With its palm trees and mangrove swamps, Liberia’s Maryland County is a world away from Fells Point.
Yet it’s there, on the West Coast of Africa, where more than 1,000 free and formerly enslaved people settled in the 1800s. Many had been born in Baltimore or elsewhere in Maryland. Some came by choice, others under duress.
Decades before the Emancipation Proclamation abolished slavery, white legislators decided to create a homeland back in Africa for free Black people.
That land would become Liberia — with Maryland County, formerly the independent Republic of Maryland — at its southernmost point.
Liberian-born architect Tony Barclay Morgan is working to raise awareness of his home country’s history through his group, the Historical Preservation Society of Liberia. For now, traces of the past remain in Harper, the capital of Maryland County, where streets have names like Maryland Avenue and Baltimore Street.
The foundation of Liberia “started as an answer to the quote unquote ‘problem of free people of color,’” said Morgan, whose ancestors were free and formerly enslaved people from the U.S. and Barbados. White enslavers generally viewed free Black people as a threat, fearing a general rebellion. Those fears were pronounced in 19th century Maryland, a slave state with the country’s largest free Black population.
To some, the solution was to create a separate homeland for free Black people in Africa. The idea gained ground with the formation of the American Colonization Society, which founded Liberia, and later, the Maryland State Colonization Society.
Members of these societies had “mixed motives,” Morgan said. They included white enslavers who wanted to prevent a slave uprising, as well as a few abolitionists who believed that Black people would have better lives elsewhere. Both believed that free Black people could never be integrated with white American society.
It’s important to remember that nominally free Black people lacked many basic rights in 19th century Maryland, noted David Armenti, director of education for the Maryland Center for History and Culture. A host of laws governed their every move; free Black men, for example, weren’t allowed to own firearms. The laws worsened after the 1831 Nat Turner rebellion in Virginia. That year, the state of Maryland allocated $10,000 annually for 26 years “for the transportation and removal of emigrants to Africa.” They negotiated with natives of Cape Palmas, just south of the Liberian settlement, to purchase land.
Colonization advocates promised a better life to those who left, while making clear that racism and suffering faced those who stayed. An 1848 article in the Maryland Colonization Journal stated that a Black man who leaves for Africa “becomes a man. He is no longer despised as of another race, but is treated as an equal and a brother. And secures immense privileges for his children.”
Armenti said pro-colonization literature tended to describe Liberia “with rose-colored glasses,” minimizing threats of disease and other dangers. “When you look at the actual experiences, it was very much a mixed bag,” he said.
Most free Black people rejected the colonization scheme, with some believing it was a ruse to sell them back into slavery. But a few Black leaders believed that West Africa offered them the best chance to escape the racism that so circumscribed their lives in the U.S. Among them were the abolitionist John Brown Russwurm, who founded the first Black-owned newspaper in the U.S. and later became the governor of Maryland in Africa.
Some Black men and women were coerced into leaving. As accounts in the Maryland State Archives Slavery database attest, enslavers here freed or manumitted their enslaved people in their wills on the condition that they emigrate.
The voyage from the Fells Point harbor across the Atlantic took about a month and a half. Many settlers got sick and died not long after arriving. In Cape Palmas, they faced threats of violence from native tribes, some who still participated in the slave trade.
Some settlers, like Luke Walker, a formerly enslaved man from Caroline County, became fed up with Liberia’s lack of opportunities and strict temperance policy. He returned to Fells Point and opened a grocery store.
Ultimately, the Maryland State Colonization Society fell far short of its goals, sending only a tiny fraction of the state’s ever-growing free Black population. Funding for the project dropped off and emigration totally stopped by the time of the Emancipation Proclamation.
“There was a lot of money expended on making it happen,” Armenti said. “The results were not super impressive.”
Nevertheless, it would have an impact that lasted generations.
A minority of settlers rose to positions of power that would have been unimaginable for Black people in the U.S. at the time. The African American colonists, termed Americo Liberians, spoke English and kept the mannerisms of the society they left behind. Though Black in the United States, they were labeled “white” by native Africans.
The Republic of Maryland joined the rest of Liberia in 1857 and enjoyed significant influence over the national political scene. Multiple Liberian presidents were born in the state of Maryland. The country’s longest-serving president, William Tubman, was born in what’s now Maryland County, Liberia.
However, those victories came at a cost. The Black settlers “were very literally colonizers,” Armenti said, and excluded native Africans from society. Critics charge that they built a society as unequal as the one they fled. Tensions between various groups simmered for years, paving the way for bloody civil conflicts. In recent decades, many Liberians, including those of Americo Liberian descent, have emigrated to the United States.
To Morgan, it’s commonplace to characterize Americo Liberians as oppressors, while overlooking their accomplishments against the odds. At a time when European colonization was the rule in Africa, he noted, the settlers established a Black-led republic, the first on the continent.
“The real story of Liberia is a story of survival,” he said.
Morgan and other Liberian immigrants to the U.S. have helped bring the relationship between the countries to light. In recent years, Liberians have visited the Southern plantations where their ancestors once toiled. In Maryland, a nonprofit called Marylanders for Progress Liberia brings together people with ties to Maryland County. Its members have worked to raise money to buy things like medical equipment, water pumps and cloth masks to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus in Liberia.
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“We want to make sure that we give back to our family members and to the citizens of Maryland County,” said the group’s co-founder, Roberta Brown Cooper, who grew up in Maryland County, Liberia, and lived in the state of Maryland for many years before moving to northern Virginia.