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Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersThe Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
The Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
Theme: FreedomTheme: EnslavementTheme: CommunityTheme: IdentityTheme: Emancipation
Theme: Identity

Martin Robinson Delany, Cleveland, 1887
Martin Robinson Delany
- The debate among African Americans on emigration and colonization, selections from speeches, essays, letters, and editorials, 1787-1864 (PDF)

From the earliest years of the independent American republic to its final years of civil war, the issues of emigration and colonization bred vehement debate among African Americans. Should freemen stay in the United States to promote abolition—or head west to settle in California and other territories—or north to join the communities of fugitive slaves in Canada—or east across the Atlantic to support the colonies for freed slaves established in west Africa? Should black activists align with white abolitionists to support colonization—or create their own organizations to advocate for the enslaved? The multi-faceted debate is captured in these excerpts from thirty documents including speeches, essays, letters, and newspaper editorials. Some excerpts are quite brief, others one to two pages; they can be divided among students for group discussion and jigsaw activities.

How did the founding of the American Colonization Society in 1817 affect the debate? the creation of Liberia in 1822? the independence of Liberia in 1847? the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850? the approach of civil war in the late 1850s? the prospect of general emancipation in the early 1860s?

Also see the commentary from freed slaves and freemen (1) in Canada, in Theme II: ENSLAVEMENT, #8, Canada, and (2) in Liberia, in Theme V: EMANCIPATION, #4: Liberia. (15 pages.)

Discussion questions
  1. What emigration options faced freeborn African Americans? freed slaves and fugitive slaves in the North? enslaved blacks in the South?
  2. List the four to five most prevalent arguments among black leaders for and against emigration outside the United States. What most characterizes the for and against positions?
  3. List the four to five most prevalent arguments among black leaders for and against creating colonies for freed slaves in west Africa, in Haiti, in Texas, etc.
  4. Why did some black leaders support emigration and colonization in the western hemisphere but not in Africa?
  5. Why did African Americans choose to support or oppose the American Colonization Society (formed by white abolitionists to create an African colony for freed slaves)?
  6. Why did some black leaders change their opinion on colonization? (e.g., James Forten from for to against, Henry Highland Garnet from against to for)?
  7. How was the debate influenced by
  8. If the former slaves interviewed in the 1930s had been aware of the colonization debate, when most were still enslaved in the South, what responses might they have had?

Framing Questions
  •  How did African Americans construct identity in antebellum America?
  •  How did enslaved and free blacks differ in their exercise of power and self-determination?
  •  How did African Americans define themselves as members of groups?

Selections: 15
TOTAL 15 pages
Supplemental Sites
Colonization & Emigration, in In Motion: The African-American Migration Experience, from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library

Colonization, in Africans in America (PBS/WGBH)

Colonization and Liberia, sections in The African American Mosaic, from the Library of Congress

Opposition to colonization by white and black abolitionists, documents, in Uncle Tom's Cabin and American Culture, by Stephen Railton and the University of Virginia

The Boston Plan, Proposal from the African Masonic Lodge to the Massachusetts legislature for the return of African Americans to Africa, 1787, in Africans in America (PBS)

The Black Canadian Experience in Ontario 1834-1914: Flight, Freedom, Foundation, from the Archives of Ontario

Augustus Washington daguerreotypes of Liberian leaders, 1853-1875 in A Durable Memento, from the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC

Letter from Norfleet Brown, Liberia, to the American Colonization Society, 1880, in The Making of African American Identity: Vol. II, 1865-1917, National Humanities Center

Black Abolitionist Archive, from the University of Detroit-Mercy

Full text of documents excerpted in this collection:

- Henry Bibb: frontispiece of Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, 1849. Reproduced by permission of the New York Public Library, Digital Image ID #413985.
- Martin Robinson Delany: illustration in Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and Rising, ed. Rev. William J. Simmons, Cleveland: 1887. Reproduced by permission of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library.
- Henry Highland Garnet: colored engraving,, n.d. Reproduced by permission of the New York Public Library, Digital Image ID #1242287.

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

1. Slave   2. Slave to Free   3. Free-born   4. Entrepreneurs   5. Artists
6. Poets   7. Soldiers   8. Education   9. Citizenship   10. Emigration

TOOLBOX: The Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
Freedom | Enslavement | Community | Identity | Emancipation

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