The Concept of Freedom

With the idea of freedom for the enslaved in the public forum, next came the question of what was to be done with thousands of freed men and women who would be suddenly responsible for supporting themselves. And the concerns went further. Southerners lived in fear of slave revolts, and were terrified that slaves would rise up and slaughter their white owners in their beds. Indeed, many of the cruel practices of slavery in America grew out of fear on the part of slaveholders; they wanted to make slaves and freed men alike too afraid to attempt revolt. Laws were passed making the crime of being involved in a revolt, either directly or as a conspirator, punishable by death. Other laws required a freed slave to leave the colony or state within a specified period of time following their manumission. In some cases, that meant leaving behind spouses, children or parents.

More than one scheme to remove African-Americans, both free and slave, from the country and colonize them elsewhere was hatched. This idea was supported by certain slaveholders who felt it was in their best interest to remove a segment of the population who outnumbered them and who might opt to incite dissention. Abraham Lincoln supported colonization, citing an inability for African-Americans to assimilate into white society. Thomas Jefferson, another early supporter, was concerned that white and African-American people could not co-exist.

Paul Cuffee, an African-American shipowner and a Quaker, felt that returning African-Americans to Africa would help to Christianize the African continent and would also open trade. He successfully transported thirty-eight African-Americans to a colony in Africa named Freetown, Sierra Leone.

The American Colonization Society, formed a year before Cuffee’s death in 1817, successfully established a settlement in Liberia in 1822, and by 1850, the organization had relocated 10,000 African-Americans. The organization was criticized by abolitionists who felt that colonization undermined efforts to end slavery. Many African-Americans felt that they had been born in the United States and that it was their home. For fear that it might be construed that they wished to return to Africa, many African-American organizations dropped the word ‘African’ from their names and began to use the term ‘Colored American’.

Not all plans for colonization succeeded, and not all limited their plans to expatriating African-Americans to Africa. Consideration was given to establishing colonies in South America, Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean.

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