During the Revolutionary era Thomas Jefferson and other prominent whites supported the establishment of a colony of free blacks in West Africa. The American Colonization Society (ACS) was formed in 1816 in Washington, D.C. Many northern whites and some white southerners supported colonization as a means to rid society of a large free black population.
The Mississippi State Colonization Society (MSCS) began in 1831 as the state auxiliary of the ACS. The following year the MSCS sent two free blacks from Natchez to the Pepper Coast of West Africa (what is now known as Liberia) to report on conditions in the colony. Their account was favorable, so colonization agent James G. Birney collected funds, and within three years the society outfitted an expedition of seventy-one freed blacks aboard the Rover under the direction of colonization agent Robert S. Finley. In 1836, however, the MSCS and the national organization split.
In the wake of the split, Natchez citizens funded the creation of a separate colony, Mississippi in Africa, 130 miles south of the Monrovia at the base of the Sinoe River. The settlement’s capital was named Greenville, after James Green, a major Natchez-area planter who supported the cause both by freeing a significant portion of his slaves and by contributing money. Josiah C. Finley, the brother of Robert, was appointed the first governor of the colony. In 1838 the first thirty-seven blacks arrived on the ship Mail from New Orleans.
Most the MSCS members were planters; a smaller number of clergymen also joined. Planters such as Stephen Duncan, Dr. John Ker, James R. Railey, and Judge Edward McGehee were among the wealthiest members and took an active part in colonization plans. In addition, most were either vice presidents or life members of the national organization. Members of the Presbyterian, Methodist, and Episcopalian clergy served as MSCS elected officials.
The MSCS collapsed in the early 1840s as a consequence of lack of funding, national events, and natural disasters. Further, the MSCS and the ACS remained at loggerheads over twenty-five thousand dollars Edward B. Randolph of Lowndes County had left to the state society in the mid-1830s.
In addition, the MSCS was hampered by a twelve-year court battle involving the heirs of Capt. Isaac Ross of Jefferson County, who died in 1836. In his will, Ross gave his adult slaves the option of obtaining their freedom and immediately emigrating to Liberia or being sold as slaves, with the profits from slave sales and the proceeds of the estate to go to the ACS to establish a university in Liberia. One of Ross’s grandsons contested the will, and nine years passed before the Mississippi Supreme Court upheld the document’s terms. Another three years passed before the former Ross slaves went to Liberia.
In 1838 the ACS expressed its desire for rapprochement with the MSCS as well as an interest in assuming control of Mississippi in Africa. The MSCS, active only from 1831 to 1840, entered into a Plan of Union with the ACS in 1841. Both organizations agreed that funds collected from the state would be used for the expenses of the Mississippi emigrants, though little was done to remove free blacks from Mississippi.
Mississippi in Africa collapsed in the late 1840s, at least in part because migrants did not want to return to the agricultural jobs they associated with the oppressive nature of slavery.
- Alan Huffman, Mississippi in Africa: The Saga of the Slaves of Prospect Hill Plantation and Their Legacy in Liberia Today (2004)
- Clayton D. James, Antebellum Natchez (1968)
- Norwood Allen Ker, Journal of Mississippi History (February 1981)
- Franklin L. Riley, Publications of the Mississippi Historical Society (1909)
- Charles Sydnor, Slavery in Mississippi (1965)