromises around the issue of slavery—most notably the Missouri Compromise (1820) and the Compromise of 1850, which effectively quelled sectional conflicts by allowing the institution of slavery to remain unchallenged.

(12.) Randolph was a U.S. congressman from Virginia who defended the institution of enslavement because his livelihood depended on the free labor of Africans. Upon his death, those he enslaved were manumitted and resettled in Ohio.

(13.) All of these states had passed or attempted to pass resolutions barring the settlement of free blacks within their borders. Pennsylvania also attempted such legislation in 1813.

(14.) Nevertheless, the ACS was founded with the idea of improving race relations by supporting the removal of blacks and sending them to Sierra Leone and Liberia. The founding of the society brought together a number of strange bedfellows. Abolitionist Quakers and members of the slave-owning elite formed the ACS with the belief that blacks’ chances for advancement would be better if they existed in a society where their skin color was not a barrier to progress. While both groups supported the move, they did so for varied reasons. Those with abolitionist leanings did not see color prejudice receding and reasoned blacks would be better off in the land of their origin. They viewed sending blacks to Africa as a form of penance for the destruction slavery had caused the continent of Africa. Moreover, those blacks who were repatriated would be able to “civilize” their African counterparts via Christianity and education. A byproduct of Africa’s development would be an end to the slave trade. If slaveholders knew they could free their property and send them away, they could feel more secure and thus be more inclined to manumit slaves. The manumitted would then go to Africa and help her develop her gifts. They reasoned that if the continent were adequately developed, she would have more to offer the world than her human cargo. Slaveholders were concerned that the presence of free blacks would increase the chance of rebellion, which is why some supported the ACS. Some believed if blacks remained anywhere in the United States they might make “common cause with the Indians and border nations, and furnish an asylum for fugitives and runaway slaves” (Sherwood 1917: 222). Thus, the importance of disconnecting free blacks from their enslaved counterparts outweighed the costs associated with their removal and relocation. The removal of free blacks from the United States was the ultimate goal of the ACS, and this was their chief concern. Their message was tailored to fit whatever region they were trying to (p.200) persuade to join their cause. This helped the ACS gain traction in white circles, but they were unable to convince a majority of blacks to buy into their ideas. Blacks would not separate the ACS’s goals from its myriad messages—all of which portrayed blacks as the source of the trouble. For a more detailed discussion see Forbes (1990: 210–223) and Sherwood (1917: 209–228).

(15.) In 1819, the federal government pledged $100,000 to the ACS. The first ship to Liberia left in 1820 and transported two whites and 88 black emigrants. These first sojourners died of yellow fever and other tropical diseases. At this time, there were approximately 2 million blacks in the United States; around 200,000 of those were free blacks.

(16.) Between 1816 and 1830, approximately 2,600 blacks were resettled in Liberia.

(17.) This meant the franchise would need to be extended to poor whites if elite whites were going to protect their social dominance. Thus, the vote was given grudgingly by elite whites who did not think highly of the uneducated mob the Founders warned against in the Federalist Papers. Nevertheless, elite whites recognized that an uncontrolled class of angry whites would not serve their ends well. As such, the first grandfather clauses were passed in 1898 following the demise of Reconstruction (1876); these laws enfranchised poor white men who heretofore had been summarily excluded from the voting rolls. By linking the right to vote with the status of one’s grandfather in 1867, white elites could still use slavery as the basis for white solidarity without extending any material gains to poor whites. By relying on racial appeals that harkened back to America’s slave-owning past, white elites gave poor white men some false sense of superiority without any corresponding change in status. This extension of racial coverture helped galvanize whites in their opposition to black attempts at social equality. Yet the only interests being served by such attempts were those of white elites, who would continue to occupy higher stations because aspirational whiteness would be enough to feed the needs of their white brethren for another century, or longer, depending on how one reads the political winds.

(18.) Some of the leaders of this meeting were James Forten, Russell Parrott, Rev. Absalom Jones, Rev. Richard Allen, Robert Douglass, Francis Perkins, and Robert Gordon.

(19.) This, however, did not mean all blacks gave up on colonization completely. Martin Delany, for example, argued that accepting white resources was a misguided reliance on their altruism. If blacks were to be truly independent they would need to emigrate with their own funds.

(20.) At the same time Garnet was the president of the Africa Colonization Society, he was working under the aegis of the Haytian [sic] Emigration Bureau, which hired him to encourage blacks to settle the island nation. Trumpeting Haiti’s distinction as the first free black country in the western hemisphere after defeating France, Garnet wrote in the Anglo-African (1860), “Hayti needs population to develope [sic] her agricultural and mineral resources and to fortify and defend her against (p.201) the invasion of the slave power of the western world” (Garnet 2004: 32). Framing emigration as a way to fend off slavery, Garnet was attempting to induce those blacks who held the nation in such esteem to emigrate there. His argument was not that Africa was less important, but that it did not need the population as urgently as Haiti.

(21.) Martin R. Delany was born free in West Virginia. He was an ardent nationalist and had his first introduction to colonization through the First Negro Convention held in Philadelphia in 1831. Although he remained dedicated to emigration throughout his life, he remained in the United States to fight the emancipation of enslaved blacks in the Union Army and because of personal obligations.