This is a fictional (based on fact) discourse on early Liberia and The American Colonization Society which takes place in 1828 and is excerpted from my book, Reverberation, The Novel.
Thaddeus Goodenough rose from his chair and silenced the room with a wave of his hand.
“We have a guest with us this evening.” His voice was loud and firm as he addressed the tables of diners. “Our good friend, Reverend Maximillian Montague from Virginia, is here to spread the word about the American Colonization Society and its honorable endeavors to establish a colony of free Negroes in Africa.”
“Welcome, Maximillian Montague.” Individual greetings echoed around the room as the community received the Southern gentleman into their circle.
Reverend Montague was a small, trim man dressed in a tight-fitting, double-breasted coat made of rich midnight-blue wool. It topped a high-necked, white waistcoat and matching linen shirt. Fawn-colored trousers flared over his hips and thighs and narrowed as they descended to his ankles. Straps under his shiny black shoes held the pant legs tight and tidy as he moved to the center of the room. The ensemble was designed to emphasize his wasp-like waist and underline his patrician demeanor.
He stood for a moment, his right hand on his hip. A look of satisfaction crossed his face as he verified the positive impact of his appearance on his plain-clothed audience. Without changing his position, he surveyed the men and women who expectantly awaited his words.
“I have just returned from the great continent of Africa.” Melodic tones of the South tinged his words. He continued to sweep the room with his eyes as the oohs and ahs of his audience confirmed the anticipated response.
“Six years ago, along with a contingent of our black brethren and three of my own kind, I sailed for Liberia. We survived the treacherous seas and tumultuous winds which buffeted our brave little ship and heralded our possible extinction.” Maximillian took a breath and his silence underscored the danger of the undertaking.
“After many weeks of enduring debilitating conditions and overwhelming deprivation, we finally reached the promised land.” There was a general shaking of heads as the assembled members envisioned the rough and perilous crossing and empathized with the frail dandy who spoke.
“When we landed on the shore, we were greeted by pitiable conditions. Dwindling supplies, disease, hostile natives and disheartened settlers threatened the realization of our dream for a new world.” He scanned the room and was rewarded with sympathetic murmuring.
“During my time in Liberia, my compatriots and I lived through a malaria epidemic, built defense fortifications and quelled a native uprising.” A master of timing, the little reverend allowed his listeners to absorb the travails of the resolute early emigrants to a foreign land.
“On the positive side, I am proud to say, we established a self-sustaining agricultural community and instituted profitable trade alliances. We made our new colony the economic and political center of the surrounding coastal areas.” His audience brightened at the heartening news.
“And by the time we left, our intrepid immigrants, and those who followed, had claimed their lands, constructed homes and were leading productive lives.”
He took out a handkerchief and delicately wiped his brow. It was hard to imagine this paragon of gentility involved in any kind of physically or emotionally demanding work. They loved him and they loved his story.
James turned and looked toward the women’s section. Sally sat at the head of one of the tables and had a clear view of the preacher from Virginia. She was following every word, apparently captivated by his tale.
After a few additional anecdotes in which he presented himself as the central figure, Maximillian Montague came to the real purpose of his visit. He began to speak of the sorry plight of the free blacks in the United States and their imminent salvation by the American Colonization Society.
“Today, my friends, in our beautiful United States of America, free Negroes are no better off than their enslaved brothers. A deplorable racial history of devastating poverty, rampant rejection of Christian beliefs and ethics, unrestrained licentiousness and attendant personal debasement, condemns the majority of our free blacks to a lifetime of suppression.” Two of the residents shook their heads in open disagreement while the others signaled their concurrence.
Seeking to please all listeners, the reverend added, “There are, of course, exceptions.” He paused, looked over his temporary flock and decided to return to his original premise.
“However, many of these good folk find themselves barred from respectable professions which require a modicum of higher learning as they are unwilling or unable to pursue formal studies. Theoretically, all free men should be allowed entry into any enterprise. Unfortunately, the truth is that the color of the black man’s skin bars him from social and economic advancement.” He strode to the side of the room and pointed the index finger of his right hand toward the congregation.
“Look,” he shook his finger and repeated himself. “Look to where you find the unemployed members of our colored population. Not in school or church or actively engaged in the search for an honest day’s wages, but rather, in dens of iniquity with liquor, gaming and loose women.
“Desperate crimes,” his voice rose, “occasioned by passion, poverty and rage, are committed by blacks and far outnumber those perpetrated by our white brethren. The end result of the privation suffered by so many of our Negro brothers is a life of squalor and moral dissolution, a life which ends in painful and debilitating disease of the body as well as the soul.”
The reverend took a deep breath, retrieved his handkerchief, and again, dabbed at his forehead. Many of the residents shook their heads in sympathetic pity for these unfortunate, inferior human beings and sent silent thanks to God for giving them their pale complexions.
A woman sitting to the right of Sally impulsively jumped to her feet and demanded, “Tell us, Pastor, how we can help these poor, poor, miserable souls.”
A slight tic appeared in the corner of Maximillian Montague’s left eye. He knew he had them.
“Thank you, Sister,” he smiled beneficently at the speaker who, somewhat sheepishly, resumed her seat.
“Thank you for asking that question. It is not fair to leave our dark-skinned brothers and sisters mired in their misery when a new life of hope and prosperity is available to them in the modern day Garden of Eden that is Liberia. Opportunity abounds along the coast where the waters of the St. Paul’s River run free and the land is lush and fertile for farming. The town of Monrovia, named for the great statesman, James Monroe, has been established there and homes have been built on the high ground overlooking its natural harbor.
“At present, there is no official governor of the colony; however, the Reverend Jehudi Ashmun has been serving in that capacity and he is dedicated to establishing an American empire in Africa. To that end, he has acquired additional lands from the native tribes whose territories abut ours.”
He took a few steps back so he could look everyone in the eye. “And while I was in the colony, we confirmed and established the ‘Constitution, Government and Digest of the Laws of Liberia’.” Maximillian projected an air of proprietary ownership as he spoke.
“Great progress has been made since our first courageous pioneers stepped foot on the continent of Africa. By moving to this new and unspoiled region, our immigrants are now able to see themselves as free men, no longer shackled by the prejudices and restraints which constrained them as members of a wretched and inferior race living in an inhospitable land. Many have come to our virgin colony with established professions; others have learned new skills, become traders or established farms which produce much needed food for our community. Just as idleness is not tolerated, land and home ownership are encouraged. And for every two acres appropriated to the settlers, a third lot is designated for public use. In just a few years, Liberia will truly be an American utopia on African soil.”
Maximillian paused as his audience expressed appreciation for the opportunities awaiting the free black man. Then he drew a deep breath and took a chance. “The blessings conferred upon our disenfranchised brethren by the American Colonization Society are immeasurable: pride, prosperity, freedom from persecution, dignity, a sense of self-worth. Imagine the wondrous benefits for both the black and white races in America if all two-hundred and fifty thousand members of our free Negro populace were to be returned to the land of their forefathers to live and proliferate unfettered by the humiliation of an ancestry of bondage.”
The Reverend Montague looked over his recent converts and saw varied reactions to his last statement. The majority smiled and nodded their heads at the wisdom of the Society’s altruistic plan. However, some frowned as they privately acknowledged the Southern roots of the speaker and recognized the probable purpose of the proposal.
James glanced at Sally. The expression on her face was noncommittal. Her hands, however, were clasped and pulsating slightly as she almost imperceptibly opened and closed them.
He thought of Conshy Joe, the bent-over black boy who did odd jobs at Hebe Balderston’s tavern. As far as James knew, he had arrived one night with the single name of Joe and claimed to have come from an unfamiliar area called Conshohocken. Hebe Balderston, a liberal Quaker in temperament and belief, privately suspected he was a runaway slave and provided him shelter. He worked for his daily fare and a spot in the hayloft at night. It was said she allowed him to keep any coins he might find on the floor after the heavy-drinking crowd dispersed. His rewards were thought to be few and far between but they allowed him a small measure of income which, it was rumored, he kept hidden in a tin box in the barn.
James wondered how Conshy Joe would feel about being relocated to a distant settlement in a strange and mysterious land.
He returned his attention to the speaker. Maximillian Montague, sensing resistance from his early adversaries was charging forward in an attempt to win them over. He looked at the dissidents as he continued.
“We deplore the horrendous state of our black brethren but understand it is foolhardy to ignore the future of the white race. We must remember that the contemporary slave owner is rarely the one who brought these refugees from a savage society to our nation. However, he is the one who exploits his miserable charges and fights to defend the egregious evil resulting from the monstrous dark stain of slavery which taints our otherwise fair land.
“Under the patronage of the slave-holder, the black population is able, even encouraged, to reproduce without restraint. At the present population increase of at least sixty thousand a year, their numbers will soon quadruple. Many white Americans fear that, encouraged by their majority, they will turn on their masters and rebel against the perceived brutality, inequity and persecution they have suffered, and that they will seek repayment for the cruelties they have endured.
“If this happens, a second revolution will be fought on our land, one which will be fueled by the fury of a subjugated people. Retribution will be their goal and the white man their target.”
Maximillian Montague heard the gasps and moans which greeted his last utterance and was encouraged to amplify his views.
“Miscegenation will dilute the purity of the Caucasian race. Our lands will be laid to waste and wantonly burned along with our homes, churches and towns. Our people, men, women,” he paused and took a deep breath, “and children, will be ravaged by rape and brutalization, martyred in their attempts to preserve the country their ancestors toiled without relief to build.” The reverend’s eyes flashed and his voice rose incrementally as he drove home his point.
“Confusion will reign; profligacy will flourish; debauchery, moral transgression and flagrant disregard for the law will overrun the land. This,” he moved to the nearest table and brought his fist down on the corner causing the few remaining dishes to leap into the air before landing with a jarring finality. “This,” he repeated as he emphasized each additional word, “cannot be allowed to happen.”
The concerned residents cried out as they embraced his prophecy and endorsed his rejection. He returned to the center of the room, shook his head clear of oratorical passion and calmly continued his discourse.
“The American Colonization Society wants the best for all Americans. We aim to establish a grand new world in Liberia, one where our noble black brethren can do as our ancestors did: settle and own land, found and grow businesses, participate in government, educate their children, and live free from persecution. In other words, we intend to provide the free Negro with the means to achieve the American dream on his native soil.”
Subtle beads of perspiration decorated the Southern gentleman’s brow. He retrieved his damp handkerchief and delicately dabbed his forehead dry.
Taking advantage of the interruption, one of the skeptics stood and said, “Pardon me, Reverend Montague, but I am compelled to disagree with some of your assertions.” The little man in the fine attire regretted his comfort break.
“Eleven years ago, approximately three thousand free black men attended a meeting in Philadelphia to discuss the American Colonization Society and the prospects of emigration and colonization in general. At that time, three prominent black religious leaders, Absalom Jones, Richard Allen and John Gloucester, favored the plans of the Society and spoke in support of the proposed emigration to Africa.
“In spite of the influence of these and other prominent black leaders, the men attending the meeting voted overwhelmingly to reject the effort to transplant the free blacks of America to an undeveloped, primordial land. They recognized that the free black population comprised the strongest opponents to slavery.
“The attendees resolved to remain in America where their ancestors had labored under the oppressive whip of the slave master and the debilitating onus of vassalage to clear the land and construct the buildings of our new country. These proud descendants of ill-used primitives, these early supporters of the concept of a racially-blind society, vowed to honor the sacrifices of their progenitors and to benefit from their sweat.
“Those men, Reverend Montague, understood the real reason which motivated many of the early advocates of the colonization movement: fear of a slave revolution instigated by free blacks. Many of the originators of this egregious repatriation were, like you, white men from the South. They were interested in protecting their enslaved property, not in the welfare of the Negro race. This incentive continues to exist today.
“The utopian society you so glowingly describe is, in actuality, riddled with accusations of racial bigotry; unjust government; quarrels between colonists and ACS agents; clashes between settlers and native Africans; disproportionate allotment of land and rations, and unrealized educational opportunities.” The dissenter pointed to Maximillian.
“In other words, Reverend, what you are trying to sell these good people is a mirage, a deceptively disguised mass emigration plot to rid America of its free black people. The desired result is the continuation and protection of the tyrannical, slave-based society of your birthplace, the state of Virginia, and its collaborative neighbors in the decadent deep South.”
Flicking a final confrontational glance in the direction of the evening’s speaker, the challenger sat down.
Maximillian Montague was visibly shaken as he watched his audience swing from enthusiastic supporters to confused skeptics as they tried to sort through the conflicting information they had just heard.
“‘And I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all countries whither I have driven them, and will bring them again to their folds; and they shall be fruitful and increase.’ Jeremiah Twenty-three, verse three.” The familiar voice of his fellow divine saved Reverend Montague from the dreaded curse of speechlessness and he stepped aside to allow Thaddeus Goodenough to speak.
“The Lord recognizes that the fate of our brown-skinned brethren is abysmal on our continent, that he has driven them here in error. Even if the opportunity presented itself to establish a colony in the western reaches of our land, the speed with which our white pioneers are moving to inhabit new territories would soon catch up with our free people of color.
“The white majority would bring with them their old prejudices. Injustices and persecution would again overwhelm the unfortunate sons of Africa. Prospects would evaporate and poverty, depravity and corruption would lead to sedition. Revolution would spread from the leafy banks of the Potomac to the arid sands of the Gulf of Mexico.
“No, the alternatives to the American Colonization Society’s plan are unacceptable. The Lord knows Africa is the fold from whence the ill-fated black man was plucked. He was taken under duress to a strange, and for him, cruel land and he now deserves to be returned to his native homeland with dignity.
“As the Reverend Montague has so eloquently elucidated, Liberia is the Garden of Eden for the former Negro slave. Using skills he has honed here in America, he, his family and fellow colonists will have futures full of opportunity, peace and prosperity. Yes, Liberia is the answer to our brown-skinned brother’s dream of freedom and happiness.”
Thaddeus Goodenough turned to the grateful little man.
“Now is the time for Reverend Montague to explain how we can materially help the Society to realize its benevolent dream of repatriation for all free men of color and the resultant cleansing of the collective conscience of the white men who once owned them.”
The revered leader of Pleasant Valley Farm took his seat and looked expectantly at his colleague from the South.
Buoyed by the renewed attention of the assemblage, Maximillian assumed a serious, businesslike stance and began to sell.
“Our glorious Society is supported by federal and state grants as well as by private donations. This money, however, is hardly enough to pay for the passage of our emigrants, the expenses incurred by the colony upon their arrival, the costs of land purchases and development necessary for the growth of the settlement. We need financial support from other sources as well.
“We recognize that those who hear our story have great empathy for the free black man who faces such a bleak future in our country. We also know that few can afford to give us large amounts of money. Our solution is to offer this exquisitely designed document….” Thaddeus Goodenough rose from his chair and handed a piece of parchment to his fellow pastor.
“Thank you, Reverend Goodenough.” Maximillian Montague held the paper high so all could see.
“This exquisitely-wrought document officially confirms that the owner is a member for life of the American Colonization Society. This handsome certificate, designed to grace the wall of every home, is a testament to the character, compassionate sensibilities and unbounded generosity of the man or woman whose name it bears. At a cost of only thirty dollars, this certificate of life membership is most appropriately priced for gifts to family members, beloved ministers, teachers and friends.” Enthusiastic heads bobbed their approval.
“We appreciate any help you can give us. As you have heard, the rewards for Liberian immigrants are innumerable.” Maximillian held the certificate in both his hands and displayed it in front of his chest.
“The rewards for your generosity,” he pushed the parchment forward, “are this tangible proof of your liberality and the knowledge that you are a step closer to a seat on the right hand of God in heaven.”
His confident demeanor restored, the little minister bowed slightly to the members of the community and then walked over to join his sponsor. The audience clapped and murmured praise of the two men of God for espousing such a wonderful cause.
James watched as the outspoken objector rose, and shaking his head in disbelief, left the room. His companion remained but did not participate in the congratulatory response of the group.
Out of the corner of his eye, James caught a glimpse of Sally. Responding to a signal from Reverend Goodenough, she left her seat and joined the two preachers as they exited the room. James, unsure of his next move, remained at the table.
The other diners lingered to discuss the purchase of life memberships in the American Colonization Society. Although James was determined to avoid any involvement in conversation, he was fascinated by the level of interest in Maximillian’s proposal.
To a woman, the feminine contingent was in favor of supporting the Society’s work. Their sympathies lay with the enterprising black emigrants and their expectations of new and rewarding lives in their ancestral lands on the African continent.
The men spoke of their personal support for the liberation of the black race. James, however, suspected that many of the avowed good intentions were tainted by the awareness that the free black man performed tasks less expensively than his white counterpart. The resettlement of these low-paid competitors would ensure the unchallenged perpetuation of established wages for their Caucasian friends and relatives.
The dialogue ended with unanimous declarations of approval of the Society and its dynamic spokesman from Virginia. Everyone was more than satisfied that they had a worthy cause to champion and they bristled with the sanctity of their newly-adopted altruistic endeavor.