Why 86 African Americans Departed New York For Sierra Leone In 1820 After Gaining Their Freedom

Photo Credit: Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

 

January 6th, 2023 marks exactly 203 years since the first organized immigration of freed enslaved people departed from New York Harbor on a journey to Sierra Leone, a place that established itself as a haven for all slaves and people of color.

This expedition was significant in history because it marked the start of the American Colonization Society’s efforts to resettle formerly enslaved Africans in Africa.

It is important to note that this immigration was partially funded by the United States Congress as well as the American Colonization Society. In 1819, Congress appropriated $100,000 for the purpose of relocating displaced Africans who had been illegally brought to the United States following the abolition of the slave trade in 1808. This program was inspired by the British government’s efforts to resettle formerly enslaved people in Africa after the slave trade was abolished in 1772.

The British government settled 300 former slaves and 70 white prostitutes on the Sierra Leone peninsula in West Africa in 1787. Unfortunately, most members of this settlement died within two years due to disease or warfare with the local Temne people. However, in 1792, under the leadership of British abolitionist Thomas Clarkson, 1,100 formerly enslaved people, mostly individuals who had supported Britain during the American Revolution and were dissatisfied with their postwar resettlement in Canada, established the colony of Freetown.

Thousands of formerly enslaved people arrived in the Sierra Leone Colony over the next few decades from Canada, the West Indies, and other parts of West Africa. The first group of formerly enslaved people from the United States arrived in Sierra Leone in 1820, marking a watershed moment in history. This group consisted of 86 African Americans who boarded the Mayflower and embarked on a journey to Sierra Leone in search of a new life free of the oppression and discrimination they faced in the United States.

The American Colonization Society established the colony of Liberia south of Sierra Leone in 1821 as a home for formerly enslaved Americans outside of British jurisdiction. This move elicited mixed reactions from Americans of African descent, with the majority of them opposed to leaving their homes in the United States for the West African coast. American abolitionists also criticized the American Colonization Society, claiming that removing formerly enslaved people from the United States only served to strengthen the institution of slavery.

Despite this, approximately 15,000 African Americans settled in Liberia between 1822 and the American Civil War. Under pressure from the United Kingdom, the United States granted Liberia independence in 1847. An independent democratic republic was established for the first time in African history. Liberia was officially recognized as a diplomatic entity by the United States in 1862.

The journey of these formerly enslaved people is important to remember and commemorate because it marks a significant moment in history and the foundations of Liberia as a nation. Their courage and determination in seeking a new life in a place where they could be free and treated with dignity serves as a reminder of the human spirit’s resilience and strength.

 

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