Julie Winch on black support for the ACS and the Bethel meeting
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Q: How did African Americans view the efforts of the ACS? Why was there support in some African American communities for emigration?
A: Hark back to the earlier attempts, not five years before, to restrict black immigration into Pennsylvania, to force African Americans in the state to carry passes, in many ways, to restrict their freedom, to make them very definitely less than white people, distinctly unwelcome. Was the American Colonization Society really a way of achieving the same kind of thing, maybe on a federal level, on a national level? How many people who were there [at Bethel Church] that January night thought back to 1812-1813, when there were all these efforts to restrict them, and to generally get them out of the way, to make them feel that they had no role in America, and that the sooner they left, the better?
And at the same time, there's an unwillingness on the part of the black community to turn their backs on Africa. You did have people, after all, who were African born, who were the children of Africans. You also have this religious impulse, where people truly look to the potential of themselves as black Americans making evangelizing expeditions to Africa to try to reach the African peoples. I think you have a lot of things here, coming together....
There's a small number of people who are natives of different areas of Africa. So for them, literally, a return to a homeland that they remember. And then you have people who are investigating the possibility of trade. James Forten is very alive to this, as are people in the community, other leaders, Richard Allen, Absalom Jones. Missionary work that they might be able to sponsor in Africa. A possibility Forten is interested in: What are the prospects for a sailmaker? One wonders, is he thinking one of his apprentices might possibly go over there and establish some kind of business? We know that there's speculation about whaling off the coast of West Africa. What might that mean in terms of an economic endeavor for African American men? After all, plenty of African American men are going to sea at some point in their life, earning a living as sailors.
The potential is there for trade links, for religious links, for reviving cultural links. But still, something you do of your volition, your own interest. Not something you do because you are forced into it by a group that you feel does not have your welfare or Africa's welfare at heart....
Really, I think that meeting is to make a firm statement of the views of the African American population. If you say that you're not going to just agree without further investigation to get on ships, you're not absolutely cutting off all possibility of leaving the country. You're just saying that you have to be satisfied about what the motivation is here, what the prospects are.
Professor of History
University of Massachusetts, Boston
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