This fanciful circa-1850 depiction of the home of Liberia’s first president, former Virginian Joseph J. Roberts, in Monrovia, shows a settler talking to an indigenous Liberian on the lower right. There were few horses in Liberia, and this engraving was altered from the original which showed more indigenous people. Such art was typical of colonization marketing efforts. (Library of Congress)

That Virginia has a long history of enslaving and abusing nearly half of its population while denying them civil rights is no secret. Less well known is that 19th-century Virginians were deeply involved in a colonization movement to make the United States even more white by encouraging and coercing free and enslaved Black Americans to move to Africa.

Free Blacks founded the West African colony of Liberia, first settling on Providence Island, the site of today’s Monrovia, 200 years ago this month. Eight years later, the colony had grown to more than 1,000 emigrants, who were joined by about 50 free Black people, the Mars and Crockett families, from Southwest Virginia’s Franklin County.

A modern map of northwest Africa, showing Liberia on the lower left, between Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Ivory Coast. (Library of Congress)

Prior to the Civil War, Virginia sent more people to Liberia than any other state, and former Virginians formed the core of the country’s leadership. Hundreds emigrated through Lynchburg, including the Franklin County families who lived near the headwaters of the Blackwater River.

What happened to them has been mostly forgotten for many years.They were among the few who believed they could find a better life as citizens of a new country, their own country, rather than in Virginia. Although not enslaved themselves, free Blacks in Virginia lacked basic rights, faced racial discrimination, were not considered citizens, and were thought by whites to have an bad influence on the enslaved by encouraging freedom. Describing the founding of the American Colonization Society, Marie Tyler-McGraw writes in An African Republic: Black and White Liberians in the Making of Virginia, “most of the founders and early members thought an African republic would demonstrate that the low condition of free blacks in America was based on their historic subjugation and was not the result of lack of ability. Many thought a black republic outside the white republic would encourage gradual emancipation. Some few hoped to rid the nation of a destabilizing and troublesome class and to protect slave property.”

The mission of the colonization society was complicated and ever-changing in the years prior to the Civil War. Abolitionists saw it as a scheme to get rid of Blacks. Some Southern slave owners regarded it as a Northern plot to end slavery. Because very few free Blacks wanted to leave their homeland, most Virginia emigrants after the 1820s were enslaved people freed on the condition they emigrate, or move to another state. Regardless, the American Colonization Society’s main focus was always on getting as many Black people as possible out of the United States. The society never had enough money to help them much after they arrived and the federal and state governments offered little financial support. Earlier this month, the U.S. State Department acknowledged the society’s racist nature, the common roots of both countries, and the achievement of Liberia’s founders in an official statement, not mentioning that it remains one of the poorest nations in the world.

The Americo-Liberian emigrants succeeded in establishing a free Black republic while comprising less than 10 percent of the Liberian population. Nearly 20 Indigenous groups had lived there for generations and totaled an estimated 100,000 people. Several thousand Africans from other parts of the continent rescued from slave ships were also dropped off in Liberia, not their home regions. A secondary goal of the American Colonization Society was to Christianize Africa, and its day-to-day affairs were managed by ministers, lending the whole movement a religious aura. Only about 11,000 people emigrated through 1865. But for those 11,000 individuals, it was a matter of life, liberty or death.

 Much death: About half of all American emigrants to Liberia prior to the Civil War died within a few years, some much sooner. The tropical environment was a perfect habitat for the tiny anopheles mosquito, which we now know carries malaria. The cause was unknown back then, the disease called the “acclimating fever” which all emigrants had to undergo. Malaria is a series of debilitating fevers with the sufferer seeming to get better, then worse again, until weakened to the point of death. It hit the Franklin County people hard.

In fact, malaria and the harsh Liberian environment left only a few of the Mars and Crocketts alive a year later. So many people from a single group dying so soon was unusual, and aside from the horrible personal loss, very bad publicity for the cause of the colonization. The American Colonization Society tried to cover it up, only to be outwitted by a Black businessman in Philadelphia and a white abolitionist from Boston. 

 The Mars had been free for generations. They lived and farmed in the mountains south of today’s Blue Ridge Parkway, northwest of Rocky Mount. Not long removed from frontier status, the county was named for Benjamin Franklin in 1786. Some of the Mars family members were descended from a free veteran of the American Revolution who owned a 100-acre farm there. Another ancestor had been free since at least 1788. Emigrating with the more than 40 members of the Mars family were about a dozen Crocketts, led by Polly Crockett, a weaver. Washington Crockett, 20, a farmer, was her oldest child. The emigrations were encouraged by the Lynchburg Colonization Society, which roused itself to hold a special meeting, send three envoys to Franklin County and act as go-between with the American Colonization Society in Washington. 

In 1830, nearly 40 percent of Virginia’s population of 1.2 million was enslaved. Free blacks totaled about 47,000, but not many of them were in Franklin County. Across the state, some had been born free, purchased their own freedom, been freed through the wills of deceased masters, or freed in their old age. Like the Mars, many had ancestors freed around the time of the American Revolution. 

At the same time, slavery was growing at a pace that even many of its supporters regarded as unhealthy. White Virginians feared the enslaved might someday seek their own freedom by rising up and killing their masters, and in 1806 Virginia had begun requiring all newly-freed Blacks to leave the state. Whites came to believe that there were too many slaves in Virginia, more than were needed, more than could be profitably sold. As their families grew over the generations, the numbers of enslaved also grew. This “natural increase” became a roundabout way of blaming economic problems caused by reliance on slavery on the slaves themselves. 

So some slave-holders, including Thomas Jefferson, wondered if it would be better to send all the free Blacks to Africa to rid the country of their influence on the slaves, and to reduce the black population in general. To a lesser extent, giving American Blacks a better life in a new country that did not discriminate against them was also a factor. The American Colonization Society was formed in 1816, and included Virginians like John Marshall, James Monroe, and George Washington’s nephew, Bushrod Washington, in supporting roles. A letter about colonization from Jefferson to Lynchburg’s Quaker founder, John Lynch, was read at its first annual meeting. The Lynchburg Colonization Society was formed in 1826 and the first family of free people from the Lynchburg area emigrated in 1829. 

Most free Blacks had little interest in emigrating and opposed colonization: Richard Allen of Philadelphia, a founder and bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, wrote: “This land which we have watered with our tears and our blood, is now our mother country and we are well satisfied to stay.” The movement was denounced by abolitionists who saw it as a hypocritical attempt to circumvent emancipation, and they occasionally called out Southside Virginia in particular. William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator, the best known abolitionist newspaper in the country, referred to a Lynchburg colonizationist and his friends as “a gang of religious man-stealers.”

Back then, Roanoke was still tiny Big Lick but Southside Virginia residents, Black and white, knew Lynchburg well. The well-off sold their tobacco and produce there and patronized its stores. The less-well-off were bought, sold and separated from their families at downtown slave stands, one near the Franklin Hotel. By 1829, the city boasted an astounding 41 grocery stores, 11 hardware stores, 18 dry goods stores, a brass foundry, three shoe stores, and five saddle shops. Nor were the offerings of Lynchburg merchants confined to the basics: Shoppers could patronize five milliners, two booksellers and six tailors. The community had 15 lawyers and 18 physicians. A large fleet of bateaux “employed” hundreds of hands, mostly enslaved Blacks but some free, to haul tobacco, wheat and other cargo to Richmond via the James River. 

By 1830, slavery had pushed many of Lynchburg’s founding Quakers either out of the faith or to Ohio, where some founded a new town, also named Lynchburg. The total population of the city and its three surrounding counties (Campbell, Amherst, Bedford) was more than 50,000, nearly half enslaved. The percentage of enslaved was lower in mountainous western Virginia, and in Franklin County about 30 percent of the nearly 15,000 residents were enslaved. Abraham, Benjamin and Samuel Mars, with Polly Crockett, were among only 22 free Blacks, eight of them women, listed in 1830 as heads of a household in Franklin. 

Word that a large free family from Franklin wanted to leave Virginia for the new colony in West Africa had reached Lynchburg colonizationists by late 1829. Richard Toler, the Lynchburg Virginian editor and secretary of the Lynchburg Colonization Society, boasted that “many warm and efficient friends have put their hand to the plough and will not look back.” But the Mars and Crockett emigrations were financed by the national group and donations from Philadelphia, not Lynchburg.

The families left their homes in Franklin County in spring 1830 planning to emigrate together. But before they arrived in Lynchburg, Toler decided there might not be room on the ship and some would be stranded in Norfolk. He feared for their “domestic situation” there, meaning they would be homeless for months, free people of color, poor, worse off than they were at home. So he directed most of the emigrants to turn around and go back to Franklin. This must have been traumatic for families who were prepared to leave their homes and farms and friends forever, only to return a few days later. About a dozen, led by the oldest of three Mars brothers, Abraham, 50, a farmer, continued on to Lynchburg and Norfolk. 

Colonization supporters said Abraham Mars was “quite an intelligent man, possessing the rudiments of a tolerable education.” While whites sometimes praised individual emigrants as “intelligent,” “industrious,” “pious” or “sober,” their main focus was always on pushing as many Black Americans as possible to Liberia. The second group left Franklin for Lynchburg several months later fearing they wouldn’t arrive in Norfolk in time for the next ship. Planning, especially notifying the actual emigrants, was never a strong suit of the local or national societies. It never seems to have occurred to most white officials how momentous a decision this was for families like the Mars and Crocketts. 

The Mars brothers and their wives left behind deep roots in Virginia. They had been paying taxes in Franklin County for decades. Information is scanty on the families but census, tax, and marriage records provide a broad outline, along with colonization society documents. Benjamin, 49, and his wife, Margaret Saunders Mars, 46, had been married for 26 years. George, 46, a shoemaker, had been married for 22 years to Elizabeth Beverly Mars, 44, the daughter of Sylvester “Sill” Beverly. Beverly was a free man of mixed race who owned 126 acres in Franklin County in 1822 when he petitioned for a pension for his service in the Revolution. He had moved west to Franklin from Buckingham County in the 18th century as settlers pushed into the western areas of the state. 

Historical marker for the Carolina Road. Photo by Joe Stinnett.

What convinced a family that had been in place for generations, relatively well off, and free to leave for the unknown? They decided for themselves to emigrate, with encouragement but not coercion from the whites. As Virginia put more and more restrictions on free and enslaved Blacks, Revolutionary possibilities had eroded. Accurate information about Liberia was hard to find and American Colonization Society touted it as a “perfect paradise.” But a few emigrants from Virginia had already returned, bringing news of fever and hostile tribes, and an ACS agent in Richmond could locate no free people there willing to emigrate. Out in the backcountry of Franklin County, residents did not receive as much word-of-mouth news as people living in Lynchburg or Richmond. Roads were bad and the county still had a log courthouse until 1830. However, the Great Wagon Road, also called the Carolina Road, passed through Franklin County west of Rocky Mount. It brought Americans pushing south and west down the Valley of Virginia, among them the Dunkards, a small religious sect that did not support slavery. Several hundred Dunkards settled in Franklin and founded churches there. The Mars and Crocketts lived in the same area and could have heard about Liberia from them, or from other travelers on the Carolina Road, or from the Lynchburg or Richmond newspapers.

Discerning the Franklin County families’ exact motivation is also difficult because they wrote no letters or accounts that have survived. A few months earlier, the Erskine family from eastern Tennessee had traveled on foot and by wagon through Southwest and Southside Virginia to Lynchburg and stayed a year waiting for a ship to Liberia. Rev. George Erskine, a free man, wrote about his reasons: He planned to preach in Africa and felt called by God, and he believed that as a Black man he could prosper in Liberia, unlike the U.S. He told a ship captain: “I am going to a new country to settle my family and myself as agriculturalists; to a country where we shall at least be on a level with our fellow citizens; where the complexion shall be no barrier to fulfilling our most exalted station. I shall cultivate the land assigned me by the colonization society, and if (it) please God to spare my life, shall be always ready to do good as opportunity offers.” We can surmise that the desire for citizenship and the chance for a better life for their descendants had an overwhelming appeal to the Franklin County families. Nearly 30 of the Mars and Crocketts were children or teen-agers. Targeted at idealistic free Blacks like the Erskines and the Mars brothers and Polly Crockett, ACS marketing materials echoed sermons about Christian salvation that justified suffering and danger on earth in hopes of eventual glory in heaven. Liberia was compared to Jamestown and Plymouth: “Men of thought, of energy, of benevolence are alone prepared to labor successfully in enterprises which are to be realized only in their greatness and their glory, by a future age.”

Note on sources: This story is from a book I am writing about the hundreds of Central and Southside Virginians who emigrated to Liberia in the 19th century. The Mars and Crocketts are enumerated by name on manifests of colonization society ships, as well as the University of Virginia’s searchable Virginia Emigrants to Liberia project. Starting there, I pieced together the story of the Mars and Crocketts through research into 19th century documents, books and newspapers; census records and wills; the American Colonization Society’s African Repository, letters and records; and the work of various scholars including Marie Tyler-McGraw’s “An African Republic: Black and White Virginians in the Making of Africa;” Julie Winch’s A Gentleman of Color: The Life of James Forten, andClaude A. Clegg’s The Price of Liberty: African Americans and the Making of Liberia, among many others. Finally, I can’t resist recommending New York Times reporter Helene Cooper’s wonderful memoir of growing up in Liberia in the 20th century, The House on Sugar Beach. Her ancestor went to Liberia on the same ship that brought the first Lynchburg emigrants in 1829.

Joe Stinnett is retired editor of The News & Advance and The Roanoke Times. He is a member of the...