top of page
  • Writer's pictureblue

How American Propaganda Shaped Liberian History


This piece is written to explain a commonly misunderstood history. I will be using the terms “black,” “African-American,” and “negro” interchangeably. These are not intended as labels of group identification. These terms will be used to ensure clarity, as these were the terms used to distinguish between peoples of African descent in different contexts. Still, it is always important to note that though language is used to communicate clearly, human beings are intersectional and overlap in terms of identity and history.


“...my father was a target in the war."


In an interview with Honolulu Vibes, Kahnma, a Bassa native, describes her experience as a young girl, watching her world rip apart at the seams.


Kahnma is one of over several hundreds of thousands of Liberians who immigrated to the United States as a result of decades of brutal and violent civil war in the country. In her interview, Kahnma noted that she had suppressed many memories about the time, but nevertheless, these wars impacted her life and worldview.


Many Americans have very little knowledge of what has been happening in Liberia since 1989. Moreover, Americans are not taught that these events are the direct result of white American influence leading up to the American Civil War.


In America, we are taught that American slaves had journeyed back to Africa and settled in Liberia, creating the first independent nation state for free African Americans. We are not taught about how these African Americans (Americo-Liberians) only comprised 2-5% of the population of Liberia, yet were used by the United States government to hold power on its behalf. Many of us never learn that these African Americans enslaved and oppressed the native Liberians until 1980 when Samuel Doe overthrew the Americo-Liberian government in a coup.


The history of Liberia from a Western perspective is complex, misleading, and inconsistent. However, from a de-colonized perspective, the history is painfully clear. Many American historians often de-emphasize the influence of white American colonizers when discussing Liberia’s history. These oversights are conspicuous and suspect, yet, the truth can often be deduced pretty easily when following the financial paper trail.

Show Me The Receipts


In 1820, a group of African Americans sailed back to Africa on a ship called The Elizabeth (aka, The Mayflower of Liberia) from New York to Freetown, Sierra Leone, a city that had been previously colonized by the British.


Question?

So…who paid for the trip?


Answer.

The American Colonization Society


After the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804), when enslaved Haitians slaughtered white masters, overthrew the French government, and established their independence, small time American slave owners began to wake up. Haiti was geographically close to the U.S., black people outnumbered whites on American plantations (at least 2 to 1, sometimes 10 to 1, and as many as over 1,000 to 1 on larger plantations), and free blacks were becoming more prominent in the country. Moreover, Quakers and other abolitionists were gaining popularity in the North and didn’t consider slavery to be a good look.


Albeit for different reasons, the three sides of American whiteness (slave owners, colonizers, and abolitionists) united with the agreement that black people would be better off if they went back to Africa! None of these white folks asked black folks what they thought. In fact, as it turns out, most black people weren’t at all interested in going back to Africa.

Nevertheless, they pressed on! The American Colonization Society (ACS) was officially founded in 1816 by Robert Finley. The society was funded by members and their churches with support from the U.S. government (i.e., tax dollars). The President at the time was James Monroe (he’ll come up again in a moment. Hang tight).




Using clever and distracting marketing (propaganda), the ACS was able to purport itself as an “opportunity” for “free blacks” to “return to Africa.” The propaganda was designed to:




3. Grant an opportunity for slave owners who wanted out of the industry to do something that made them feel good about themselves and make some money at the same time.


Historians have argued that the true motivation to get free blacks out of America was to promote meritorious manumission (release of slaves in exchange for obedience or service to the slave master) and organized brain drain (incentivizing the expatriation of the most educated members of black society with the goal to ultimately preserve the institution of slavery in America).


In other words, there is enough evidence to suggest that the ACS was a PR stunt designed by wealthy plantation owners who knew they could run the South without labor costs by keeping educated blacks and poor whites (small plantation owners) out of their business. Through meritorious manumission (manipulation), the colonizers could send the ex-slaves from smaller plantations to colonize Africa on their behalf to make money from trade and tariffs on trade.


*Notable members of the American Colonization Society included Thomas Buchanan, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, Abraham Lincoln, James Madison, Daniel Webster, John Marshall, and Francis Scott Key (who wrote the Star Spangled Banner).


So in 1820, The ACS sent a group of African Americans (many who had been freed only if they agreed to take the trip) to Sierra Leone on The Elizabeth. There were 86 black passengers and 12 white colonists.


Of those who took the trip, 11 whites died and about 29 blacks died. Daniel Coker (biracial co-founder of the African Methodist Episcopal church) was among the passengers who survived. When the white colonists died, he was appointed to take the lead and his descendants (among others) went on to become the Creole (Krio) people of Sierra Leone.


A few more boat trips like this transpired over the next 2 years. Those who survived made their way to Liberia.


Enter Jehudi Ashmun


Jehudi Ashmun was a white religious leader and segregationist in America who saw what the American Colonization Society was doing and wanted to get involved. In 1822, he and his wife accompanied 37 formerly enslaved African Americans to Monrovia.


About that:

Monrovia was named after James Monroe (the 5th President of the United States) because Monrovia (which is still the capital of Liberia) was colonized by the white leadership of the United States government, not by African Americans and certainly not in collaboration with the native peoples of Liberia who made up 95% of the population.


Ashmun arrived at Monrovia to the sight of starving, sick, dying, defenseless, and unsupported African American emigrants. Recognizing that the ACS wasn’t living up to the propaganda, he formed a militia. In true colonizer fashion, he pulled out his guns, killed all the indigenous peoples within reach, and gentrified Monrovia for America. While fighting, he caught a fever and gave it to his wife. She died. Still, he remained in Liberia to further establish Monrovia and surrounding areas for agribusiness and trade with the Americo-Liberians. After returning to New Haven, Connecticut, Ashmun died from malaria. He was 34 years old.


Question?

Considering that the United States usually views colonization as “success”, why would American history credit African Americans with “founding Liberia”?


Answer.

The plan was dishonest, messy, and an international embarrassment.


By 1830, the Quakers saw the ACS for what it was: the American slaveholder’s haphazard answer to “the negro problem," and withdrew support. There was more death than settlement and taking boats from the U.S. to Africa was very expensive.


Furthermore, the initiative was never that popular among free African Americans. Many didn’t want to leave their home and family, especially when it was likely that they would die within a year of being in Liberia.


Recognizing this messy excuse for colonization, Britain said, "Naaaah," and refused to acknowledge America’s right to impose taxes on trade through Liberia, so the cost for travel, supplies, and oppression of native peoples was too much for the ACS to handle.


On April 12, 1861, The American Civil War began. This would be the final staging of the conflict between the American North (abolitionists) and South (slave owners). The North won and chattel slavery was legally abolished. This wasn’t a moral decision by the North. They just weren’t benefiting from the slavery business.


Liberian Independence



Liberian Flag. Look familiar?

According to written history, Liberia “declared independence” in 1847. However, a more accurate read is that the U.S. wouldn’t allow the ACS to establish Liberia as a colony due to lack of popular support and lack of funds to maintain the charade. A declaration of independence (which was more or less copied and pasted from the U.S. Constitution) was drafted, the ACS appointed the first Americo-Liberian President, and they all said, “Congratulations, Liberia. You are independent.” No one asked the native Liberians what they thought about any of this.


Where's the Lie?


-The American Colonization Society was created for and by white colonizers, slave holders, and abolitionists to solve the negro problem in America.


-The people who would emigrate to Liberia to create the “first free colony for African Americans” were a discarded, neglected, coerced, manipulated, and traumatized people who were following the orders of the ACS. In the end, the tyranny brought upon natives by Americo-Liberians could be arguably categorized as a trauma response by ex slaves who aimed to emulate their captors.


-African Americans did not found Liberia. Liberia was founded by the 5th President of the United States: James Monroe. This is why the capital, Monrovia, was named after him. Jehudi Ashmun (a white man) lead the militia that gentrified Monrovia as American territory.

-Americo-Liberians did not “declare” their independence from the United States government. Instead, the U.S. withdrew support for colonization because the American Colonization Society couldn’t afford to fulfill their agenda. The ACS continued to fund the Americo-Liberian government until it dismantled in 1964…that’s not independence. That’s like when you leave home because you decide you’re an “adult,” but your parents still pay all your bills.


What about Marcus Garvey n’nem?

(Didn't Black folks have their own Back to Africa movements?)


There was a huge difference between ACS/U.S. Government-sponsored “back to Africa” movements and the independent black expeditions that never truly got off the ground. Independently motivated Black Pan-Africanists wanted to return to Africa with a different set of goals. They did not want to colonize, but connect and cooperate with the people of Africa.


Paul Cuffe, for example, made history with the first successful and independently funded voyage back to Africa (Sierra Leon. 1816 (the year the ACS was founded). There were 38 passengers: 18 adults and 20 children). Cuffe wanted to build collaborations between “the Black Settlers of Sierra Leone, and the Natives of Africa generally, in the Cultivation of their Soil, by the Sale of their Produce.”


Other independent Pan-Africanists who attempted to traverse and settle in Africa included:


Henry Highland Garnet. Escaped to freedom, went to Liberia in December 1881. Died in February 1882 in Monrovia of malaria.





Bishop James T. Holly. First African American Bishop of the Protestant Episcopal church. Received an honorary legal degree from Liberia. Died in Haiti.





Martin R. Delany. Born free. fought for the Union during the Civil War as the first African American Major. Coined the Pan-African term “Africa for Africans.” Witnessed slavery in the south and dreamed of establishing a settlement in Africa. He visited Liberia. Became chairman of the finance committee for the Liberia Exodus Joint Stock Steamship Company. A year later, the company purchased a ship, the Azor, for the voyage led by Harrison N. Bouey. Delany withdrew from the project for family reasons. Died in Ohio


Harrison N. Bouey. Opposed by whites, started the Joint Stock Steamship Company of the Liberia Exodus Association and sailed to Liberia with 200 (men, women, and children) South Carolina emigrants in the Azor. He helped build a road with the Gola people. Resigned from the association in 1882 and the support for the mission ended.



Bishop Henry McNeal Turner. Born free in 1834. Founded AME annual conference in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and South Africa. Died in Ontario Canada in 1915.




Marcus Mosiah Garvey. Jamaican born. Inspired by Booker T. Washington’s “Self Reliance” philosophy and Pan-Africanism, He created the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and the Back To Africa message in cities throughout the United States. He wanted to raise money to take African Americans to Liberia. His plan was infiltrated and thwarted by the U.S. government. He was convicted of mail fraud, and deported back to Jamaica. He died in London.


What We Can Learn From All This

“Colonization proved to be a giant failure, doing nothing to stem the forces that brought the nation to Civil War.”

-historian Marc Leepson


The stories of Liberian refugees are directly connected to America's racist history. American history has painted the Liberian conflict as something black people brought upon themselves. In reality, it all began with the American colonizers and their manipulative and self-serving tactics to turn enslaved African Americans into colonizers so that the United States could get a piece of Africa by proxy.


The plan didn’t work. In 1861, America had to go to war anyway. In the decades and centuries to follow, Americans would continue to use propaganda to conceal their egregious and sickeningly racist policies and projects.


Black people in America have always been people. Indigenous peoples throughout Africa have always been people. Black people throughout the diaspora have always been people. Manipulating people as though they are means to a financial end is sociopathic. It never works and it's never a good look.


Image courtesy of Ronen Zilberman, HonoluluVibes.com
"I think African culture, in general, can teach a lot about how to be a community. In America, there’s this individualistic way of surviving. You have to be about yourself in America to survive. In Africa, you have to be about everybody, you have to be about the village. I feel like a little bit of village life mentality in the West can help things. After living in America for so many years I had to come to Hawaii to rediscover a lot of those things."

-Kahnma




Critical Thinking Questions:


1: What, to you, is the purpose of history?


2. What did you learn in this article that you didn't know before?


3. What are 3 things that you learned from clicking on the hyperlinks in this article?


4. What are the different perspectives presented in this particle that may influence how the story is told?


© 2020 Cathryn D. Blue, PhD

Dr. Cathryn D. Blue is a social psychologist, artist, author, and contributor to Kahnma.com.


Note from the author:

In the coming months, I will be adding more content specifically designed for parents to use in home schooling curricula. *Social Studies: Grades 6-12*


My goal is to create content that

1: Provides context for current events in an engaging way,

2: Examines issues from multi-cultural perspectives,

3: Stimulates curiosity and creativity, and

4: Includes embedded links to encourage further independent exploration.


How to use these articles

1. Allow the student to read the article to you.

2. Ask them to share their initial thoughts about the content.

3. Click embedded links to find primary and secondary sources.

4. Encourage questions about the article's strengths, weaknesses, and relevance.

5. Discuss the student's feelings about the content and how it relates to their lives.

6. Question everything and create solutions!


This content is free for everyone. Donations are welcome. Thank you.




1 commentaire


mrabbakarnga
25 sept. 2020

Great article, wonderful and precise research. My Father always say that Liberia was an American experiment; they wanted to know if black people can Govern themselves in their own country. They did everything possible to ensure that the experiment didn't work in order to leave a historic mark of white supremacy. This article has helped me realize that it was an experiment to see if black people can serve as agents of white people to suppress and control other black people in their own continent. That worked for a while but then the oppressed inevitably fought back and won, but have yet to recover from the years of oppression. This is the current situation in Liberia. A big thank you…

J'aime
bottom of page