For MLK Day: How free Black people resisted exile in the 19th century

A drawing of the interior of Bethel African Methodist Church in the early 19th century. The church was founded in a former blacksmith’s shop by Richard Allen.


Marches that raise the demands of Black people for full economic and social rights used to take place in a number of U.S. cities. Now, aside from a few locations, the marches have been supplanted by a volunteer “Day of Service.” While the “Service” activities (picking up trash, etc.) are certainly not useless, they tend to ignore the sharp anti-racist demands that the marchers put forward in earlier years.

At the same time, the life and legacy of Martin Luther King himself have been largely reduced to that of an optimistic “dreamer.” His contributions as a leader in the struggle against racism and war, and as a strong critic of the unequal and discriminatory economic system in the United States, are often downplayed or forgotten.

Martin Luther King: Not just a dreamer.

“America has been comfortable with Dr. King the dreamer as opposed to Dr. King who articulates the American nightmare,” the Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler, pastor of the historic Mother Bethel AME Church, told The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Solomon Jones, a host for Philadelphia radio station WURD and a columnist for The Inquirer, stated in the same article that King’s ideas were sanitized to prevent them from growing into a larger movement. “‘I Have a Dream’ allows for the status quo to remain,” Jones said. “It doesn’t allow his dream to say, ‘We want equal opportunity in jobs, in housing, and in every aspect of society that King spoke out for.’”

Philadelphia is one city where sizable political marches have been organized on Martin Luther King Day—though not for several years. On Jan. 16, 2017, for example, over 5000 people marched to a street rally outside Philadelphia’s Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The march was sponsored by a broad coalition of groups under the aegis of the MLK Day of Action and Resistance (MLK-DARE), which presented to the public its comprehensive declaration of principles as “a vision for a more equal and just America.”

The reason that the marchers assembled outside historic Mother Bethel was to mark a special occasion—the 200th anniversary of another rally at the same site. Michael Schreiber wrote an article concerning the historical background of the occasion, which was published in Socialist Action newspaper. We reprint a slightly expanded version of the article below:


In January 1817, some 3000 people had gathered at Bethel AME Church in Philadelphia to speak against efforts to expel free Black people from the United States and send them into exile in Africa.

In early 1816, Charles Fenton Mercer, a Federalist legislator in Virginia, initiated a campaign to convince the federal government to colonize Black people into a new state on the west coast of Africa. Mercer believed that Black people in this country, once they had been freed from slavery, would remain pauperized and discontented, and thus act as a constant destabilizing force in U.S. society.

It was an idea that some well-intentioned whites had raised before: Why not give American Blacks a fresh opportunity in Africa? In that way, they could develop their skills unhindered by white prejudices, and at the same time bring Christianity and civilized values to the “untamed” continent (while aiding the penetration of Africa by U.S. commercial interests in the bargain).

Historian Gary B. Nash (“Forging Freedom”) sums up the motivations of Mercer and other white “reformers” who were attracted to the goals of the colonization movement: “White racial prejudice was permanently relegating free blacks to a degraded position, which was a contradiction of the entire credo of the republican ideology emanating from the American Revolution. Caught in such an impasse, white reformers chose to remove the object of white racism rather than combat racism itself.”

Mercer soon caught the ear of Robert Finley, a Presbyterian clergyman and director of the Princeton Theological Society. Finley developed a plan to establish the American Colonization Society (ACS), headquartered in the city of Washington, a location chosen to facilitate the task of lobbying members of Congress.

A meeting of the American Colonization Society.

It was not long before a number of Southern slave-owning planters and politicians joined the ACS—and indeed, they became its principal leaders and proselytizers. This was evident at the founding conference of the society, on Dec. 21, 1816, in Washington City, where sessions were chaired by Kentucky Senator Henry Clay, a slaveholder. The newly elected president of the society was Bushrod Washington, nephew of the former president, and a slaveholder at the Mount Vernon estate.

Although the language of the ACS convention spoke of “ameliorating the condition of the free people of colour in the United States,” less glowing opinions were voiced by many delegates. This was seen in the positions of Robert Goodloe Harper, from Maryland, who wrote in 1817 that the growing number of free Blacks in his region were a “nuisance and burden,” “a degraded, idle, and vicious population.”

Southern planters saw free Black people as worse than a nuisance; their very existence as “free” labor served as a constant threat to the institution of slavery. “King Cotton” was becoming supreme as an export crop, and slavery was being extended to new U.S. territories in the Mississippi Valley and even further westward.

It had become evident to Black people at the time that, as the abolition movement steadily lost ground, white hostility to Blacks was rising in the North. What few rights they could count on, even elementary rights such as the right to congregate in public parks on holidays, were often removed.

Accordingly, many Black leaders were initially attracted to the goals of the Colonization Society. The image of a haven in a free Black-ruled republic (like Haiti) had great attraction. One strong supporter of the idea was Paul Cuffee, a New England merchant, ship owner, and sea captain of African and Native American parentage. As a political organizer, Cuffee used his ability to sail from port to port along the Eastern seaboard to spread the vision of “returning” to Africa.

Sea captain Paul Cuffee.

At first, Philadelphia Black leader James Forten was drawn to Cuffee’s ideas. But the meeting at Mother Bethel Church—which he chaired—helped to steer him away from support to colonization after he observed one speaker after another denounce it.

Most Black families in the United States had lived here for generations and had no memory of the Africa of their ancestors. Most felt that they should have full rights in the very country that they had helped to build.

Soon, the role of white Southern slave owners in the American Colonization Society became clear to all. Moreover, not just a few Black Americans who had emigrated to western Africa (Sierra Leone and Liberia) found themselves in conflict with local peoples. And whole families died from diseases to which they had no immunity.

But as racism grew in the United States throughout the early 19th century, the idea of exiling the free Black population to a distant country continued to come to the surface. In 1859, the U.S. Senate even debated a plan to colonize Central America with Black people shipped in from the United States.

Abraham Lincoln was always a strong supporter of the American Colonization Society. After signing the Emancipation Proclamation, he once again considered the idea of exile for Black people who had been freed from slavery—with a focus particularly on Central America.

Historian Dr. Philip Magness, in his book “Colonization After Emancipation: Lincoln and the Movement for Black Resettlement,” reveals that Lincoln signed a contract with the owner of a small island off the coast of Haiti, which he felt could be the site of a new African American colony. A few hundred free Blacks were transported there, but an outbreak of smallpox, plus the refusal of the U.S. government to adequately provide sustenance and housing, led to abandonment of the island by 1863.

As efforts for colonization continued, Frederick Douglass was outraged, calling the president an “itinerant colonization preacher” who had made himself look “ridiculous.” Douglass pointed out that Black people had an historical presence in this country as long as any American of European descent—so there should be no reason to banish them from the land of their birth. Ultimately, resistance among the great majority of the Black population to the plan for resettlement abroad put an end to the colonization movement.



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