Refugees on levee, April 17, 1897, photo by Carroll's Art Gallery

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Robert E. Lee's Former Slaves Go to Liberia

Before the Civil War, Robert E. Lee freed most of his slaves and offered to pay expenses for those who wanted to go to Liberia. In November 1853, Lee's former slaves William and Rosabella Burke and their four children sailed on the Banshee, which left Baltimore with 261 emigrants. A person of superior intelligence and drive, Burke studied Latin and Greek at a newly established seminary in Monrovia and became a Presbyterian minister in 1857. He helped educate his own children and other members of his community and took several native children into his home. The Burkes's letters describing their lives in Liberia show that they relied on the Lees to convey messages to and from relatives still in Virginia, and the letters also reflect affection for their former masters.

“Table of Emigrants,” in The African Repository and Colonial Journal, vol. 30, no. 1, January 1854, p. 121 Journal General Collections, Library of Congress (17)

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Letter from Liberian Colonist William Burke

Despite the hardships of being a colonist, William Burke was enthusiastic about his new life. After five years in Liberia he wrote that "Persons coming to Africa should expect to go through many hardships, such as are common to the first settlement in any new country. I expected it, and was not disappointed or discouraged at any thing I met with; and so far from being dissatisfied with the country, I bless the Lord that ever my lot was cast in this part of the earth. The Lord has blessed me abundantly since my residence in Africa, for which I feel that I can never be sufficiently thankful."

[Letter from William Burke to ACS president Ralph R. Gurley], July 26, 1858 American Colonization Society Papers Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (18)

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Letter from Liberian Colonist Rosabella Burke

Letters from the Burkes to Mary Custis Lee, wife of Robert E. Lee, were published in the 1859 edition of The African Repository with Mrs. Lee's permission. This letter from Mrs. Burke to Mrs. Lee demonstrates personal warmth between the two women. Mrs. Burke shows concern for Mrs. Lee's health, tells Mrs. Lee about her children, and asks about the Lee children. The "little Martha" referred to was Martha Custis Lee Burke, born in Liberia and named for one of the Lee family. Repeating her husband's enthusiasm for their new life, Rosabella Burke says, "I love Africa and would not exhange it for America."

[Letter from Rosabella Burke to Mary Custis Lee], February 20, 1859, in The African Repository and Colonial Journal, vol. 35, no 7, July 1859, p. 216 General Collections, Library of Congress (20)

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Information on Emigrants to Liberia

The ACS required potential emigrants to complete a form as part of their application for settlement in Liberia. This example lists twelve slaves whose master, Timothy Rogers of Bedford County, Virginia, freed them in his will under the condition that they go to Liberia. A note reveals that one of the group preferred to remain a slave if he were unable to free his wife, the property of another owner, to go with him. Forms like this provide a wealth of demographic and genealogical information about emigrants to Liberia.

“Applicants for Passage to Liberia,” ca. 1852 American Colonization Society Papers Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (21)

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St. Paul's River Landscape

Because the soil around Monrovia was poor and the coastal areas were covered in dense jungle, many early emigrants to Liberia moved up the nearby St. Paul's River, where they found land suitable for farming. There they established small communities of people from the same geographic region in America. This photograph gives an idea of the appearance of the countryside in which the settlers began their new lives.

St. Paul's River, Liberia, ca. 1900 Photomural from silver-gelatin print. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (23)

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Information on Emigrants Settled in Liberia

In 1867, the American Colonization Society published this list showing the names of ships, dates of sailing, and number of emigrants by state through December 1866. By that time, more than 13,000 blacks had been settled in Liberia through ACS efforts. The peak years were between 1848 and 1854, when the society chartered forty-one ships and transported nearly 4,000 colonists. After falling to the twenties in 1863 and 1864, the numbers went up again after the Civil War, when 527 people went in 1865 and 621 in 1866. The table shows that the 3,733 Virginia emigrants were the largest group, followed by North Carolina with 1,371, and Georgia with 1,341.

“Table of Emigrants Settled in Liberia by the American Colonization Society,” in The African Repository and Colonial Journal, vol. 43, no. 4, April 1867, p. 117 General Collections, Library of Congress (24)

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Exodus from Arkansas

In the spring of 1880, a group of 150 African-Americans from Arkansas was living in temporary quarters at Mt. Olivet Baptist Chapel on 37th Street in New York before going to Liberia. Because the ACS had chartered the only ship that regularly went to Liberia, this group, which was going under its own auspices, was trying to charter another ship. The article that described their circumstances, entitled "Colored Exodus from Arkansas," stated that another 50,000 blacks were preparing to emigrate from the Gulf states to Arizona and New Mexico, where they planned to purchase farm land.

“Refugees awaiting transportation to Liberia at Mr. Olivet Baptist Chapel, New York City” From, Frank Leslie's Illustrated News, April 24, 1880, p. 120 Photomural from woodcut Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (25)

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New Directions for the ACS

In 1892, the ACS abandoned publication of The African Repository and replaced it with Liberia. The name change reflected a new direction for the society, as announced in the first issue of Liberia. Instead of aiding emigrants, the ACS turned its attention to the question of "How can the society best help and strengthen Liberia?" The society committed itself to fostering a public-school system in Liberia, promoting more frequent ships between the U.S. and Liberia, collecting and diffusing more reliable information about Liberia, and enabling Liberia to depend more on herself. Future colonists were to be selected with a view to the needs of Liberia, not their own situations. An example of this preferred type of colonist was Miss Georgia Patton, described in an early issue of Liberia. Well-educated, Miss Patton planned to practice medicine and teach school in Liberia. She also shared the ACS goals of doing good for others and spreading Christianity and civilization in Africa.

“Brief Autobiography of a Colored Woman Who Has Recently Emigrated to Liberia,” in Liberia, no. 3, November 1893, pp. 78-79 General Collections, Library of Congress (26)

“Dey's Mission, Liberia,” ca. 1900 Photomural from silver-gelatin print Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (27)

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Did Bonds Ever Reach Liberia?

In the summer of 1919, Henry Bonds, still in the U.S. and having moved to Tullahassee, Oklahoma, wrote the society once again about going to Liberia. He pointed out that World War I had stopped him, but that he still wanted to go and wanted to know if the aid promised him was still good. A number of letters between Bonds and the ACS exist, but they do not answer the question whether or not Bonds ever reached Liberia. Perhaps further research could provide the answer and more information about Bonds and his family.

[Letter from Henry Bonds of Tullahassee, Oklahoma], August 25, 1919 Holograph American Colonization Society Papers Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (28)

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Application for ACS Help in Going to Liberia

In 1912, Henry Young Bonds of Vian, Oklahoma, began correspondence with the ACS about going to Liberia. As part of his application, Bonds sent in this formal, notarized form. Bonds expected to defray half of the $591 he needed as passage money for himself and his family and asked the ACS for the other part. He planned to sell his land to raise money for support while getting established in Liberia. After a two-year application process, Bond's request was approved by the ACS. He planned to sail in October 1914, but was prevented from doing so by the outbreak of World War I.

[Formal application of Henry Bonds to emigrate to Liberia], 1913 Legal document American Colonization Society Papers Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (29)

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Henry Bonds Hopes to Emigrate

As part of his application for ACS aid in emigrating to Liberia, Henry Bonds submitted a postcard with a photograph of his family. Left to right are Catherine, eight; Bonds; Loretta, three; Bonds's wife Mary; and Floyd, six. Not pictured are two unnamed older, married children, perhaps from an earlier marriage, who did not wish to emigrate. Born in 1864 near Guntown, Mississippi, Bonds had come to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) in April 1890. His wife Mary, thirty, born in Indian Territory near Tahlequah, was educated in the Cherokee colored high school and had taught in the Vian colored school.

[Henry Y. Bonds and family], ca. 1912 Photomural from silver-gelatin print American Colonization Society Papers Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (30)

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Recommendation for Liberia Applicant

Because the American Colonization Society was very concerned about the character of emigrants they sent to Liberia, applicants had to submit letters of recommendation. This highly favorable letter came from officials of the Citizens Bank of Vian. Bonds also supplied one from J.H. Dodd, M.D., who said that Bonds had "a host of friends in all the races" and that his family was "regarded as one of the very best in the country."

[Letter of recommendation for Henry Bonds], 1913 American Colonization Society Papers Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (31)

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Map showing Vian, Oklahoma, and Surrounding Territory

Beginning in the early 1800s, Cherokees, Choctaws, and other eastern Native American tribes signed treaties giving up southeastern land in return for land west of the Mississippi in what became known as Indian Territory, or even later, Oklahoma. In addition, some tribes were removed to the areas by force. After the Civil War, the United States government confiscated territory from Native Americans who had supported the Confederacy and, in 1889, opened that land to other settlers. This map of the Vian area shows land owned by Henry Bonds's children. A plot in the left corner of section 34 and one in the lower middle are assigned to his daughter Catherine Bonds, "N.B.F.," which stands for "new-born freedman," a term apparently applied to blacks born after Emancipation, as well as former slaves. The plot labeled N.B.F. 457, is also probably part of a Bonds claim. It is unclear why the land was in the children's names.

[Map of Vian area] Indian Territory: Cherokee Nation Muskogee, Indian Territory [Oklahoma]: Indian Territory Map Company, 1909 Photomural Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (32)

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ACS Supports Liberian Education

The Booker T. Washington Institute at Kakata, Liberia, was founded in 1929 by a group of American missionary and philanthropic organizations, including the American Colonization Society. Like Tuskegee Institute, the school emphasized vocational training and prepared many young Liberians for jobs in agriculture, auto mechanics, carpentry, masonry, and other trades. The campus of the institute was built on a 1,000-acre tract of land granted by the Liberian government. As the accompanying letter shows, the ACS provided funding for the institution.

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  • Campus of Booker T. Washington Institute in Liberia, ca. 1940 Photomural from silver-gelatin print Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (33)

  • [Letter about ACS support for Booker T. Washington Institute], June 10, 1940 Typed letter American Colonization Society Papers Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (34)

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