Beginnings of the Back to Africa Movement

sloop1In 1780, a group of African men assembled in Newport, Rhode Island to organize and charter America’s first mutual aid society for Africans known as the Free African Union Society. The Society’s lofty mission included providing funds for indigent families, a burial society (Palls and Biers) to ensure proper burials, setting moral and ethical standards for public conduct within the larger community and most importantly, raising consciousness and funds within the African community to someday return to their native Africa. Meeting minutes of the Society that still exist today describe in detail the efforts to promote the betterment of fellow Africans, slave and free.
Over two hundred years ago this month, in a January 24, 1787 letter from Free African Union Society President Anthony Taylor to Abolitionist William Thornton, Taylor proclaims the interest of the Society for organizing a return and settlement back to Africa:

Sir,
Our Earnest desire of returning to Africa and settling there has induced us further to trouble you with these lines, in order to convey to your mind a more particular and full idea of our proposal……..We want to know by what right or tenor we shall possess said Lands, when we settle upon them, for we should think it not safe, and unwise for us to go and settle on Lands in Africa unless the right and fee of the Land is first firmly and in proper form, made over to us, and to our Heirs or Children.

Your humble Servant, Anthony Taylor
In the Name of Union Society
Newport
Jan’y 24 A.D., 1787

It is remarkable to note that the American Colonization Society would not be formally charted until 1816 and the Colony of Liberia established six years later – both established as “a solution to the problem of free blacks,” but the African men of Newport nearly thirty years before had already initiated and organized a movement to return to Africa. Anthony Taylor would die in 1799, but on January 4th, 1826 setting sail on the brig Vine, two dozen persons of African heritage from Newport would arrive in Liberia on February 6th. Ironically, much of the party succumb to fever and died within a year. Triumphantly, they had not died in a land where men were held as slaves. They died free in their own land.

TO BE SOLD: African Slave Advertisements in Colonial Newport

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For our county’s first 250 years, millions of enslaved Africans lived and worked within the original thirteen colonies and the ever-expanding United States of America. Rhode Island was one of the earliest and most active shipping sites in the American colonies, which between 1705 and 1805 launched nearly 1,000 slaving voyages, frequently from the port at Newport. Continue reading

In The Name of History

Many times, when you live and were raised in a historic community like my home in Newport, Rhode Island, you take for granted the significant sites and structures in the place you call home. My family has lived on Vernon Avenue for four generations. We have played baseball and tennis at Vernon Park next to our home. And up the street is the historic Vernon Family estate, “Elmhyrst” designed by famed Russell Warren, the leader of Greek Revival architecture in early America. But as I was surrounded by everything Vernon, it would later become clear to me that the Vernon name, which has been synonymous in Newport with our founding settlers and early commerce and political leadership, is also tied to the African Slave Trade. Continue reading

Colonial Mystery: Two Markers, One Child

Oliver, Ann

Ann Oliver
Newport, RI

In all the years that I have worked researching and interpreting slave cemeteries, the most interesting and baffling discovery I have come across is the matching burial markers in Newport, RI and Dorchester, MA of a young slave girl named Ann. She died in June 1743 at two years of age. Her mother’s name was Mimbo and they were both slaves in the Robert Oliver household in Dorchester. Continue reading

American Irony: Religious Freedom & African Enslavement in Colonial Newport

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Newport, Rhode Island in the mid-18th century embodied two marked ironies. Settled a century earlier on the principles of religious freedom and civil liberties, the fledging colony would attract many of the world’s most persecuted religious minority groups including Quakers, Baptist, and Jews. These same religious minorities would also enjoy the vast economic prosperity of trading and owning enslaved Africans. Between 1705 and 1805, Rhode Island merchants, largely from Newport, would sponsor nearly 1,000 slaving voyages to West Africa carrying back nearly 100,000 enslaved Africans to America and the West Indies. By 1755, Newport was a leading slave port in the American colonies. Continue reading

African Privateers and Sailors In Colonial Rhode Island

sloop1The peculiar institution of slavery in Rhode Island had its start and evolution with the sea. The town of Newport, aptly named the “City by the Sea,” would become the fifth most active seaport in all of Thirteen Colonies by the mid-18th century, an era that historians refer to as the “Golden Age.” At this time Newport would lead Colonial America in the participation in the notorious Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. In fact, between 1705 and 1805, Rhode Island merchants sponsored at least 1,000 slaving voyages to West Africa and carried over 100,000 slaves back to America. Continue reading

A Dialogue Between Two African Women

‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negro’s, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.
– P. Wheatley

Most people would recognize the name Phillis Wheatley as the first published African woman poet in America. Believed to have been born in Senegal, she was sold into slavery at the age of seven to the Wheatley family of Boston. Recognizing her potential, they taught her to read and write, and supported her later writings in poetry. Wheatley would convert to Christianity and become an active member of the Old South Meeting House in Boston. Constantly in ill health, she would die young at the age of thirty-one. Continue reading

The Black Origins of the Back to Africa Movement

While much of African American historical research and interpretation regarding the 19th and early 20th centuries “Back to Africa” movement has focused largely on the efforts of the American Colonization Society or the Pan-Africanism effort of Marcus Garvey in the 1920’s, few would recognize the earliest black sponsored and organized efforts to return African people of diaspora back to their ancestral lands originated in 1780 in Newport, Rhode Island.

Am-I-Not-A-Man-and-A-Brother-Abolitionist-SloganThe American Colonization Society is history’s most prominent organization to support the return of free African Americans to what was considered greater freedom in Africa. The Society also helped to found the colony of Liberia in 1821–22 during the Presidency of James Monroe, whose capital, Monrovia, is named in his honor. But the white political and class elite of early America had less of an interest in returning Africans back to the place they were illicitly taken, but more as a means to reduce the real and perceived threat of the fast-growing population of free African Americans. In the minds of most whites during the early part of the 19th century, free African Americans would either compete for jobs with newly arriving immigrants in the cities of the North and or instill insurrection with the slaves on the plantations of the South. The conventional reasoning at the time supported the concept; by returning free African Americans back to Africa, America would remove the growing economic threat along with the moral guilt of former slaves. Continue reading