@X: Making America White 200 Years Ago
Brandon R. Byrd, Assistant Professor of History
Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee
In the latest edition of our anniversaries series, Brandon Byrd examines resistance to the American Colonization Society’s attempts to remove free blacks from the US.
In January 1817, more than three thousand African Americans gathered in Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Philadelphia, PA. Skilled artisans, domestic workers, and underpaid manual laborers filled the pews. So did black elites including Richard Allen, the founder and first bishop of the AME Church; Absalom Jones, Allen’s friend and cofounder of the Free African Society, the leading black mutual aid society in Philadelphia; and James Forten, a wealthy sailmaker and outspoken abolitionist. As historian Benjamin Quarles noted, there was only one cause that could bring together a gathering of that size and diversity. Weeks earlier, some of the most influential white men in the United States had formed the American Colonization Society (ACS), an organization whose official title—the Society for the Colonization of Free People of Color of America—made clearer its goal of removing free blacks from the United States. Now, as the ACS began its work, black Philadelphians gathered to respond as one to the proposition that their futures lay not in what was for many their country of birth but in Africa.
Standing behind a platform at the front of the church, Forten brought the meeting to order. The well-to-do businessman, born free in Philadelphia, first called for all in favor of colonization to respond with an “aye.” Nobody said a word. He then asked for those who opposed colonization to respond with a “no.” The response was thunderous. Unambiguous. Unanimous. In fact, Forten later wrote that it seemed as if the outcry “would bring down the walls of the building.”1
One year later, the ACS gathered in the chamber of the US House of Representatives for its first annual meeting. Participating members included Francis Scott Key, the slaveholding author of what became known as “The Star-Spangled Banner” and a prominent Washington, DC–based attorney who later demanded in court that his fellow white men not “abandon your country; to permit it to be taken from you by the Abolitionist, according to whose taste it is to associate and amalgamate with the Negro.”2 Henry Clay was there too. The US congressman who would bring about the Missouri Compromise was also a Kentucky slaveowner who believed that “amalgamation”—interracial socializing or sex—was “impossible” because the “God of nature by the difference of color & of physical constitution, has decreed against it.”3 He was, put simply, a man who admired the racial thought of Thomas Jefferson, the exalted Founding Father whose antislavery views coexisted with his slaveholding and his “suspicion . . . that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.” He, too, wanted them removed from his country.4…
Read the entire article here.