Historian situates 'back-to-Africa' movements in broad context

L.A. Cicero davis

David Brion Davis, foreground, responded to a question during a discussion session connected to the Tanner Lectures on Human Values, which he delivered on campus last week. Panelist Walter Johnson looks on.

The so-called "back to Africa" movements, which sent American blacks, willingly and unwillingly, as colonists to West Africa and elsewhere during the 19th and 20th centuries, often have been considered as a kind of sidebar to American history.

In presenting the Tanner Lectures on Human Values on campus last week, noted slavery historian David Brion Davis made the experience of African American colonists in Liberia, and the symbolic meaning of colonization, the centerpiece of his talks. In two lectures titled "Exodus, Exiles and Promised Lands," Davis, the Sterling Professor of History, Emeritus, at Yale University, also put African American colonization within the broader context of the global history of mass deportations of groups of unwanted people by linking it to the archetypal story in Exodus of the Israelites fleeing Egypt. And he described a circuitous route by which colonization fueled black nationalism and played an ironic but crucial role in the development of the civil rights movement.

Davis is the author of many books, including the seminal works The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (1966) and The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution: 1770-1823 (1975). His two lectures were based on three chapters of an upcoming third volume, The Problem of Slavery in an Age of Emancipation, which will complete the series.

Davis' talks, and the public discussions that followed them, underscored the broad support of colonization by African Americans in West Africa and elsewhere at various moments in the 19th century and the persistence of the idea into the 20th century. Virtually every national leader from Thomas Jefferson to Abraham Lincoln held the conviction that blacks and whites could not coexist as free and equal citizens, Davis wrote in his 2003 book, Challenging the Boundaries of Slavery.

A list of supporters of African American colonization would include "John Marshall, James Madison, Daniel Webster, Andrew Jackson, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, Stephen A. Douglas and even Harriet Beecher Stowe," Eric Foner, the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University, pointed out in a discussion session on Friday.

The motives of whites for supporting the colonization movement were themselves complex and contradictory, Davis demonstrated. The American Colonization Society (ACS), which was founded in 1816, had the support both of white philanthropists who sought a refuge for blacks from degrading living conditions and slave owners who were living under the "nuclear threat" of the Haitian revolution. Slave owners wanted free blacks removed from the nation for fear that they might ignite an insurrection among slaves.

Historians understandably have treated the ACS with hostility, Davis said. But the inherent racism in the ACS should not obscure the fact that 19th-century colonizationists were, on many points, more realistic than the abolitionists, Davis said.

It's not that colonization was the right solution, the historian said, but colonizationists believed—with good reason, it would turn out—that "white racial prejudice would remain intractable for generations, that progress would depend on black solidarity and collective effort, and that emancipation could not be divorced from the crucial need for a social and economic climate in which freed people could exercise their full capacities for human development."

'A city on a hill'African American settlers in Liberia, who took to Africa with them American political, social, cultural and legal conventions, were frequently likened to the founders of Jamestown and Plymouth colonies, Davis said. Nineteenth-century supporters of colonization envisioned a role for settlers in Liberia of "civilizing" Africa and building a society that would be as attractive to American blacks as the United States had proved to be for immigrants, Davis said. Liberia was to be, as John Winthrop imagined Puritan settlements, "a city on a hill," he said.

Black immigration to Liberia was framed within the Exodus narrative, much as the first English colonists in North America had conceived of their migration as a journey to the Promised Land, Davis said. Supporters of British colonization to Virginia promoted it as a way to bring civility and Christianity to the "savages" of North America, and to redeem England of the idleness and crime of its unemployed masses, Davis said. "The failure of all these expectations did not kill the initial dream or deter Virginians and other Americans from applying a very similar formula, over two centuries later, to the colonization of Africa."

In Liberia, with limited aid from the United States, the Americo-Liberians built churches, schools and colleges, maintained stable political parties, managed to assimilate Africans liberated from slave ships by the U.S. Navy and established a constitutional republic in 1847, Davis said. The survival of their nation made an important though often overlooked contribution to black pride and hope, Davis said.

Achievement in Liberia also underlined the futility of progress for blacks in a society dedicated to white supremacy, he said. Slave emancipation in the northern states had led to a black population living in abject poverty and deprived of education, civil rights and any hope of meaningful improvement, he said.

Although colonization was in many ways disastrous—malaria decimated the colonists and Americo-Liberians engaged in bloody battles with tribes who were already living in West Africa—the experience of African Americans in Liberia helped nourish black nationalism and, in turn, an increasingly popular domestic demand for equal civil rights, he said.

In the 20th century Marcus Garvey championed colonization and compared immigration to Liberia to the Jewish recovery of Palestine, Davis said. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., Davis said, Garvey was the first man "on a mass scale and level to give millions of Negroes a sense of dignity and destiny and make the Negro feel he was somebody."

A glaring defect of colonization ideology was its failure to recognize that "from the very beginnings of American history, the lives of blacks and whites had been intertwined on the most complex social, cultural, economic and psychological levels," Davis said. Whites themselves were yoked to the blacks they had enslaved, he said. "The nation as a whole, modeled on ancient dreams of deliverance and fulfillment, could march no farther forward than all the victims of its self-betrayal."

Efforts to remove African Americans from society have not ended, suggested sociologist Larry Bobo, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Centennial Professor, at a discussion session Thursday. "Are we not in the process of creating incredibly harsh new 'internal colonies' with our vast prison industrial complex?" he asked.

In the United States today, there are more African American men in prison than in college; half of all those in jail or in prison are African American, though blacks are only 12 percent of the U.S. population, and one in three black men in their twenties is under some form of criminal justice supervision by the state, Bobo said.

"There is no other way to view this than as a form of social removal," Bobo said. "It borders on the sort of 'social death' [Harvard sociologist] Orlando Patterson once characterized as accompanying slavery."

The Tanner Lectures were established in 1978 by Obert Clark Tanner, an industrialist and legal scholar who studied philosophy at Harvard and Stanford and later served as a member of the Stanford faculty in religious studies. The lectures were presented by the Barbara and Bowen McCoy Program in Ethics in Society and the Office of the President.