“Better For Us To Be Separated”

When, on August 14, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln spoke to a visiting “committee of colored men” at the White House, it was already becoming clear that one result of the War Between the States would be the freeing of millions of slaves. Slavery was toppling under the blows of war, and in just another month the President would issue the preliminary version of the Emancipation Proclamation. The “colored men” whom Lincoln addressed were free already; some of them had been free all their lives. The President, however, gave them no heartening affirmations of their equality. Instead, he proposed to them the resettling of American blacks, either in Africa or in Central or South America.

“You are cut off,” he reminded his visitors, “from many of the advantages which the other race enjoy. The aspiration of men is to enjoy equality with the best when free, but on this broad continent, not a single man of your race is made the equal of a single man of ours.” He felt it was “better for us both … to be separated,” that is, that the Negroes of America go elsewhere—all of them.

He ruminated aloud about their going to Liberia, in Africa. Perhaps, he suggested, that was too far away: “… some of you would rather remain within reach of the country of your nativity. I do not know how much attachment you may have toward our race. It does not strike me that you have the greatest reason to love them. But still you are attached to them at all events.” So he had in mind the possibility of a colony in Central America, and he asked for “a hundred tolerably intelligent men, with their wives and children,” to be the pioneer colonists there, although he admitted he would be satisfied with a quarter that number.

Thus did the Great Emancipator propose voluntary exile for the nation’s blacks. He was by no means the first, nor the last, to nourish such a solution to an agonizing American racial problem. Serious discussion of that prospect began as early as the 1770’s with Samuel Hopkins, a Rhode Island Congregational minister; Hopkins proposed training black missionaries to begin a Negro return to Africa. Thomas Jefferson, in the Virginia Assembly, put forward a program that would emancipate the slaves as they became adults. Having been trained in various useful arts, they would be sent to a distant colony. Jefferson believed slavery was evil, both morally and politically. Yet deeper than his abhorrence of the institution was his fear that American freed Negroes would become so -numerous that race war would be inevitable.

The fear of a genocidal blood bath has been a persistent argument in favor of an absolute separation of the black and white races—a proposal that has surfaced repeatedly in the nation’s history. The presumed inevitability and incurable nature of race prejudice have likewise been advanced to justify total separation.

Such fears and attitudes have been most evident in periods of heightened racial tension, and it is at those times that Negro emigration has appeared to many to be a reasonable, perhaps the only, solution. The quarter century after Reconstruction, for example, a particularly desperate era for American blacks, saw the creation of such enterprises as the Liberian Exodus Joint Stock Steamship Company, the United Transatlantic Society, and the International Migration Society. Just after the First World War, when honorable service brought blacks no bettered status and little relief from violently enforced prejudices, a black messiah, Marcus Aurelius Garvey, arose with ambitious plans for building an African empire with black Americans. There was an African Nationalist Pioneer Movement in the 1930’s, when the Depression compounded the problems confronting the Negro community. And in spite of improvement in the situation of Negroes since then, the still agonizingly slow advance of equality spawned a small frontier village of black “Hebrews” in Liberia in the 1960’s.

The resettlement idea thus appears to have had remarkable vitality. But it has never been particularly effective. Lincoln’s plans for moving Negroes south of the border is illustrative. It came a cropper, specifically, on the greed of white promoters of proposed colonies and the opposition of Central American governments. But those stumbling blocks might have been hurdled had it not been for the more basic problem common to all such projects. Any resettlement program had to expose, had to carry with it like a disfiguring scar, painful conflicts and contradictions in the racial practices and pretensions of the American community. Nowhere are these better shown than in the rise and fall of the largest and longest-lived of the resettlement organizations, the American Colonization Society, founded in 1816.

The sole purpose of the society was stated in its formal title, The American Society for Colonizing the Free People of Color in the United States. Free Negroes, as Henry Clay remarked to the society’s first organizational meeting, “neither enjoyed the immunities of freemen, nor were they subject to the incapacities of slaves.” Prejudice, Clay said, worked to keep them a lower caste, and it was “desirable … both as it respected them, and the residue of the population of the country, to drain them off.”