“None but Persons of Color Shall be Admitted”: The Liberian Colonization Movement in Monrovia, New Orleans, and Petersburg, Va., 1829-1859
Between 1829 and 1859, some 1,656 African Americans left the port of New Orleans for a new home in the West African Republic of Liberia. Just 16 of these emigrants, however, were freeborn “Creoles” of the state, while no more than 8 resided in New Orleans before departing for the West African coast. In contrast, nearly 2,800 freeborn Virginians left Richmond and Petersburg during that same period. It was this contingent of largely mixed-race, well-to-do Virginians who laid the cultural and social foundations for the future Liberian elite. In fact, they formed the body of the Americo-Liberian class that came to dominate the nation’s politics and culture for 158 years. Freeborn Virginians, it seems, had more of a reason to leave than their francophone counterparts in New Orleans.
This paper will explore those reasons, postulating that the New Orleans Creoles of color, the elite of New Orleans colored society, lacked the republican notions of social and personal rebirth that fueled the free Virginians who founded Liberia. They were also more comfortable socially than the Virginians. They found acceptance in parts of white society denied their northern countrymen, and represented a more autonomous group than many free colored Virginians. In Liberia, men like Joseph Jenkins Roberts of Petersburg, Va., sought to create a new life in the mixed-race aristocracy of that “black American Republic.” He and his fellow emigrants looked to West Africa for a way to prove their human worth as citizens, settlers, and, as he termed them, “pilgrims.” They saw in Liberia a chance to recreate the American past, and redefine the future of their class and people as emissaries of American Christianity and culture. Although they were not considered legal citizens of any nation, the colored Creoles in New Orleans did not seek out Africa as a place to find acceptance, or citizenship. Rather, they either stayed in New Orleans, or looked to Haiti or Tampico, Mexico, as options for exile. But neither of these plans worked, and New Orleans remained the home of a colored Creole aristocracy, significantly less “American” than that found in Monrovia, Liberia.
But the two groups did not differ as drastically as one would assume. Men like Joseph Roberts, his friend William Colson, and John N. Lewis, all wealthy, literate, mixed-race merchants, shared ambitions and hopes similar to those of Creoles Nelson Fouché, François Lacroix, and Joseph Dumas. All of these men either left, or thought seriously about leaving, the United States at some point in their lives. They traveled to different locations for many of the same reasons. Between larger notions of American racial and cultural fulfillment, and disillusionment over the encroachment of so-called “American values” and the loss of social standing in the 1840s and 50s, we see economic self-interest, dreams of aristocracy and power, and increased social and racial insularity in both groups. Previously historiography has focused the larger notions, treating each group of emigrants as organized entities. This paper looks at the individuals who made up these groups, showing how similarities on the ground could yield profoundly different outcomes.