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Tuesday, January 4, 2022

January 4, 2022: 2022 Anniversaries: 1822 and Monrovia

[A few years back I started January by highlighting some of the historic anniversaries we’d be commemorating in the year to come. It was a fun series, so I thought I’d do the same this year with some 2022 anniversaries. Leading up to a special post on predictions for 2022!]

On a few layers to the fraught founding of a West African settlement and nation.

On January 7th, 1822, a ship carrying a small cohort of African Americans arrived at Cape Mesurado on the West African coast, where they established a new settlement they named Christopolis. The land on which they founded that settlement was part of a 60-mile area of the coastline that had been purchased by the American Colonization Society (ACS), an organization of white Americans dedicated to the goal of both freeing enslaved African Americans and (especially, as the organization’s name suggests) sending as many African Americans as possible (those freed and those already free alike) “back to Africa.” One of the most prominent supporters of that organization and goal was then-President James Monroe, and two years later the burgeoning settlement would be renamed Monrovia, and would become the capital of the new nation of Liberia (which endures in West Africa to this day, with Monrovia by far its most populous city).

The connection to and support of none other than the President of the United States helps us remember an important point: that the ACS connected to countless individuals and threads in Early Republic America. It was only while researching “The Star-Spangled Banner” for Of Thee I Sing, for example, that I learned that the anthem’s author, the Maryland lawyer Francis Scott Key, was a co-founder of the ACS. As that last hyperlinked article notes, Key was also a lifelong slave-owner—a status he inherited but also expanded upon by purchasing enslaved people—and that detail illustrates another layer to the ACS: the central role played by slave-owners in its founding and efforts. It’s true that some of the ACS’s founding figures and most active members were Quaker abolitionists who believed that African Americans had the best chance to live full and happy lives outside of the United States. But many others, like Key, were themselves slave-owners, pursuing colonization out of a combination of anti-Black prejudice and (perhaps even more tellingly) practical fears of slave revolts.

There’s no way to separate the founding of Monrovia/Liberia from that organization and those (at best) troubling views and goals. But neither should we limit our perspective on the community and nation to the worst of those origins. After all, the African American community in the United States began with enslavement and all its attendant horrors; while we cannot forgot nor minimize all those histories (both of which remain in danger of happening in our ongoing education debates), no one would argue that they mean that all of African American identity since is or should be defined solely or centrally by them. Moreover, the settlers who founded Monrovia and Liberia were, whatever the fraught means by which they arrived in that place, not enslaved, were instead a community of free people establishing a city and nation that have survived and grown into the 21st century. That’s an origin and history worth commemorating, and indeed worth separating from the worst of those who played a part in those histories.

Next anniversary tomorrow,


PS. What do you think?

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