Primary Source Analysis

A Historical Struggle for Legitimacy

In support of Liberia and arguing that America should take interest in the affairs of the fledgling colony, Joseph Jenkins Roberts formally addressed the American Colonization Society (ACS) during the Societies fifty-second annual meeting in Washington D.C. on January 19, 1869. Roberts, a significant leader in the push for black freedmen colonization, aimed to answer the question asked by dubious members of the Society in the 1860s: “How has the African colonization endeavor benefited us, and why should we continue to support it?”[1] Robert’s 1869 address reminded Society members of the original intentions behind the colonization of West Africa attempting to sustain American support during the impending economic downturn in Liberia. Roberts highlighted the United States’ duty to spread Christianity and Western culture and further emphasized the value of trade and agriculture with Liberia that was beneficial to the United States economy and foreign relations.

Roberts, a mulatto man of Petersburg, Virginia joined the efforts of the Society in the 1830s in support of African emigration.[2] Roberts believed that the Republic only survived hardship because of divine power and used this to bolster his conviction that the spread of Christianity was the justification America needed to continue to support Liberia. After serving as colonial governor for a little less than a decade in the 1840s, Roberts became President of the Republic and served from 1848 to 1854. In 1872, he would reclaim this position serving as the seventh President of the Republic until his death in 1876.[3] It was during this time between his presidencies that Roberts addressed the ACS, seeking support for the Republic that he assisted in cultivating. The economic situation in Liberia was poor in the late 1860s and would descend into a depression during the panic of 1873 that additionally affected most of North America and Europe.[4] Americo-Liberians desperately sought increased American support during a time when America struggled to make ends meet at home, marking the final decline of West African emigration.

Throughout the sixteen-page address, Roberts delineated the emigration of freedmen to Liberia and the successful struggle to establish a Republic in 1847. Robert’s revisits the history of the push for colonization during the “era of good feelings” from 1817 until the period of reconstruction. The white leaders of the Society aimed to rid America of the “useless and pernicious” population of free blacks by sending them away to re-inhabit their ancestral lands through “coercive migration”.[5] Conversely, freedmen saw an opportunity not only to return to their ancestor’s homeland but also to have access to legitimate freedom. Most freedmen were in agreement with white Americans that there was little hope of the coexistence of white and black society and they opted to inhabit elsewhere as people in a self-governed society.[6] After years of struggle and conflict in Liberia and the dissolution of slavery in America following the Civil War the colonization effort lost considerable support. Liberia would not be recognized by the United States as a country until 1862 by President Abraham Lincoln, the lack of recognition up to that point was fueled by racism in an effort to treat the newly independent nation as an unequal entity.[7]

Joseph Robert’s address to the ACS offered a personal historical account of the development of the new Republic of Liberia and the several successes of the trade, diplomatic relations, and religious discipleship in and around Liberia. Robert’s account detailed the intense hardships such as starvation, native raids and warfare, disease, and “insalubrious land” in 1820.[8] Roberts tended to embellish and build on defining moments of the formation of Liberia in an effort to resell the colonization narrative to the American Colonization Society. Joseph Jenkins Robert’s address is tumultuous and at times reads like an epic to earn sympathy and praise for the black colonists who left America in search of a land of milk, honey, and freedom. Although his address did not change the minds of the ACS, his address did indicate a time of Liberian uncertainty with a desperate plea for their home country’s support.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited:

Clegg, Claude A. The Price of Liberty: African Americans and the Making of Liberia. 1st ed. North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

 

Harris, Katherine. African and American Values: Liberia and West Africa. 1st ed. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1985.

 

Roberts, Joseph J. African Colonization an Address Delivered at the Fifty-Second Annual Meeting of the American Colonization Society, Held in Washington, D.C., January 19, 1869. Microfiche. Anti-slavery Propaganda Collection, Oberlin College. New York: Branch Office of the American Colonization Society, 1962.

 

Tyler-McGraw, Marie. An African Republic: Black and White Virginians in the Making of Liberia. 1st ed. New Bakersfield, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007.

 

 

 

I pledge that I have neither given nor received any unauthorized help.

X Lakelyn Wiley

[1] Joseph J. Roberts, African Colonization an Address Delivered at the Fifty-Second Annual Meeting of the American Colonization Society, Held in Washington, D.C., January 19, 1869, Anti-slavery Propaganda Collection, Oberlin College (New York: Branch Office of the American Colonization Society, 1962).

 

[2] Marie Tyler-McGraw, An African Republic: Black and White Virginians in the Making of Liberia, 1st ed. (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 244.

 

[3] Claude A. Clegg, The Price of Liberty: African Americans and the Making of Liberia, 1st ed. (North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 125.

 

[4] Clegg, 255.

 

[5] Tyler-McGraw, 174.

 

[6]  Katherine Harris, African and American Values: Liberia and West Africa, 1st ed. (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1985), 20.

 

[7] Clegg, 69-76

 

[8] Roberts, 6.

featured image: Anson, Rufus. “Joseph Jenkins Roberts.” Print and Photographs Online Catalog, Library of Congress, www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/cph.3g04609/.