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BBC’s Slavery and Salvation

The email arrived on March 11, 2019, inviting me to participate in the second series of History of Africa with Zeinab Badawi. My name had been suggested by Robtel Pailey, one of Liberia’s leading young scholars based in the U. K. I was thrilled!

Asked by one of the producers to suggest a location for the on-site recording, I proposed using the Atlantic Ocean as a backdrop. After all, the ocean exercised such a shaping influence on the contours of Liberian history.

First, there was the sea salt trade that linked this region to the Sahelian empires. Then there was the Portuguese arrival, which redirected West African trade from north to south and caused a realignment in regional power dynamics.

During the slave trade, our lack of natural harbors kept this area from becoming a major exporter of enslaved Africans. In addition, the African-America repatriates arrived via the Atlantic.

My segment was shot from the roof-top of the exquisite Capitol Room Lounge, near the cliff of Mamba Point.

In this episode, Zeinab Badawi visits Ghana and sees how momentum in the trans Atlantic slave trade led to competition for enslaved Africans between European nations who built numerous slave forts along West Africa’s Atlantic coast.

She hears about the inhumane conditions in which slaves awaiting shipment were kept and how women were selected and subjected to rape by their captors.

She also asks what do African academics believe were the main reasons behind abolition and why did many Africans return to the continent such as to Liberia? And how were they received by local communities?

The episode first aired Oct 18, 2020. Watched by 501,877 viewers, the show changed the trajectory of my career. Thanks to Robtel for the plug and to Karton Zawolo for the use of the Capitol Room.

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Historian locates Liberia’s founding document: Smithsonian

The Real Deal, Smithsonian Magazine, July • August 2022

In December 1821, U. S. naval lieutenant Robert Stockton and Dr. Eli Ayres, an agent of the American Colonization Society (ACS), purchased a tract of land in West Africa, which became the site of Monrovia, the capital of Liberia.

Over the last 200 years, their actions have given rise to a number of myths. While preparing a journal article on the purchase, I discovered the original purchase agreement, which has been missing since 1835!

That story is captured brilliantly by Amy Crawford of the Smithsonian Magazine.

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Gilder-Lehrman Institute for the Teaching of History

The email invitation said, “I am hoping you would be available to be our guest on Sunday June 12 at 2pm ET to discuss Liberia & the Quest for Freedom.” My immediate reply was, “I would be honored.”

After all, this email was from the renown Gilder-Lehrman Institute, the premier center for the teaching of American history. Previous guests on their Book Break interview program have included Eric Foner, David Blight, Annette Gordon-Reed, and other award-winning historians.

As the day of the event approached, I grew nervous because no one had sent a run-of-show or similar information. Maybe they had changed plans, I thought. It turned out my anxieties were unfounded.

In our 15-minute preparatory session prior to the show, the host Nathan McAlister totally set me at ease. As a result, the show went smoothly.

Book Break with Nathan McAlister • Sunday, June 12, 2002

But I was left wondering about the somewhat polarized response triggered by my Liberia & the Quest for Freedom book. Judging from reviews and other measures, it has been well received by professional historians.

Meanwhile, the reception has been icy cold from some influential Liberians, including the leadership of the Liberian Studies Association. They seem intent on making the book disappear by ignoring it.

Their response is similar to non-scholars in America who are pushing to remove what they call “critical race theory” from the curriculum. In both cases, there’s a refusal to acknowledge slavery. In both places, there’s an avoidance of inconvenient historical truths.

There’s a critical difference, however. In America today, the slavery deniers are non-scholars, but their counterparts in Liberia are the intelligentsia.

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An African Perspective on President James Monroe

Good history is never just a collection of facts; it also embodies perspectives. The relationship between those two factors is best approached as both/and, not either/or. As a friend of mine metaphorically puts it, “where you stand depends on where you sit.”

Sadly, we are living in a time when facts and perspectives are used interchangeably. Some folks are quick to dismiss inconvenient truths as ”fake,” while others shout ”facts” whenever they hear an opinion they agree with.

This rumination was sparked by an invitation to speak at an annual commemoration of President James Monroe’s death anniversary. The event was held at Fort Monroe, Virginia, on Monday, July 4th, 2022. Given his role in the founding of Liberia 200 years ago, this year’s event focused on the bicentennial of that African nation.

I was excited to revisit an area where I had lived in the early 1980s while teaching at historic Hampton Institute. As a native of Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, I was also honored to be invited. In my reflections at the event, I sought to offer facts coupled with an African perspective.

In 1800, for example, the largest planned rebellion by enslaved persons in Virginia was aborted. In the aftermath, Monroe (then governor of the commonwealth) proposed exiling some of the leaders to Freetown in West Africa, a suggestion for which he is criticized.

From the perspective of those freedom fighters, which fate would have been preferable: death, imprisonment or exile?

In 1807, the U. S. Congress banned the importation of African captives. But it fell to then-President Monroe to implement the ban. In the process, he made two policy decision that proved controversial.

First, he collaborated with the American Colonization Society in establishing Liberia as a colony for free blacks. Second, he facilitated the transportation Africans liberated from slave ships to Liberia aboard U. S. naval vessels.

Where there practical approaches that would have better served the interests of repatriates and recaptives? For example, should free blacks desirous of returning to their ancestral home have been denied support because others disapproved?

Should recaptives from slave ships have been released in the U. S., where they faced likely enslavement, or returned to their home areas of Africa, where re-enslavement was almost certain?

“Where you stand depends on where you sit!”

Among other reasons, Fort Monroe is historically significant because it is located near where the first Africans landed in British North America in 1619. At left, a young African-American woman views a museum exhibition on the 1619 landing. Eola Dance of the National Park Service welcoming guests to the Monroe commemoration.
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Timbo to Natchez to Monrovia

The text message arrived Dec. 22, 2021, inviting me to speak at the annual Isabella and the Prince celebration in Natchez, Miss. I had been recommended by my friend, Dr. Artemus Gaye, a descendant of the prince who was being commemorated.

I was elated, for several reasons. First, several of my favorite blues and jazz musicians hail from the Delta region, including Cassandra Wilson and John Lee Hooker. Then there’s Olu Dara, the father of rap artist Nas, who’s hometown is Natchez.

Cassandra Wilson
John Lee Hooker
Trumpeter Olu Dara

More important was the invitation to speak about a remarkable man. Abdul Rahman Ibrahima ibn Sori was a Fula prince captured at the height of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and transported to Mississippi plantation.

Abdul Rahman’s life is the subject of an autobiography and film entitled Prince Among Slaves. The commemorative event was held at the Natchez Museum of African American History and Culture, Feb 4, 2022.

Ibrahima spent forty years of his life as a field hand and foreman of the Natchez plantation of Colonel Thomas Foster, where he met and married Isabella. His fate took a dramatic turn one day at a market. There he met Dr. Coates Cox, who had been aided during his travels in Africa by Ibrahima and his father.

Foster spurned an offer by Dr. Cox to purchase Ibrahima’s freedom. That led to a campaign to liberate Ibrahima by Andrew Marschalk, a local newspaper publisher.

In 1826, a letter written in Arabic by Ibrahima to his family until it reached the U. S. Consulate in Morocco, the only African nation that had diplomatic relations with the U. S. At the request of the Sultan of Morocco, U. S. Secretary of State Henry Clay arranged Ibrahima’s release in 1829.

After a fundraising tour through northern states, Ibrahima and his family went to Liberia. But, on July 6, 1826, shortly after his arrival he died at the age of sixty-seven.

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A long-lost document: the Washington Post

Ray Cavanaugh, Retropolis, the Washington Post, November 20, 2021

The handwritten agreement details the sale of West African land that later became Monrovia, the country’s capital

The original purchase agreement for a tract of land that would become the Liberian capital of Monrovia was uncovered by historian C. Patrick Burrowes in August. (Chicago History Museum)

It was billed as a land of promise — a place where free Black Americans could obtain more political rights and a better quality of life.

Liberia did not receive its name until 1824, but the territory that became its capital city was purchased on Dec. 15, 1821.

Almost exactly 200 years later, a Liberian historian has discovered that original purchase agreement — a document missing since 1835 that sheds light on the acquisition of the only U.S. colony in Africa.

C. Patrick Burrowes, who was born in Liberia and has taught at Penn State Harrisburg and Marshall University, uncovered the handwritten document in August. It details the sale of a tract of West African land that later became Monrovia, the Liberian capital. The selling price was about $300 worth of weapons, rum and other merchandise.

The document’s whereabouts had been unknown for so long, Burrowes said, that there was speculation it had never existed at all. For the historian, finding the purchase agreement has been the most significant discovery of his career, he said. And for historical understanding of Liberia’s origins, this document helps debunk several prevailing myths about the acquisition of territory that became its capital.

“The details of the land transfer have been shrouded in some controversy, so the recent discovery by Dr. Burrowes is timely, especially so close to the 200th anniversary of the event,” said Herbert Brewer, a Morgan State University historian who studies slavery and the African American diaspora.

Borrowing a phrase from President Biden, Brewer called the find a “BFD” that “will give historians and Liberians an opportunity to rethink the country’s history.”

No land surveys of the territory were conducted, so its precise dimensions went unspecified. Various sources would later provide hugely inflated numbers, but Burrowes deduced from an 1824 map that the initial purchase involved only about 140 acres. He added that a similar piece of land in much of the United States would have sold for considerably less in that era.

The buyers were two White men: U.S. naval Lt. Robert Stockton and Eli Ayres, an agent of the American Colonization Society (ACS), an organization founded in 1816 that sought to encourage and facilitate free African Americans to return to their ancestral continent.

Burrowes, who has spent several decades researching the ACS, said the text of the 1821 purchase agreement matched Ayres’s handwriting on other papers and that Stockton’s signature on the document matched his signature on other letters from the period. 

The second page of the land contract, bearing the signatures of U.S. naval Lt. Robert Stockton and American Colonization Society agent Eli Ayres — the buyers — and local rulers Peter, George, Zoda, Long Peter, Governor and Jimmy. (Chicago History Museum)

Stockton, who would later attain the naval rank of commodore and become a U.S. senator for New Jersey, “embodied antebellum America’s contradictory stance on slavery,” Burrowes said. As one of the first officers on the

U.S. Navy’s anti-slavery patrol, Stockton was so dogged in pursuing foreign slave ships that he unsettled diplomatic relations with France, which filed a protest against one of his ship seizures. And yet for all his opposition to further importation of enslaved people, he had no objection to the South’s system of human bondage. In fact, he enslaved African laborers on his own Georgia sugar plantation.

Aside from Stockton’s convoluted relationship with slavery, much debate has persisted over the extent to which the ACS was truly an anti-slavery organization. Though the society did not pursue immediate abolition, it did rescue Africans from illegal slave ships and deliver them to Liberia.

The land purchase highlights the fact that opposition to slavery was not exclusive to clusters of outraged Americans. John Mill, a biracial West African native serving local rulers as a secretary at the purchase negotiations, had recently given up his lucrative slave-trade business because of a troubled conscience. The rulers were willing to listen to pro-slavery arguments, but they ultimately cast their lot with the opposing side by selling the land to the ACS, over the objections of local slave traders who saw the move as a threat to their business.

“One can say then,” Burrowes said, “that Liberia was founded as an abolitionist nation.”

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Black History Month talk at the Library of Congress

“Repatriates, Recaptives and African Abolitionists: The Untold Story of Liberia’s Founding in 1822.”

I began conducting research at the Library of Congress in the mid-1970s, while an undergraduate student at Howard University. The world was markedly different then, with no barriers around the Capitol building and no metal detectors at the entrances.

My career as a scholar has taken me to research collections around the world, including the Biblioteque Nationale in Paris and the National Archives outside of London. But, given my research interest in Liberian history, I always found my way back to the Library of Congress, which houses the papers of the American Colonization Society.

During the summer months away from teaching, there were many days when I spent more hours in the Jefferson and Madison buildings than I did at home! One evening I found myself locked into the majestic Reading Room alone because I didn’t hear the gentle chime that signaled the closing of the Library.

In short, my Black History Month talk at the Library of Congress, delivered on Wed, February 9, 2022, brought my longstanding and fruitful relationship with that magnificent institution full circle.