This post was written by Julita Braxton, AHMC Cataloger.
On June 19, 1865, two and a half years after Lincoln granted freedom to all persons enslaved within rebellious states through the issue of the Emancipation Proclamation, word finally reached Galveston, Texas. It was on this date that Union soldiers brought news that the war had ended and were able to enforce this executive order. Now known as Juneteenth, June 19, today commemorates the liberation of those enslaved not only in Galveston, but also across the United States.
Emancipation and the change in legal status was but the first step on the road to social and economic progress. Once liberated, freemen were faced with the dilemma of whether to strive for social uplift and the full rights of United States citizenship, or perhaps to plant seeds abroad. The Back to Africa movement promised a fresh start in a black nation. Decades before the prospects of Liberia were realized, proponents of African colonization had their sights set on the neighboring territory of Sierra Leone. Following the passage of Britain’s Slave Trade Act of 1807, which outlawed the transatlantic slave trade, the newly founded African Institution of London was dedicated to the abolition of slavery and the repatriation to the continent of formerly enslaved peoples of African descent. African Institution branches were established in cities throughout Anglophone North America.
In the United States, black community leader Paul Cuffe was active in propagating the goals of the African Institution and the cause of African colonization. Massachusetts-born Paul Cuffe was a successful sea captain, businessman, land holder, Quaker, second-generation Ashanti American, Wampanoag, and freeman. He was one of the wealthiest people of color in the United States during the early 19th century. Cuffe and his extended family, like other Massachusetts Indians, were involved in the whaling industry. He was an accomplished navigator whose whaling excursions took him to the southern tip of Africa, with stops along the west coast of the continent. His crews were composed entirely of men of African and/or Native American ancestry.
During the spring and summer of 1812, while the United States waged war with its former mother country, Cuffe traveled along the eastern seaboard to Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, with the goal of encouraging black immigration to the fledgling British colony at Sierra Leone. With the goal “that the people of colour form themselves into a society,” Cuffe sought skilled and reputable candidates for immigration within the black community. He hoped to establish Anglo-American trade in Sierra Leonean produce and other goods.
In a letter dated New Bedford, June 6, 1812, Cuffe stated his plans: “If cruel war and their obstructions doth not prevent it is my intention with the advice of my friends, to send a vessel to Sierra Leone in the 9th or 10th month next.” Alas, the War of 1812, with its ensuing Atlantic blockage, foiled his plans and postponed the enterprise until after the war. In December 1815, Cuffe, his crew, and 38 emigrants set sail on the 55-day voyage aboard a brig bound for Sierra Leone. Black seaman navigated a ship across the Atlantic from America to Africa, carrying freemen as passengers, not tethered chattel confined to the bowels of a slaver, on a quest for new life in their ancestral home.
The cataloging of the American Historical Manuscript Collection is being funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.