Black Abolitionists: Lincoln’s Plan to Resettle Free Blacks in Africa


By Lesley Gist, The Gist of Freedom

Lincoln’s Plan To Resettle Free Blacks in Africa.

“Lincoln blames the Free Blacks for the war,” Holzer explains. “[He] says, if it wasn’t for your presence here this wouldn’t be happening. Go where the ban is not upon you, he tells them. Go to the Caribbean, go to Africa.”

Responding to Lincoln, The Free Blacks said, ‘we appreciate your offer to send us to South America, Haiti, and so on, to appease you White folks, but our bloodlines and ancestry in America is at least 200 years older than your own. America is Home, and we are not leaving’. – Phil Sexton (I’m paraphrasing, of course).

On Aug. 14, 1862, Abraham Lincoln hosted a “Deputation of Free Negroes” at the White House, led by the Rev. Joseph Mitchell, commissioner of emigration for the Interior Department. It was the first time African Americans had been invited to the White House on a policy matter. The five men were there to discuss a scheme that even a contemporary described as a “simply absurd” piece of “charlatanism”: resettling emancipated slaves on a 10,000-acre parcel of land in present-day Panama.

Edward M. Thomas, John F. Cook, Cornelius C. Clark, John T. Costin, and Benjamin McCoy—met with Lincoln in August 1862 to debate his proposal for a black colony in Central America Cook, Costin, and Clark were members of the Social Civil and Statistical Association, A black City-based organization. The SCSA had sought to “banish several emigration promoters from Washington” weeks before the delegation met with Lincoln. Many of the SCSA’s members were connected with the prestigious Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church.

“He wanted this message out,” Holzer explains. “What’s important to keep in mind is that he had written the Emancipation Proclamation. It was languishing in a drawer or burning a hole in his pocket. He knew he was going to do this, but he wanted Northern Americans who were dubious about marching toward racial equality to be assured that he was not doing this for the black race. He was doing this for the Union, to reunite the country, to defeat the rebellion, and he had no concern about blacks, their feelings, their resonance. He does have his finger in the wind.”

Lincoln was trying to mold public opinion, to make the proclamation palatable. And, Holzer says, the president was waiting for the right moment: a Union victory on the battlefield — which finally came at Antietam.

Within a week of that victory, Lincoln ordered the rebellious states to obey this ultimatum within 100 days: “Either return to your legal balance with the Union, end this rebellion, or your slaves will be then, henceforward and forever free.”

There was an immediate backlash: Lincoln’s Republican Party was punished at the polls in the 1862 elections. Then, on Jan. 1, 1863, Lincoln was to issue the final decree at the White House.

“It was New Year’s Day, and by tradition there was a party,” Holzer says. “And Lincoln went downstairs early and began receiving guests, and the afternoon comes and goes and African-Americans are gathered in churches, telegraph operators are already keyed up to bring the glorious news to the church whenever it arrived, and nothing happens.”

When Congress passed the District of Columbia Act emancipating slaves in Washington in April 1862, it also appropriated $100,000 to resettle “such free persons of African descent now residing in said District, including those liberated by this act, as may desire to emigrate.” Two months later, Congress appropriated an additional $500,000 to colonize slaves whose masters were disloyal to the United States. And on July 16, the House Select Committee on Emancipation and Colonization recommended $20 million for settling confiscated slaves beyond United States borders.

No doubt buoyed by these signs of Congressional support, Lincoln pushed forward with the Chiriquí plan and instructed Mitchell to arrange the Aug. 14 meeting. The five delegates included Edward Thomas, the delegation chair and a prominent black intellectual and cultural leader; John F. Cook Jr., an Oberlin-educated teacher who ran a church-affiliated school; Benjamin McCoy, a teacher and the founder of an all-black congregation; John T. Costin, a prominent black Freemason; and Cornelius Clark, a member of the Social, Civil, and Statistical Association, an important black social and civic organization that had recently sought to banish several emigration promoters from Washington.

Mitchell’s own views on the desirability of colonization mirrored those of the president he served. The delegates he recruited were not at all convinced. The men had been wary of the president’s intentions and had agreed to attend only after adopting two resolutions criticizing the plans, as a way to provide political cover. Lincoln’s strategy at the meeting prevented any of these men from voicing their own opinions on the matter of colonization, and the delegation never responded formally to Lincoln’s plan.

Nevertheless, the publication of Lincoln’s remarks at the meeting generated a furious response from all corners of the anti-slavery world. To Senator John P. Hale, a Radical Republican from New Hampshire, “The idea of removing the whole colored population from this country is one of the most absurd ideas that ever entered into the head of man or woman.” Lincoln’s treasury secretary, Salmon P. Chase, wrote in his diary, “How much better would be a manly protest against prejudice against color! — and a wise effort to give freemen homes in America!” On Aug. 22 William Lloyd Garrison editorialized that “the nation’s four million slaves are as much the natives of this country as any of their oppressors,” and two weeks later The Pacific Appeal noted that Lincoln’s words “made it evident that he, his cabinet, and most of the people, care but little for justice to the negro.” And Frederick Douglass said that “the President of the United States seems to possess an ever increasing passion for making himself appear silly and ridiculous, if nothing worse.”

Lincoln’s hopes for the Chiriquí venture barely outlasted the summer. On Aug. 28 he accepted an offer from Kansas Senator Samuel C. Pomeroy to organize black emigration parties to Central America, and on Sept. 11 he authorized Caleb Smith to sign an agreement with Thompson advancing money to develop the mines. But on Sept. 24, two days after issuing the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln abruptly suspended Pomeroy’s operation.

The Chiriquí venture was, in retrospect, doomed from the start. Ambrose Thompson’s title to the coal lands proved questionable, and a report by the Smithsonian Institution’s Joseph Henry found that the Chiriquí coal was almost worthless as fuel. Several Central American governments also opposed the plan: Luis Molina, a diplomat representing Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, characterized the plans as a thinly disguised effort to make Central America the depository for “a plague of which the United States desired to rid itself.”

The failed venture hurt hundreds of people who had volunteered to go on the first trip. “Many of us have sold our furniture” and “have given up our little homes to go,” wrote one emigrant. The uncertainty and delay are “reducing our scanty means” and “poverty in a still worse form than has yet met us may be our winter prospect.” In response, Lincoln could do no more than ask for their forbearance. After issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, the president never again issued any public statements on colonization



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