Ebola and Us: The American Roots of Liberia’s Trauma

Does it matter that the great tide of Christian perfectionism bursting forth in early 19th century America included a touch of ethnic/racial cleansing? Right-wing ranters like Limbaugh say that it does because they worry that liberal guilt regarding Liberia might cause us to foolishly admit more of “them”—the Ebola- contaminated ones—to our homeland hospitals.

I say that it matters because, as a practical matter, our shared history with Liberia ought to make it possible for us to be more strategically helpful in the Ebola crisis rather than pretend that Liberia is a place we know nothing about. To engage with an aggressive disease-containment plan in Liberia should be more a matter of realism than guilt, although a certain amount of guilt is warranted in this case.

Liberia owes its existence to Christian perfectionism gone badly wrong. It owes its existence and the primary arc of its history to an ambitious enterprise called the American Colonization Society.

A pivotal early figure was an energetic Congregationalist named Samuel John Mills. Mills was a prime mover in the creation of the American Bible Society in 1816 and also in the formation of the Colonization Society the following year. In 1818 Mills made sail for Africa to spy out the territory for the resettlement of Black people.

Screen Shot 2014-10-14 at 1.28.22 PM

The idea for the Colonization Society grew out of white panic. In the early decades of the 19th century, there were simply too many free people of color running around for Northern whites, including some whites who loathed the “peculiar institution,” to feel sufficiently comfortable.

Their response was to organize a massive project of reverse missionizing: rather than try to convert Africans in Africa, in this case we would simply ship already-converted African-Americans back to Africa and wish them the best of luck.

The work of the Colonization Society entailed what we now call ethnic cleansing, which the less high-minded among its founders understood full well. The Rev. Robert Finley, a Southern Presbyterian associate of Mills, made the case for Black removal in a letter to a friend in 1816:”Could they be sent back to Africa, a three-fold benefit would arise: we should be cleared of them, we should send to Africa a population partially civilized and christianized for its benefit, and our blacks themselves would be put in a better position.”

Chief Justice John Marshall wrote: “The removal of our coloured population is, I think, a common object. The whole union would be strengthened by it and removed from a danger whose extent can scarcely be estimated.” (Free blacks weren’t the only danger: during the 1820s a few New York-based colonizationists associated with Columbia College also supported the christianizing and removal of Jews to a vast tract of land that had been donated for the purpose in Western New York State.)

Apart from some fastidious Yankees, most supporters of African colonization had few misgivings about the rightness of chattel slavery. Their ranks numbered legendary compromiser Henry Clay of Kentucky and planter-statesmen John Randolph and Richard Bland Lee of Virginia.

Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, was so named in 1824 to honor another slavery-supporting Southerner who happened to occupy the White House at the time: President James Monroe.

And while some early proponents of colonization, like William Lloyd Garrison, would later become Abolitionists, the majority—who were well-entrenched within America’s best colleges, as Craig Wilder notes in his book Ebony and Ivy—clashed openly with abolitionists and “race mixers.” By the mid-1830s the ACS had established active chapters at two-thirds of the colleges and universities in the free states, and their quarrels with the abolitionists were no longer polite and academic. The ACS types took up mob violence against African American schools and churches and raided antislavery institutions. In Connecticut they blocked the opening of a black college (the first of its kind) in New Haven, and they persecuted Prudence Crandall’s school for African American girls and women in Canterbury, putting Crandall on trial and physically destroying her school.

The Colonization Society’s official name was “The Society for the Colonization of Free People of Color in America.” In the end the people who were transported to Liberia were English-speaking Protestant Christians who promptly recreated a Little America on Africa’s Atlantic coast.

The “Americo-Liberians,” as they were called, formed their very own domination society, made in the image of a stratified United States. Although they never numbered more than five percent of the country’s population, the Americo-Liberians ruled over the indigenous people (with occasional help from the U.S. Navy) for an astonishing 133 years—1847 to 1980. It was only the Samuel Doe-instigated bloody civil wars that finally toppled Little America. The catastrophic civil wars are what in turn left Liberia a profoundly broken place with a barely functioning economy and essentially no public health infrastructure.

You could say, as President Lincoln eventually did, that all the wealth piled up here on these shores on account of “drops of blood drawn by the lash” creates a moral obligation to those who were thus lashed and chained from 1619 onward. And not just to those who remained under the lash until the advent of at least a kind of freedom but also to those who were sent back to Africa via colonization.

Recognition of any such moral obligation is unlikely, of course. White Americans are notoriously uninterested in history, and we are especially uninterested in uncovering new threads of a white supremacy narrative that we still manage to suppress quite effectively. Ignoring corpses under the floorboards is the American way. But it would good at least if we could see once in a while how our sanctimonious fumblings on the global stage are tied to unresolved issues relating to America’s Original Sin.

  • Jim Reed

    Thanks for the education. I don’t remember learning that in school.

  • phatkhat

    Exactly my reaction. Not even in college history. Shameful.

  • Laurence Charles Ringo

    Of course not, phatkhat. (Cool”handle”, by the way!)-what is nowadays referred to as”American Exceptionalism”could not allow too much of America’s ugliness to have been exposed in History class; the blatant whitewashing of this country’s actual history was a form of social control.There was no way that the powers-that-be could allow the have-nots to truly realize why they didn’t have, oh no.Can you imagine the chaos? What is nowadays referred to as”African-American Studies”was literally unheard of in my era.(I am a Black Southerner, born in Jim Crow Mississippi in 1954.’Nuff said.) As for the so-called”Native Americans”, well…their sad history speaks for itself, doesn’t it? I mean, when was the last time you saw one? MULL, phatkhat.

  • Mark Woods

    Not sure how a “stratified” form of government (what form of government isn’t stratified?) contributes to the occurrence of a biological phenomenon like Ebola. But I’m sure, as Mr. Laarman contends, the Great Satan is to blame for it – as well as earthquakes, personal bankruptcies and political corruption everywhere.

  • Andre M

    Transitioning from systems of oppression to systems of equality is rarely simple and sometimes involves a tremendous amount of pain and chaos. This situation–which America has had a hand in–cannot be helpful for a major, spreading health problem.

  • Andre M

    I believe Phatkhat lives in the UK, so she probably doesn’t see a lot of Native Americans. They do have an awful history with white America which has been shamefully whitewashed, as you say. I don’t think it’s totally fair to suggest they’re almost non-existent in America now though (if that is what you were saying). Living in the American Midwest, I see Native American folks occasionally; they do have a presence here. I think they tend to keep to themselves a bit though, but I wouldn’t want to speak for them.

  • phatkhat

    We are of the same era, though I have 6 years on you – I was in first grade when you were born. Certainly the whitewashing was at fever pitch, with the McCarthy thing (jingoism) and Jim Crow (racism). I grew up in St. Louis, with my parents on the leading edge of “white flight”. Sadly, I never met a black person (aside from my aunt’s maid and service workers) until my teens, when I met some black kids at state events.

    St. Louis is a pit of white privilege and resentment, but I can’t imagine living in Mississippi. I live in Arkansas now, and see the Arkansas Delta and Mississippi still sunk in de facto Jim Crow to a large degree. The ugliness unleashed by Obama’s election is shocking to me, despite having been raised by very racist parents. I suppose, somehow, I thought that all that had actually changed over the years – but it was only superficial. Now, it seems, we want to go backward. Sigh.

    As to the Native Americans, they are plentiful if you travel to areas where the reservations are. One of my best friends was married to a Lakota Sioux, and they moved to “the rez” after their business failed in the big collapse.

    We know a lot about the shameful treatment of both black people and Indians, but we do not learn just how bad it really was – and is. I feel so bad for Michael Brown’s family, and for his life cut short so cruelly. But his death has blown the lid off the simmering pot, and I hope some good comes of it. Racism is the root of all kinds of evil, and somehow, we have to let our children grow up together and learn together that we are not all that different under the skin.

  • phatkhat

    Even our response to Ebola has been racist and classist. As long as the victims were across the Atlantic, were dark-skinned and poor, we didn’t give a damn. We didn’t respond when it might have mattered. We didn’t fight the enemy over there, and now it has come over here.

    We are eager to exploit Africa, among others, because many of the people are poor and desperate. And they have rich natural resources. We want to take what we can from them, for the enrichment of people who already have more than enough. If we paid fair prices for their labor, and what we take from them, perhaps their infrastructure would be better. Maybe they would have hospitals.

  • PieRatz

    Best read of the week. Thank you

  • joni50

    Thanks for this article. I knew a bit about the history of Liberia, so I had a certain sense of “chickens coming home to roost” when I heard of Ebola making a presence here in the USA. But I had only a sense, not a knowledge of the particulars, which this article explains it very well. It’s well past time the first world acknowledges its debt to the third world. First world riches are built on third world labor and resources.

  • eliza

    What I heard was that Ebola mutated so that it could live on surfaces. Now, it can get on a plane. It used to kill about 1,000 Africans a year.