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Historical Document
Forten letter to Cuffe

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One of the most active proponents of colonization was a free black shipping merchant from Massachusetts named Paul Cuffe. Cuffe, a Quaker convert who was half Indian, was convinced that black people living in America would never receive the full benefits of citizenship and that they would fare much better on the friendly shores of Africa. As a merchant he was interested in establishing trade between Africa and black American businessmen, and he was also inspired by the idea of bringing Christianity to Africa.

In 1810-1811 Cuffe sailed to Sierra Leone, a British colony that had been created as a haven for poor blacks from London and black Loyalists who despaired of life as free people in Nova Scotia. In 1815-1816 he made a successful voyage to Sierra Leone with 38 colonists from the United States.

In 1816 Robert Finley contacted Paul Cuffe and told him of his plans to form the American Colonization Society. Cuffe was enthusiastic. Soon after its founding, the ACS contacted James Forten to request his support in recruiting colonists from Philadelphia. Forten, a prominent black businessman who operated a sailmaking business, was a close friend of Cuffe's who sometimes looked after his Philadelphia business concerns. He was a supporter of Cuffe's colonization schemes, and the two men exchanged correspondence on the idea.

On January 15, 1817, Forten and other black leaders called a meeting at Bethel to discuss the ACS and the idea of colonization. Almost 3,000 black men packed the church. Three prominent black ministers, Richard Allen, Absalom Jones and John Gloucester, spoke in favor of immigrating to Africa. However, when Forten called for those in favor to say "yea," not a single voice was heard. When he called for those opposed, one tremendous "no" rang out that seemed "as it would bring down the walls of the building." As Forten wrote to Paul Cuffe on January 25, "there was not one sole [sic] that was in favor of going to Africa."

The common black people had understood what their leaders had not. Despite the good intentions of some members, the ACS had fallen under the influence of its Southern delegates. Its covert aim was to rid the country of the strongest opponents to slavery, the free blacks. With its most troublesome agitators removed, slavery would be free to flourish. As Forten wrote to Cuffe: "They think that the slave holders wants to get rid of them so as to make their property more secure.

The assembled men passed a series of unanimous resolutions. "Whereas our ancestors (not of choice) were the first cultivators of the wilds of America, we their descendents feel ourselves entitled to participate in the blessings of her luxuriant soil.... Resolved, That we never will separate ourselves voluntarily from the slave population in this country; they are our brethren by the ties of consanguinity, of suffering, and of wrongs...." A committee of twelve was formed to oppose the ACS, with James Forten as chairman. Richard Allen, Absalom Jones and John Gloucester were members.

These men who had formerly supported the idea of emigrating to Africa were undoubtedly caught off guard by the unanimous opposition of the majority. Though some of them, especially James Forten, still privately believed in colonization, they joined with the majority in fighting the ACS.

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Related Entries:
Memoir of Captain Paul Cuffee, Liverpool Mercury
American Colonization Society
American Colonization Society: a Memorial to the United States Congress
A portrait of James Forten

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