History Haunts War-Torn Liberia

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
July 21, 2003

As war-ravaged Liberia slides deeper into despair, 41 U.S. Marines arrived today to evacuate embassy staff and foreign aid workers. Wire services reported today that a larger force of 2,000 Marines may be deployed shortly with other international peacekeeping forces.

For several weeks, newspaper editorials have debated the pros and cons of sending American peacekeepers to the small West African nation. Some commentators maintain that even a small contingent of troops would stabilize Liberia; others say the mission is too risky.

Regardless of their position, the editorials agree that the United States and Liberia have a special historical bond because Liberia, the oldest republic in Africa, was "founded by freed American slaves" in the early 19th century.

This notion conjures up romantic images of freed slaves, bonding together in defiance of their former masters, and setting sail for their native land in search of a better life, free from prejudice and racism.

The truth, unfortunately, is far murkier, according to historians.

Liberia was not simply founded by freed slaves, but rather by the American Colonization Society (ACS), a private group run in part by white slave owners, which encouraged the emigration of free blacks to Africa because it viewed blacks as an economic burden and as potential troublemakers.

"The standard line that Liberia was founded by free slaves is both inaccurate and patronizing," said Marie Tyler-McGraw, author of an upcoming book about the American Colonization Society and the founding of Liberia. "Nineteenth century [white] American citizens thought they could minimize the problem of race and citizenship in [the United States] by providing an alternate republic for free blacks."

An Unlikely Alliance

There is a common misconception, historians say, that all American blacks were enslaved before the Civil War. In reality, the United States had thousands of free blacks in the early 19th century, and several American states were considered "slave-free."

Many slaves risked their lives to reach freedom in those states. But with few skills and no education, ex-slaves found themselves living in poverty in the large cities and contributing to a swelling black underclass.

The idea of repatriating African Americans to Africa originated with Robert Finley, a white Presbyterian minister from New Jersey. He felt that freed slaves in America had little hope of integrating into society and should be given an opportunity to govern themselves in a land where they could be truly free.

Finley found an unlikely ally in pro-slavery conservatives.

Continued on Next Page >>


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