Skip to main content

“Better For Us To Be Separated”

June 2024
18min read

For some men the only solution to the dilemma of blacks and whites together was for the blacks to go back where they came from

When, on August 14, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln spoke to a visiting “committee of colored men” at the White House, it was already becoming clear that one result of the War Between the States would be the freeing of millions of slaves. Slavery was toppling under the blows of war, and in just another month the President would issue the preliminary version of the Emancipation Proclamation. The “colored men” whom Lincoln addressed were free already; some of them had been free all their lives. The President, however, gave them no heartening affirmations of their equality. Instead, he proposed to them the resettling of American blacks, either in Africa or in Central or South America.

“You are cut off,” he reminded his visitors, “from many of the advantages which the other race enjoy. The aspiration of men is to enjoy equality with the best when free, but on this broad continent, not a single man of your race is made the equal of a single man of ours.” He felt it was “better for us both … to be separated,” that is, that the Negroes of America go elsewhere—all of them.

He ruminated aloud about their going to Liberia, in Africa. Perhaps, he suggested, that was too far away: “… some of you would rather remain within reach of the country of your nativity. I do not know how much attachment you may have toward our race. It does not strike me that you have the greatest reason to love them. But still you are attached to them at all events.” So he had in mind the possibility of a colony in Central America, and he asked for “a hundred tolerably intelligent men, with their wives and children,” to be the pioneer colonists there, although he admitted he would be satisfied with a quarter that number.

Thus did the Great Emancipator propose voluntary exile for the nation’s blacks. He was by no means the first, nor the last, to nourish such a solution to an agonizing American racial problem. Serious discussion of that prospect began as early as the 1770’s with Samuel Hopkins, a Rhode Island Congregational minister; Hopkins proposed training black missionaries to begin a Negro return to Africa. Thomas Jefferson, in the Virginia Assembly, put forward a program that would emancipate the slaves as they became adults. Having been trained in various useful arts, they would be sent to a distant colony. Jefferson believed slavery was evil, both morally and politically. Yet deeper than his abhorrence of the institution was his fear that American freed Negroes would become so -numerous that race war would be inevitable.

The fear of a genocidal blood bath has been a persistent argument in favor of an absolute separation of the black and white races—a proposal that has surfaced repeatedly in the nation’s history. The presumed inevitability and incurable nature of race prejudice have likewise been advanced to justify total separation.

Such fears and attitudes have been most evident in periods of heightened racial tension, and it is at those times that Negro emigration has appeared to many to be a reasonable, perhaps the only, solution. The quarter century after Reconstruction, for example, a particularly desperate era for American blacks, saw the creation of such enterprises as the Liberian Exodus Joint Stock Steamship Company, the United Transatlantic Society, and the International Migration Society. Just after the First World War, when honorable service brought blacks no bettered status and little relief from violently enforced prejudices, a black messiah, Marcus Aurelius Garvey, arose with ambitious plans for building an African empire with black Americans. There was an African Nationalist Pioneer Movement in the 1930’s, when the Depression compounded the problems confronting the Negro community. And in spite of improvement in the situation of Negroes since then, the still agonizingly slow advance of equality spawned a small frontier village of black “Hebrews” in Liberia in the 1960’s.

The resettlement idea thus appears to have had remarkable vitality. But it has never been particularly effective. Lincoln’s plans for moving Negroes south of the border is illustrative. It came a cropper, specifically, on the greed of white promoters of proposed colonies and the opposition of Central American governments. But those stumbling blocks might have been hurdled had it not been for the more basic problem common to all such projects. Any resettlement program had to expose, had to carry with it like a disfiguring scar, painful conflicts and contradictions in the racial practices and pretensions of the American community. Nowhere are these better shown than in the rise and fall of the largest and longest-lived of the resettlement organizations, the American Colonization Society, founded in 1816.

The sole purpose of the society was stated in its formal title, The American Society for Colonizing the Free People of Color in the United States. Free Negroes, as Henry Clay remarked to the society’s first organizational meeting, “neither enjoyed the immunities of freemen, nor were they subject to the incapacities of slaves.” Prejudice, Clay said, worked to keep them a lower caste, and it was “desirable … both as it respected them, and the residue of the population of the country, to drain them off.”

In 1750 there had been only a few thousand free Negroes in the American colonies. But the numbers would soon rise, because the philosophy that legitimized the American Revolution also encouraged emancipation. Slaveholder Joseph Hill of Virginia, for one, writing his will in 1783, gave his bondsmen their freedom upon his death, explaining that “after full and deliberate consideration, and agreeable to our Bill of Rights,” he was “fully persuaded that freedom is the natural life of all mankind.” Virginia law had closely restricted manumission until 1782. After the restrictions were removed, the number of free Negroes in the state rose from fewer than three thousand to nearly thirteen thousand by 1790. That year the number of free Negroes in the United States had grown to just under sixty thousand. Many northern states had abolished slavery or were about to, a process completely accomplished throughout the North by 1818. This further swelled the totals so that in 1820 the census would count more than 233,000 free Negroes.

Free they were, but in no sense equal. They did not live well. Their rights in law were restricted and growing more so; with rare exceptions they could not testify against whites in court, and without exception they could not serve on juries. The punishments for blacks were often more severe than for whites who committed the same crimes. In Virginia, for example, after 1831, free Negroes guilty of many minor offenses received the same punishments—including whippings—as those meted out to slaves for identical misdemeanors. A few states conferred the legal right to vote, but some withdrew it later as the number of free blacks multiplied. And where law did not deny Negroes the vote, custom often did. Circumscriptions were beginning to be placed on the right of free Negroes to move from state to state, as no state particularly relished being a repository for newly emancipated slaves. Education was either not available or was segregated. The jobs open to free Negroes were limited. The result of all this was distilled in the words of the valedictorian of a Negro school in New York in 1819: Why should I strive hard and acquire all the constituents of a man, if the prevailing genius of the land admit me not as such, or but in an inferior degree! Pardon me if I feel insignificant and weak. … What are my prospects? To what shall I turn my hand? Shall I be a mechanic? No one will employ me; white boys won’t work with me. Shall I be a merchant? No one will have me in his office; white clerks won’t associate with me. Drudgery and servitude, then, are my prospective portion. Can you be surprised at my discouragement?

There was plenty of reason for the complaint. Nonetheless, free Negroes, instead of earning sympathy for their disadvantages, were often described in the terms traditionally used to excoriate the poor of any race: they lived “that way” on purpose; they collected in horrid slums, bred disease and incredible numbers of children, committed all sorts of loathsome crimes, did no work unless it was absolutely necessary, were noted for drunkenness, and were, as Henry Clay put it, “a useless and pernicious, if not dangerous portion” of America’s population. In the ante-bellum South it was often said that free Negroes taught slaves to steal and helped them dispose of stolen goods, that they acted as a powerful lure to freedom for slaves, that they inspired and assisted slave rebellion. And there was no point in wasting education on them, for that would only give them an appetite for privileges unreachable. “The more you improve the condition of these people,” said a Washington lawyer (who was also chief clerk of the United States Supreme Court), “the more you cultivate their minds, the more miserable you make them.”


They were in a trap, with every exit blocked; every exit, that is, but one. The Reverend Robert Finley, pastor of the Presbyterian church in Baskingridge, New Jersey, a community with 1,500 free Negroes, remarked in 1816 upon the depressed condition of those of his parishioners who were black. “Every thing connected with their condition, including their colour, is against them,” he declared, “nor is there much prospect that their state can ever be greatly ameliorated, while they continue among us.” But he went on to propose a remedy. “Could not,” he suggested, “the rich and benevolent devise means to form a Colony on some part of the Coast of Africa … which might gradually induce many free blacks to go and settle, devising for them the means of getting there, and of protection and support till they were established.”

The “rich and benevolent” were much in evidence in that era between 1815 and the 1840’s, supporting a flood of societies that promoted the Bible, peace, temperance, Christian missions, Sunday schools, and the welfare of various underprivileged segments of the community. As it happened, Finley could even point to an existing project similar to the very one he had in mind. The British had freed a number of slaves during the Revolution and transported them to Great Britain. Many had gravitated to the slums, and British philanthropists had undertaken to relocate them in Africa by starting a colony at Sierra Leone. The financing and government had not been well managed, and shortly the Crown had felt constrained to assume responsibility from the philanthropists, but Sierra Leone was now a going concern.

An American colony in Africa would also have to be financed at least in part by the government, Finley knew. But it would benefit the nation in many ways. It would remove a trodden-down minority from the people who were doing the treading; it would give America a commercial outpost in Africa; and by supplying a catchall for emancipated slaves it would encourage manumission in the South—which Finley hoped would ultimately rid the nation of slavery. There was also an additional philanthropic attraction in the colony’s potential for redeeming Africa, since it would act as a spiritual, educational, and mercantile lighthouse on the Dark Continent.

Encouraged by the reception given the idea among his friends in New Jersey, Finley went to Washington at the end of 1816, and during the Christmas season the American Society for Colonizing the Free People of Color in the United States was formally established. Among the fifty or so leading lights who participated in its founding were Speaker of the House Henry Clay, representatives John Randolph of Virginia and Daniel Webster of New Hampshire, Secretary of the Treasury William Harris Crawford, Attorney General Richard Rush, the author of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Francis Scott Key, General Andrew Jackson, and the nephew of George Washington, Supreme Court Justice Bushrod Washington, who became the society’s first president. It was an auspicious beginning.

Bushrod Washington memorialized Congress in January, 1817, asking legislative support for creating an African colony. But Congress did not respond favorably, and in hopes of becoming more convincing through the presentation of some solidly researched data on possibilities, the society sent out a two-man expedition to West Africa in the next year. The Reverend Samuel J. Mills and Professor Ebenezer Burgess visited Sierra Leone, Sherbro Island (a hundred miles southeast of the British colony), and a number of villages along the coast of Africa’s “shoulder,” close to the Gulf of Guinea. The best that Mills and Burgess took away from their many parleys with black native leaders was a few hedged promises that land for colonists might be made available. Most of the local Negroes were hostile to the idea. But the visitors’ impressions of what they saw and heard were strongly influenced by their hopes. When they headed home in May, 1818, they were highly optimistic, particularly about Sherbro Island as a location. Mills had been ill for much of their trip, and he died on the homeward voyage; but Professor Burgess communicated their joint enthusiasm to the society.

With the support of the colonizationists, a bill was now pushed through Congress to stiffen regulation of the African slave trade by making the federal government, rather than the states, responsible for suppressing it. The law gave President Monroe power to care for and relocate any slaves captured from the holds of slave ships by the government in its policing of the seas. It authorized him, moreover, to commit a naval squadron to the task and, most significantly from the society’s point of view, to create a station on the coast of Africa for the landing of “contraband” blacks rescued from their kidnappers. The colonizationists hoped that this might be the nucleus of their hoped-for colony. Monroe thought well of Negro resettlement, and he leaned toward such a liberal interpretation. But an adverse opinion from Secretary of State John Quincy Adams blocked the society’s attempt to get the President to buy land for a colony under the new statute. Adams felt that neither the law nor the Constitution could be construed as permitting the nation to set up a colony anywhere. At length, Monroe and the colonizationists worked out a compromise: the society would buy the land, and the federal government would post two agents to Africa, along with a number of Negro volunteer colonists as workmen, to set up the African station. In January, 1820, eighty-six black “workmen,” two thirds of whom were women and children, sailed for Sherbro Island aboard the merchant ship Elizabeth , with a sloop of war as convoy. The expedition was led by two federal agents, both nominated by the society, the Reverend Samuel Bacon and John P. Bankson. Also on board was the society’s own agent, Samuel Crozer.

On Sherbro they found a rude camp waiting for them, built by a former American slave, John Kizell; he had been Mills’s and Burgess’ interpreter on the island two years earlier. Crozer went off to negotiate with the island leaders for a larger tract of land. They, as it turned out, wanted the colony as little as they had when Mills and Burgess had talked to them earlier. The thwarted colonists moved into KizelPs camp, and shortly “African fever” began to strike them down. Crozer came back to find several of them dead. He himself fell ill and died. So did John Bankson. So did a Navy officer. And so, finally, did the last surviving agent, the Reverend Mr. Bacon. Crozer had turned over authority to one of the black colonists, the Reverend Daniel Coker of Baltimore, and Coker contended with a disunited and unhealthy colony for a while before giving it up and taking some of the survivors to a refuge on the mainland.

Nevertheless, despite this discouraging beginning, two more federal agents and two more colonization-society representatives were sent out, along with thirty-three more settlers, in 1821. Two of the four leaders died, but the team managed to work out arrangements for the use of forty square miles of land on the coast south of Sierra Leone. But the deal committed the society to an annual rent of three hundred dollars, and the society, when the issue was presented to it, refused to accept the agreement, considering the sum an unjustified tribute to the heathen king who controlled the land.

With all their difficulties, the colonizationists still had Monroe’s support, and now they arranged for a physician, Eli Ayres, and a Navy lieutenant, Robert F. Stockton, to be posted by the government to Africa to continue the search for a suitable site. Ayres and Stockton headed for Cape Mesurado, a promontory thirty-six miles long and three miles wide, on the Grain Coast. Earlier agents had not been able to buy the cape from the local chief, King Peter, and the first attempt by Ayres and Stockton was also fruitless. After days of waiting for King Peter to palaver again, they marched inland to his village and at pistol point forced him to sell. The price for Cape Mesurado was less than three hundred dollars in clothes, guns, powder, rum, tobacco, and trinkets. This “purchase” from an unwilling seller the American Colonization Society named Liberia—“free land”—and the first settlement there, Monrovia.

For more than forty years the society got along with varying degrees of the sort of limited federal support that had helped found Liberia. This backing was augmented by contributions from individuals and occasionally from state legislatures. Agents of the society toured the country, spreading information about colonization, raising money, starting state and local auxiliaries. This effort was aided after 1825 by the publication of a monthly paper, the African Repository and Colonial Journal . Liberia grew. By the time of the Civil War, some eleven thousand free Negroes—at least half of them newly emancipated slaves—had been resettled there.

The managers of the society never gave up hope that the federal government would eventually commit itself to resettlement on a massive scale. But they soon found themselves in an insoluble dilemma over that question. They were determined to act as a national, unifying force, but there was no way for the society to bid for federal aid and yet to avoid being caught up in the growing sectional debate or to become itself a cause for debate. For one of the burning issues of the day was the very question of whether the federal government had any power to deal with slaves (or ex-slaves) in any fashion.

Such controversy made it inevitable that until the Civil War, help for colonization from the national government would be small. And meanwhile the hope of federal assistance on a grand scale acted as a damper on private contributions, and these were further reduced by the competition of many other enterprises in philanthropy.

Moreover, the sheer size of the task to be performed was also defeating. Realistically, this was the sort of project that could not hope to succeed if left to private philanthropy. By 1830 the number of free Negroes in the United States was over 319,000; it had increased by nearly 86,000 in the preceding ten years. And in that ten-year span the American Colonization Society had raised $113,000 and resettled 1,430 free blacks.

But in spite of many obstacles and limited progress, the colonizationists remained confident that eventually the country would see things their way. Many respectable, influential men, of both North and South, belonged to the society or were in sympathy with the idea. Liberia had survived serious trials—the ever-present malaria, small wars with the native population, the unreliability of supply shipments, the difficulties of administration at long distance, and rebellions by the colonists. Settlers now held appointive posts in the government, and a newspaper, the Liberia Herald , was being published.

Still, the optimism of the society could not overcome a second paradox in its very nature. Just as they could not easily be healers of sectional strife while asking federal help for a program distrusted by many Southerners, so they could not avoid the fact that their program had both proslavery and antislavery implications, which conflicted with each other. Some indeed wanted emancipation and believed that if slave-holders were offered the prospect of getting rid of their bondsmen, they would be willing to sign the deeds of manumission. But others, especially in the South, wanted resettlement to be used simply to secure the peace and safety of the slave states by isolating the slaves from the contaminating influence of the free blacks. Even members of the society who were antislavery in principle had developed serious misgivings about emancipation unless it was accompanied by resettlement. As Francis Scott Key put it in 1838: I have emancipated seven of my slaves. They have done pretty well, and six of them, now alive, are supporting themselves comfortably and creditably. Yet I cannot but see that this is all they are doing now; and, when age and infirmity come upon them, they will probably suffer. … I am still a slaveholder, and could not, without the greatest inhumanity, be otherwise. … The laws of Maryland contain provisions… under which slaves, in certain circumstances, are entitled to petition the courts for their freedom. As a lawyer, I always undertook these cases with peculiar zeal, and have been thus instrumental in liberating several large families and many individuals. I cannot remember more than two instances, out of this large number, in which it did not appear that the freedom I so earnestly sought for them was their ruin. It has been so with a very large proportion of all others I have known emancipated.

Nor was this exclusively the view of a Southerner. John A. Dix of New York declared to a meeting of his state’s colonization society in 1830, “The mass of crime committed by Africans is greater, in proportion to numbers, in the non-slaveholding than in the slaveholding States; and as a rule the degree of comfort enjoyed by them is inferior. This is not an argument in favor of slavery; but it is an unanswerable argument in favor of rendering emancipation and colonization co-extensive with each other.”

Officially, the society took no line except advocating removal of free Negroes. But in the interests of “sound policy,” as a modern defender of the society points out, the organization let its members make what they wished of that aim, depending on where they worked. With some fairness, colonization was criticized in the North as being the tool of slaveholders and in the South as a tool of the abolitionists—as was bound to happen when it was depicted by its own members both as a way to eliminate and to guarantee slavery.

But the problems of trying to satisfy a northern and a southern membership were common to all organizations of the ante-bellum period, especially those seeking compromise. A much more serious handicap for the society was that it uncritically accepted the theory that blacks were inferior to whites. In this, of course, the members had the company of most of their contemporaries, for it was a belief deeply rooted in American life even though it ran against the grain of the official American credo. Both Jefferson and Lincoln had at least tentatively subscribed to it, and their support of resettlement proposals was motivated in part by it. The society did not conceal its prejudice. Negroes, said Ralph Gurley, secretary of the society and editor of the African Repository , were “a people which are injurious and dangerous to our social interests, as they are ignorant, vicious, and unhappy.” That was why it was necessary to send them to Africa.

The disparity of principles did not go unnoticed. “They can love and benefit [Negroes] four thousand miles off, but not at home,” wrote William Lloyd Garrison to a friend in 1831. “They profess to be, and really believe that they are, actuated by the most philanthropic motives; and yet are cherishing the most unmanly and unchristian prejudices.”

Garrison had himself been a supporter of colonization—had even spoken for it publicly in 1829. But he was struck by the racial bias that lay at the root of the colonization idea. It was entirely at odds with Christianity, he thought; and it was most certainly at odds with the American political philosophy that “all men are created equal.” He prepared a long essay, Thoughts on African Colonization , which he published in 1832. Taking as his keynote the phrase “out of thine own mouth will I condemn thee,” he built his attack around quotations from the colonizationists. For instance, the president of Union College, the Reverend Eliphalet Nott, was one who spoke of free blacks in terms Garrison found offensive: “ We have endeavored [he quoted Nott], but endeavored in vain, to restore them either to self respect, or to the respect of others .” It is painful to contradict so worthy an individual; but nothing is more certain than that this statement is altogether erroneous. We have derided, we have shunned, we have neglected them, in every possible manner. … Again: “ It is not our fault that we have failed . …” We are wholly and exclusively in fault. What have we done to raise them up from the earth? What have we not done to keep them down? Once more: “ It has resulted from a cause over which neither they, nor we, can ever have control .” In other words, they have been made with skins “ not colored like our own, ” and therefore we cannot recognize them as fellow-countrymen, or treat them like rational beings! One sixth of our whole population must, FOR EVER , in this land, remain a wretched, ignorant, and degraded race,—and yet nobody be culpable— none but the Creator who has made us incapable of doing unto others as we would have them do unto us! Horrible—horrible! If this be not an impeachment of Infinite Goodness,—I do not say intentionally but really ,—I cannot define it.

That was the crux of the matter, the essential contradiction that defeated large-scale resettlement. Prejudice, Garrison pointed out, ought not to be countenanced in a country founded on an assurance of the inherent nobility of every man. To be true to itself the nation should be putting on armor and battling against racial bias. Furthermore, by grounding their appeal in a view of blacks that was derogatory—however gentle and sympathetic it might sometimes be—the colonizationists bore a heavy responsibility for keeping free Negroes in a depressed condition. As for the society’s effect on slavery, it actually retarded the freeing of slaves, Garrison believed, since it concentrated on the slow process of voluntary emancipation and voluntary colonization—which showed no honest promise of success anyway. As Negro abolitionist James Porten had put it in 1817, “Let not a purpose be assisted which will stay the cause of the entire abolition of slavery.”

The direct assault of Garrison’s Thoughts proved disastrous to the society; for while Garrison was perhaps in a tiny minority, his views carried weight with the very humanitarians who might otherwise have unswervingly supported a high-minded organization like the society. But in addition, the society’s most important opposition came from free Negroes themselves. The colonizationists operated on the assumption that of course Negroes would want to go “home” to Africa. But most did not. Black resistance to the colonization idea was evident as soon as the society was founded. A Philadelphia meeting in January, 1817, resolved: “Our ancestors were, though not from choice, the first cultivators of the wilds of America, and we, their descendants, claim a right to share in the blessings of her luxuriant soil which their blood and sweat manured. We read with deep abhorrence the unmerited stigma, attempted to be cast on the reputation of the free people of color. … We declare that we will never be separated from the slave population of this country. …”

Outright deportation of unwilling Negroes would not have been at all in keeping with the society’s spirit of philanthropy; it would have represented too great a departure from its concept of Christian charity. Nonetheless, with the shadow of slavery behind it, the “offer” of deportation to the blacks had something of a threat about it. In any event, many of the manumitted slaves who were sent to Liberia were freed only on condition that they exile themselves there. Rarely did large numbers of free Negroes volunteer to go, and then only in times of extreme distress, as during the uproar that followed Nat Turner’s rebellion, when their situation was especially uncomfortable. The repression of free Negroes by law was aimed in part at “encouraging” their emigration.

The contradictions between resettlement under pressure and human dignity, as well as the inextricable entanglement of the venture in the sectional quarrel, began to tell. Many disillusioned and discouraged colonizationists defected to the ranks of abolition. State auxiliaries went off in separate directions—those of Maryland, Kentucky, Mississippi, New York, and Pennsylvania created their own settlements of Negroes in Liberia. Such losses multiplied the already serious financial difficulties of the national organization, which had been burdened all along with the cost of having to help support Liberia in addition to its normal organizational costs.

In 1847 Liberia was finally cut loose from the parental purse strings and given independence. The society continued to send out settlers—nearly six thousand in the final thirteen years before the war. Relocation of Negroes still appealed to many Americans, but after decades of denunciation by both sides in the sectional quarrel, the American Colonization Society was in such bad odor it could not even get the federal government to recognize Liberia as a nation until 1862. And by then President Lincoln was considering various resettlement programs of his own and giving Liberia short shrift.

The society outlasted the war and the nineteenth century. In 1909 it had five surviving members, who bequeathed its records to the Library of Congress, and one of its recent historians relates that a “skeletal organization” received “a small legacy” as recently as 1959. Help was given to Negroes immigrating to Liberia until 1899. But long before that year, the nation had turned—however haltingly—to a solution more in keeping with America’s best impulses. “… [i]t is the purpose of God, I am fully persuaded,” Garrison had declared, in a prophecy still not completely realized, “to humble the pride of the American people by rendering the expulsion of our colored countrymen utterly impracticable, and the necessity for their admission to equal rights imperative. … I see them here, not in Africa, not bowed to the earth, or derided and persecuted as at present, not with a downcast air or an irresolute step, but standing erect as men destined heavenward, unembarrassed, untrammelled, with none to molest or make them afraid.”

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.