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Nation settled by ex-slaves struggles for unity

July 26, 1847: Liberia officially founded

By Amy Cox

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(CNN) -- Searching for a land of freedom and opportunity, thousands of former slaves left the United States in the 19th century and sailed across the Atlantic to a continent their ancestors had unwillingly left.

Over the decades, freed blacks settled on the west coast of Africa in what is today Liberia. They established a nation on July 26, 1847, and also a relationship with Africans that continues to influence regional politics.

A colony for blacks outside the United States had been proposed several times, beginning in the 1700s, but it was the American Colonization Society's formation in 1817 that provided the impetus to make it a reality.

"[Colonization] was supposed to be sort of a remedy for slavery and racial inequality in the country," said Claude Clegg, author of "The Price of Liberty: African Americans and the Making of Liberia." "Colonization was believed to be a middle ground -- you rid the nation of slavery but also rid the country of African Americans and the whole issue of race altogether."

The Colonization Society attracted a mixed bag of supporters, Clegg said. Anti-slavery Quakers believed blacks would only find true freedom away from the United States; many slaveholders did not want free blacks in the country; and some freed blacks who wished to live in their ancestral homeland supported the group.

Still, many other freed slaves and abolitionists opposed the idea of colonization, believing that those wishing to go to Africa should stay and fight for freedom in the United States.

"Many blacks said: 'We were born here and we have every right to be here as much as any group' and criticized those who wanted to leave," explained Wynfred Russell, who was born in Liberia and teaches classes on African-American and African studies at the University of Minnesota.

Five years after its formation, the American Colonization Society launched its first ship to Liberia, founding a settlement named Monrovia, after U.S. President James Monroe. Over the decades, the number of blacks sailing to Liberia steadily increased. Settlers built schools, churches and roads and formed a government modeled on the United States.

By the 1840s, many European countries had established colonies surrounding Liberia and were pressuring the colony, the American Colonization Society and even the United States to clarify Liberia's role and identity: Could it broker treaties and trade agreements? Could it levy taxes? And could England or France annex the area if it was not claimed by any other country?

In response, Joseph Jenkins Roberts, who had immigrated to Liberia in 1829, publicly declared the colony an independent republic on July 26, 1847, and was elected president the next year. The declaration created the first black-ruled republic in Africa.

But tensions between the settlers and the indigenous people grew within the new nation.

Seeds of civil war

When the first settlers came ashore, they were not completely welcomed, according to Clegg. The new immigrants' takeover of land and the injection of U.S. customs and religion into the culture was resented.

"It was the same issue as this country and any other settler society in which you have a native people and then others who have come to settle," said Clegg, a history professor at Indiana University. "Liberia is a mirror image of the United States and its settlement.

Jenkins Roberts
Joseph Jenkins Roberts became Liberia's first elected president in 1848.

"You have immigrants ... who are settling along the coast and seizing the lands and the labor -- and sometimes the lives -- of African people. They weren't particularly pleased to see the settlers arrive."

This rift, vulnerability to African diseases, and the hardship of creating a Westernized nation disilllusioned many immigrants.

"There was a certain amount of romantic sentiment that comes through some of the letters" (from immigrants), Clegg said. "There are those who believed they had a sort of long-standing connection with Africa.

"Maybe that facilitated the willingness of some people to project upon Africa their hopes and desires. Once they get there, many of them are shocked into a realization that they were very wrong about what Africa was about."

But some did find what they were looking for. William Burke and his family sailed to Liberia in 1853 after they were freed by owner Robert E. Lee, later a celebrated Confederate general, and were enthusiastic about their new home.

"I bless the Lord that ever my lot was cast in this part of the earth," Burke wrote after five years in Liberia, where he became a minister and educator. "The Lord has blessed me abundantly since my residence in Africa, for which I feel that I can never be sufficiently thankful."

"I love Africa and would not exchange it for America," agreed Burke's wife, Rosabella, in a letter to the wife of her former owner Lee.

By 1867, the American Colonization Society had sent more than 13,000 people, according to the Library of Congress. In these immigrants' quest to escape oppression in the United States, they created the same exclusionary practices they left behind and sowed the seeds for future civil conflict.

"They took a completely new political system that natives didn't know about and dominated the political system for 150 years," Russell said.

Liberia today

Decades after Liberia's founding, the same tensions between the ruling class -- the descendants of the freed black slaves, which make up about 5 percent of the population -- and the indigenous Africans spurred a 1980 coup. It marked an end to the settlers' dominance, as well as the beginning of decades of political instability.

In 1989, Charles Taylor attacked the Liberian government, setting off a bloody civil war.

After years in the United States, and elsewhere in exile, Charles Taylor returned in 1989 and with rebel forces attacked the Liberian government, setting off a bloody civil war. His regime ended in 2003 when Taylor -- under intense global pressure -- resigned and left the country as international peacekeepers entered. A United Nations' tribunal later indicted him for war crimes.

Today, Liberia and the United States have very different views of one another.

"I think many Liberians see the United States as sort of a godfather figure," Clegg said. "They see the United States as the place of their ancestors ... [but] I think that's wishful thinking."

The reality, said Clegg, is that most Americans do not see any special connection at all.

Still, America's influence remains strong: the Liberian flag closely resembles the U.S. "stars and stripes," some architecture resembles 19th-century plantation houses, English is the official language and the U.S. dollar is accepted as currency.

Now, the African nation is striving for political stability, said Russell, the native Liberian. Elections, overseen by an international peacekeeping force, are planned for fall 2005.

"All indications are that Liberians are now serious for peace and a government that will be ushered in peacefully," he said. "The future is bright."

Clegg agreed Liberia is poised for change, but cautioned against being overly optimistic.

"Elections themselves are not the magic bullet," Clegg said. "I think it depends on what happens between now and then. Much less depends upon the election itself than the sort of institutions that take root in Liberia, how people are allowed to participate in the election process, how reconstruction efforts go, and how people think of the legitimacy of the election.

"It has to be the case Liberians buy into the idea that an election will matter, they will participate and be encouraged to participate, and that the election truly brings into power a government that has the best interest of Liberian people -- all the Liberian people, not just a certain group of Liberians."

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