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Lecture focuses on Liberia, colonization

February 27, 2006|by KAREN HANNA

karenh@herald-mail.com

HAGERSTOWN - In its day, the debate over sending freed black slaves to Africa was as heated as some of the most pressing concerns of the 21st century. Two centuries since the back-to-Africa movement gained steam, descendants of those decisions are now trying to overcome decades of civil war and unrest.

For blacks living under the crushing racism of 19th-century America, professor Debra Newman Ham said, the offer of settling elsewhere was no easy sell. At one meeting about a recolonization effort, Ham said, audience members reacted to the opportunity with stunned silence.

"They said it was so quiet you could hear a pin drop," Ham said.

As part of Black History Month, Ham, who teaches history at Morgan State University in Baltimore, presented, "Is Africa My Home?" Sunday at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts. About a dozen people attended the lecture, which examined the movement to send free blacks to the African colony of Liberia during the 19th-century.

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"Colonization was as hot an issue as abortion, where people were for it, people were against it," Ham said.

In a country that relied on slavery, the presence of a growing population of free blacks made whites jittery, Ham said. While a few blacks joined the colonization movement, most believed they deserved opportunity in their own country, Ham said.

"It's never been a popular movement, just because blacks are just as American as whites," Ham said.

South of Monrovia, the capital city that settlers named after fifth President James Monroe, blacks from Maryland colonized an area called Maryland in Liberia, Ham said.

Many of the newcomers found Liberia hostile, and fevers claimed scores of settlers, Ham said. In Monrovia, 200 inches of rain fall a year, she said.

Last year, Liberians elected Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the continent's first female president. The country is struggling to recover from civil war.

"Liberia's in terrible economic and social depression, and if you're praying for people, (Johnson-Sirleaf) is certainly someone who needs to be prayed for," Ham said.

According to Ham, Liberia pays tribute to its history in its official mantra, "The love of liberty brought us here."

Blacks who went to Liberia looking for a better life tacked on another line:

"And poor settlers added the rejoinder, 'And, the lack of money kept us here,'" Ham said.

Some blacks found the hardships easier to accept than the racism they had left behind, Ham said after the lecture.

"They were very interested in what was going on in the United States, and if they could, they traveled and they began to feel themselves superior to free blacks who would continue to labor under the oppression of whites," she said.

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