African Colonization–By a Man of Color

Augustus Washington

July 03, 1851

To the Editors of The Tribune:

As the infant Republic of Liberia is now attracting the attention of the enlightened nations, and the press of both England and America, I may hope that a communication in regard to that country, and the Afric-Americans in this, may not be deemed a subject intrusive nor foreign to the public interest. And I am encouraged by the just and liberal course you have taken in favor of the proposed line of Steamers to the Western Coast of Africa, and also the boldness with which you have lately urged the propriety and interest of some of the colored people, emigrating from our crowded cities to less populous parts of this country, as the great West, or to Africa or any other place where they may secure an equality of rights and liberty, with a mind unfettered and space to rise. Besides, as your paper is generally read by the progressive and more liberal portion of white Americans and some of the most intelligent of the colored, I may also hope to be confirmed in my present sentiments and measures or driven to new and better convictions. I do not wish to be thought extravagant, when I affirm what I believe to be true, that I have seen no act in your public career as an editor, statesman and philanthropist, more noble and praiseworthy than that of turning your pen and influence to African Colonization and civilization, after finding that you could not secure for the black man in America those inalienable rights to which he with other oppressed nations, is entitled and for which you have heretofore labored. Though the colored people may not appreciate your kind efforts, and those of many other good and true men who pursue your course, we trust you will not on account of present opposition be weary in well doing. Though dark the day, and fearful as is the tide, oppression is rolling over us, we are certain that it is but the presage of a more glorious morrow. We do not despair. We thank God that notwithstanding all the powerful combinations to crush us to the earth, as long as the bible with its religion endures, there will ever be a large number of the American people whose prayers, sympathies and influence will defend us here, and assist and encourage our brethren who have sought, or may in future seek liberty on a foreign shore. If these no other reward awaits, the time is not distant when they shall receive at least the thanks and benedictions of a grateful people, “redeemed, regenerated and disenthralled by the genius of universal emancipation.” Ever since the annexation of Texas and the success and triumph of American arms on the plains of Mexico I have been looking in vain for some home for Afric-Americans more congenial to their feelings and prejudice than Liberia. The Canadas, the West In-dies, Mexico, British Guiana and other parts of South America have all been brought under review. And yet I have been unable to get rid of a conviction, long since entertained and often expressed, that if the colored people of this country ever find a home on earth for the developement of their manhood and intellect, it will first be in Liberia or some other parts of Africa. A continent larger than North America is lying waste for want of the hand of science and industry. A land whose bowels are filled with mineral and agricultural wealth, and on whose bosom reposes in exuberance and wild extravagance all the fruits and productions of a tropical clime. The providence of God will not permit a land so rich in all the elements of wealth and greatness to remain much longer without civilized inhabitants. Every one who has traced the history of missions in Africa and watched the progress of that little Republic of Afric-Americans on the western coast, must be convinced that the colored men are more peculiarly adapted and must eventually be the means of civilizing, redeeming and saving that continent if ever that is done at all. Encouraged and supported by American benevolence and philanthropy, I know no people better suited to this great work none whose duty more it is. Our servile and degraded condition in this country, the history of the past, and the light that is pouring in upon me from every source fully convinces me that this is our true, our highest and happiest destiny, and the sooner we commence this glorious work the sooner will ’light spring up in darkness and the wilderness and the solitary place be glad, and the deserts rejoice and blossom as the rose.’

I am aware that nothing except the Fugitive Slave Law can be more startling to the free colored citizens of the Northern States, than the fact that any man among them whom they have regarded as intelligent and sound in faith should declare his convictions and influence in favor of African Colonization. But the novelty of the thing does not prove it false, nor that he who dare reject a bad education and break loose from long established prejudices may not have the most conclusive reasons for such a course.

I am aware, too, of the solemn responsibility of my present position. It must result in some good or great evil. I maintain that clinging to long cherished prejudices and fostering hopes that can never be realized, the leaders of the colored people in this country have failed to discharge a great and important duty to their race. Seeing this, though a mere private business man, with a trembling pen I come forward alone, joining with friend and foe in moving the wheel of a great enterprise, which though unpopular with those it designs to benefit, must result eventually in the redemption and enfranchisement of the African race.

With the conviction of a purpose so noble, and an end so beneficient, I cannot notice the misrepresentations, slander and anathemas, which I must for a while endure, even from those whose approbation and good will I would gladly retain. It was no difficult task to have seen, that unless they could force emancipation, and then the perfect social and political equality of the races, human nature, human pride and passions would not allow the Americans to acknowledge the equality and inalienable rights of those who had been their slaves. One or the other must be dominant. For this reason, seven years ago, while a student, I advocated the plan of a separate state for colored Americans-not as a choice, but as a necessity, believing it would be better for our manhood and intellect to be freemen by ourselves than political slaves with our oppressors. I en-listed at once the aid of a few colored young men, of superior talent and ability; and we were earnestly taking measures to negotiate for a tract of land in Mexico, when the war and its consequences blasted our hopes, and drove us from our purpose. About five years ago I told my excellent friend, Geo. L. Seymour of Liberia (who, after a residence of some years there, had returned to this city to take out his family) that I knew only one way to develop the faculties of our people in this country, and that by their entire separation from oppression and its influences; and that if I was compelled to abandon my plan of a separate State in America, I would devote my voice, my pen, my heart and soul to the cause of Liberia. I have since written to him that he has my heart in Africa now, and in two or three years, if we live, I will shake hands with him on the banks of the St. John.

Ever since a lad of fifteen, it has been my constant study to learn how I might best contribute to elevate the social and political position of the oppressed and unfortunate people with whom I am identified; and while I have endeavored, in my humble way, to plead the cause of three millions of my enslaved countrymen, I have, at the same time, thought it no inconsistency to plead also for the hundred and fifty millions of the native sons of Africa. But every word uttered in her behalf subjects us to the imputation of being a Colonizationist, and covers us with the odium our people attach to such a name; as if something unjust and wicked was naturally associated with the term, when in fact that odium, if such I may call it for the sake of argument, can exist only with those who have forgotten the history of Plymouth Rock and Jamestown, or who are determined not to know the truth, in spite of facts and the evidence of the most enlightened reasons. What is Colonization? For the benefit of those who treat it with contempt, and think that no good can come out of it, I may merely remark that the thirteen original States, previous to the Declaration of Independence, were called the Colonies of Great Britain, the inhabitants colonists. The companies and individuals in England that assisted in planting these Colonies, were called Colonizationists. These colonists came from the land of their birth, and forsook their homes, their firesides, their former altars and the graves of their fathers, to seek civil and religious liberty among the wild beasts and Indians on a foreign, bleak and desolate shore. Oppressed at home, they emigrated to Holland, and after remaining there twelve years, returned to England, and found not the hope of rest until they came to America. That very persecution and oppression of the mother country planted in America the purest civil and religious institutions the world had ever seen. And now this powerful Republic, by her oppression and injustice to one class of this people, will plant in Africa a religion and morality more pure, and liberty more universal, than it has yet been the lot of any people to enjoy. I never have been of that class who repudiate everything American.–While I shall never make any compromise with Slavery, nor feel indifferent to its blighting, withering effects on the human intellect and human happiness, I cannot be so blind as not to see and believe that in spite of all its corrupting influences on national character, there is yet piety, virtue, philanthropy and disinterested benevolence among the American people; and when by the progress of free thought and the full development of her free institutions, our country shall have removed from her national escutcheon that plague-spot of the nation, she will do more than all others in sending the light of liberty and everlasting love into every portion of the habitable globe. In our enthusiam and devotion to any great benevolent cause, we are generally unwilling to make the best use of men as we find them, until we have wasted. our energies in accomplishing nothing, or a calmer reflection convinces us of our error. It is well for those to whom this reflection comes not too late. We have been an unfortunate people. For 400 years the avarice, fraud and oppression of Europeans and their descendents have been preying upon the children of Africa and her descendents in America. Says my eloquent correspondent, in writing upon this subject: “I know this was the soil on which I was born; but I have nothing to glorify this as my country. I have no pride of ancestry to point back to. Our forefathers did not come here as did the Pilgrim fathers, in search of a place where they could enjoy civil and religious liberty. No; they were cowardly enough to allow themselves to be brought manacled and fettered as slaves, rather than die on their native shores resisting their oppressors.” In the language of Dr. Todd, “If the marks of humanity are not blotted out from this race of miserable men, it is not because oppression has not been sufficiently legalized, and avarice been allowed to pursue its victims till the grave became a sweet asylum.”

During the past thirty years two influential and respectable associations have arisen in our behalf, each claiming to be the most benevolent, and each seemingly opposed to the intentions and purposes of the other.

The American Colonization Society on the one hand proposed to benefit us by the indirect means of planting a Colony on the western coast of Africa, as an Asylum for the free colored people and manumitted slaves of the United States; and by this means also to send the blessings of civilization and religion to the benighted sons of that continent. The principal obstacle in the way of their success has been that the free colored people, as a body, everywhere, have denounced the whole scheme as wicked and mischievous, and resolved not to leave this country; while those who have gone to that Colony, from a state of Slavery, as the condition of freedom, have been least able to contribute to the knowledge and greatness of a new country, and impart civilization and the arts and sciences to its heathen inhabitants. This Society was one of the few that are popular in their very beginning. But that which made it most popular with the American public furnished the cause of the opposition of the colored people. They erected a platform so broad that the worst enemies of the race could stand upon it with the same grace and undistinguished from the honest and true philanthropist. It could at the same time appeal for support to the piety and benevolence of the North, and to the prejudices and sordid interest of the South. I state this simply as a fact, not for the purpose of finding fault. It is always easier to show one plan faulty than to produce a better one.

Notwithstanding the different and adverse motives that have prompted the friends of Colonization, they certainly have labored perseveringly and unitedly for the accomplishment of one great purpose. And in spite of all our former distrust we must give them the credit at least of producing as yet the only great practical scheme for the amelioration of the condition of the free colored man, and the manumitted slave. They did not profess nor promise to do more. Instead of engaging in clamorous agitations about principles and measures, they turned what men and means they had to the best purpose, and engaged industriously in founding and nurturing a Colony for the free colored people, where they have an opportunity of demonstrating their equality with the white race, by seizing upon, combining and developing all the elements of national greatness, by which they are surrounded. Thus far the end is good–we need not stop now to scan their motives.

The Abolitionists, on the other hand, proposed by moral means the immediate emancipation of the slave, and the elevation of the free colored people in the land of their birth. And this they did at a time which tried men’s souls. Theirs was a platform on which none dared stand who were not willing to indure scorn, reproach, disgrace, lynch law and even death for the sake of oppressed Americans. At first, interest, reputation, office nor profit, but the reverse, were the reward of an Abolitionist. Now that Anti-Slavery has become popular with many of the American people, it assumes another name, and is converted into political capital. Even Free Soilism was not so much designed to make room for our liberties, as to preserve unimpaired the liberties of the whites. The Abolitionists have not yet accomplished anything which we can see to be so definite and practical. Yet they have divested themselves of personal prejudices, aroused the nation to a sense of its injustice and wrongs toward the colored people, encouraged them in improving and obtaining education here, broken down many arbitrary and proscriptive usages in their treatment, and convinced this nation and England that they are a people capable of moral, social and political elevation, and entitled to equal rights with any other community. Both of these benevolent societies might perhaps have accomplished more good, if they had wasted less ammunition in firing at each other. While one has formerly declared a moral and intellectual inferiority of our race, with an incapacity ever to enjoy the rights and prerogatives of freemen in the land of our birth, the other has declared that hatred to the race and the love of Slavery were the only motives that prompted the Colonizationists to action. In taking a liberal and more comprehensive view of the whole matter, we believe that whatever may have been the faults, inconsistencies and seeming opposition of either, both have been instrumental in doing much good in their own way; and under the guidance of an all-wise Providence, the labors, devotion and sacrifices of both will work together for good, and tend toward a grander and more sublime result than either association at present con-templates.

For our own part, under the existing state of things, we cannot see why any hostility should exist between those who are true Abolitionists and that class of Colonizationists, who are such from just and benevolent motives. Nor can we see a reason why a man of pure and enlarged philanthropy may not be in favor of both, unless his devotion to one should cause him to neglect the other. Extremes in any case are always wrong. It is rare to find that all the members of any association, untrammelled by interest, act solely from high moral principle and disinterested benevolence. The history of the world, civil, sacred and profane, shows that some men have, in all ages, espoused popular and benevolent causes, more or less influenced by prejudice or selfishness. Human nature, with its imperfections, remains the same.

Ever since the adoption of the Constitution, the Government and people of this country, as a body, have pursued but one policy toward our race. In every contest between the great political parties we have been the losers. But this result it is reasonable to expect in a Republic whose Constitution guarantees protection alike to our peculiar and our free institutions–thus securing the rights and liberties of one class at the expense of the liberties of another. Besides this, Texas and all the States that have since come into the Union have surrounded us with political embarrassments. Every State that has lately revised or altered her Constitution has been more liberal in extending rights to the white and less se to the colored man. In view of these facts, I assume as a fixed principle that it is impossible for us to develop our moral and intellectual capacities as a distinct people, under our present social and political disabilities; and judging by the past and present state of things, there is no reason to hope that we can do it in this country in future.

Let us look a moment at some of the consequences of this social and political distinction on the entire mass. They are shut out from all the offices of profit and honor, and from the most honorable and lucrative pursuits of industry, and confined as a class to the most menial and servile positions in society. And what is worse than all, they are so educated from infancy, and become so accustomed to this degraded condition, that many of them seem to love it.

They are excluded in most of the States from all participation in the Government; taxed without their consent and compelled to submit to unrighteous laws, strong as the nation that enacts them, and cruel as the grave.

They are also excluded from every branch of mechanical industry, the work shop, the factory, the counting-room and every avenue to wealth and respectability, is closed against them.

Colleges and Academies slowly open their doors to them, when they possess no means to avail themselves of their advantages, and when their social condition has so degraded and demoralized them as to destroy all motive or desire to.

They are by necessity constant consumers, while they produce comparatively nothing, nor derive profit from the production of others. Shut out from all these advantages, and trained to fill the lowest condition in society, their teachers and ministers as a class educate them only for the situation to which the American people have assigned them. And hence too many of them aspire no higher than the gratification of their passions and appetites, and cling with deadly tenacity to a country that hates them and offers them nothing but chains, degradation and slavery

Since things are so, it is impossible for them while in this country to prove to the world the moral and intellectual equality of the Africans and their descendents. Before such an experiment can be fairly tested, our colored youth from childhood must be admitted to a full participation in all the privileges of our schools, academies and colleges, and in all the immunities and rights of citizenship, free from every distinction on account of color, and the degrading influences that ignorance, prejudice and Slavery have heretofore thrown around them.

The same inducements as to white Americans should engage them in agriculture, commerce, manufactures, the mechanic arts, and all the pursuits of civilized and enlightened communities. Every man of common intelligence knows this has not been done; knows, too, it can not be done, for the first time, in the United States. In the face of these facts we are compelled to admit that the Afric-Americans, in their present state, can not compete with the superior energy and cultivated intellect of long civilized and Christian Saxons.

And, hence, we are driven to the conclusion that the friendly and mutual separation of the two races is not only necessary to the peace, happiness and prosperity of both, but indispensable to the preservation of the one and the glory of the other. While we would thus promote the interests of two great continents, and build up another powerful Republic, as an asylum for the oppressed, we would, at the same time, gratify national prejudices. We should be the last to admit that the colored man here, by nature and birth, is inferior in intellect, but by education and circumstances he may be. We could name many moral and intelligent colored young men in New-York, Philadelphia, and Boston, whose talents and genius far excel our own, and those of a majority of the hundreds of Saxon students with whom we have at different times been associated–men who, if liberally educated, would operate like leaven on our whole people, waken responses in the unexplored regions of Africa, and pour new light on the Republic of letters–but who, for the want of means and an unchained intellect, will probably live and die ’unknown, unhonored and unsung.’

Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear.
Full many a flower is born to blush
unseen, And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

This may appear ridiculous to those who know the colored man only as a domestic slave in the South or a political cipher in the North. But the generations living sixty years hence will regard him in a very different light. Before that time shall have arrived American Christians, as an expiation for the past, have a great duty to discharge to a prostrate nation, pleading in silent agony to God.

With tears more eloquent than learned tongue
Or lyre of purest note.

We too have a great work to perform. To the Anglo and Afric-American is committed the redemption and salvation of a numerous people for ages sunk in the lowest depth of superstition and barbarism.–Who but educated and pious colored men are to lead on the van of the ’sacramental host of God’s elect’ to conquer by love, and bring Africa with her trackless regions, under the dominion of our Savior–to baptize her sons at the font of science and religion, and teach them to chant the praises of Liberty and God until

One song employs all nations; and all cry,
“Worthy the Lamb, for he was slain for us!”
The dwellers in the vales and on the rocks
Shout to each other, and the mountain tops
From distant mountains catch the flying joy,
Till, nation after nation taught the strain,
Earth rolls the rapturous hosahna round.

Whatever may have been the objections to Colonization in former times, I call upon colored people of this country to investigate the subject now under its present auspices. When I consider the kind of treatment they have received from their professed friends in America, I do not blame them in the past for exclaiming “God deliver us from our friends and we will take care of our enemies.” I can never forget the round of applause that rang through an audience when a talented colored man of New-York in an earnest harangue against Colonization, said, “Mr. President, the Colonizationists wants us to go to Liberia if we will, if we wont go there, we may go to Hell.” It seemed to indicate that they felt there was too much truth in the remark. Their principal objection has been that the men who professed the greatest love for them in Africa, did the most to exclude them here from the means of education, improvement and every respectable pursuit of industry. And their personal treatment was such as colored men only are made to feel, but none can describe. When the temperance men treated the inebriate as an outcast-a wretch debased and lost, they accomplished nothing, but repelled him from their kind influences; now when they recognize him as a man and a brother their efforts are crowned with great success. In keeping with other reforms, I think that Colonizationists have become more liberal and kind than formerly. –Whether this be true or not, if I can dispose of a single objection, I-shall be confident that Afric-Americans are to be benefited more by the cause they advocate and sustain, than by any other practical scheme philanthropy has yet devised. I should have been glad if this Society, consistent with its leading purpose, had done something for the improvement and education of colored youth. And this would have been a great auxiliary to their main object. They have thought that if they encouraged their education here, they would not go to Africa. This is a mistake! If they would aid and encourage them in obtaining such education as white men receive, they could not keep them in this country. They would entirely unfit them for the debased position they must here occupy. Give me but educated intellect to operate upon, and I can send Liberia more useful men in three months, than I can in five years’ labor with society as I find it. I speak only from my own experience when I say that during a life of constant struggle and effort, I never have received any sympathy or encouragement in obtaining an education nor in aspirations to usefulness, from any of the advocates of Colonization, except my noble friend J. C. Potts, Esq. of Trenton, N.J. Yet from some little acquaintance with many others I believe they are good and true friends ready to do anything for colored Americans that they would for white men, in similar circumstances. I have never doubted the good motives and true benevolence of such gentlemen as Benjamin Coates, Theodore Frelinghuysen, A. G. Phelps, J. G. Pinney, John McDonough and a host of others whose sentiments and efforts in our behalf, I know only by reading. But Slavery and its consequent degradation, together with our social position have kept us – further apart than if separated by the waters of the Atlantic. However good the men and worthy their cause, it cannot flourish without the cooperation of Afric-Americans here. Our brethren across the Atlantic, have been struggling thirty years and in tears and joy have laid the foundations of a free Republic with civil and religious institutions.–They now call on us to assist in sustaining them and participate in their blessings–to aid them to civilize its inhabitants and extend the rising glory of the Lone Star of Africa. We should examine their cause, and if it is just we should no longer withhold our aid, and especially when in benefiting them, we must benefit ourselves. If by my feeble efforts, I shall ever be able to do anything that shall tell in future blessings on that injured country, it will be very much owing to the sympathy and encouragement received, in the course of my education from S. H. Cox, D.D. of 1844 and Lewis Tappan, Esq. that unchanging and unflinching advocate of the slave.

But we have never been pledged to any men or set of measures. We must mark out an independent course and become the architects of our own fortunes, when neither Colonizationists nor Abolitionists have the power or the will to admit us to any honorable or profitable means of subsistence in this country. I only regret that I come to the aid of Africa, at a time when I possess less ability to speak or write in her behalf than I did five years since. Strange as it may appear, whatever may be a colored man’s natural capacity and literary attainments, I believe that as soon as he leaves the academic halls to mingle in the only society he can find in the United States, unless he be a minister or lecturer, he must and will retrograde. And for the same reason, just in proportion as he increases in knowledge, will he become the more miserable.

If ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise.

He who would not rather live anywhere on earth in freedom than in this country in social and political degradation, has not attained half the dignity of his manhood. I hope our Government will justly recognize the independence of Liberia, establish that line of steamers, and thus give Africa a reinforcement of 10,000 men per annum instead of 400.

Pardon my prolixity. The subject and the occasion have compelled me to write more than I expected to. In attempting to be just to three classes, I expect to please none. While the press and our whole country is vexed and agitated on subjects pertaining to us, if I can do nothing more than provoke an inquiry among Afric-Americans, I shall have the satisfaction of hoping, at least, that I have contributed something to the interest and happiness of the citizens of the United States and the people of Africa.

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