Who Led the 1st Back-to-Africa Effort?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: Paul Cuffee was also the first free black White House guest.

Captain Paul Cuffee (1759-1817) (New England Historic Genealogical Society Collections)
Captain Paul Cuffee (1759-1817) (New England Historic Genealogical Society Collections)

(The Root) Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 10: Who was the first black person in the U.S. to lead a “back-to-Africa” effort?

The person who spearheaded “the first, black initiated ‘back to Africa’ effort in U.S. history,” according to the historian Donald R. Wright, was also the first free African American to visit the White House and have an audience with a sitting president. He was Paul Cuffee, a sea captain and an entrepreneur who was perhaps the wealthiest black American of his time. 

Cuffee was born on Cuttyhunk Island, off Southern Massachusetts, on Jan. 17, 1759, and died on Sept. 7, 1817. He was one of 10 children of a freed slave, a farmer named Kofi Slocum. (“Kofi” is a Twi word for a boy born on Friday, so we know that he was an Ashanti from Ghana.) Kofi Anglicized his name to “Cuffee.”

Paul’s mother was Ruth Moses, a Wampanoag Native American. He ended up marrying a member of the Pequot tribe from Martha’s Vineyard, Alice Pequit.  

In 1766, Kofi purchased a 116-acre farm in Dartmouth, Mass., on Buzzard’s Bay, which he left upon his death in 1772 to Paul and his brother, John. When his father died, Paul changed his surname from Slocum to Cuffee, and began what would prove to be an extraordinarily successful life at sea.

Starting as a whaler, then moving into maritime trading, Paul Cuffee eventually “bought and built ships, developing his own maritime enterprise that involved trading the length of the U.S. Atlantic coast, with trips to the Caribbean and Europe,” according to Wright. But he was also politically engaged: In 1780, he, his brother and five black men filed a petition protesting their “having No vote on Influence in the Election with those that tax us,” because they were “Chiefly of the African Extraction,” as his biographer, Lamont Thomas, reports. He was jailed, but got his taxes reduced.

Cuffee’s visit to the White House happened like this: The U.S. had established an embargo on British goods in 1807, and relations were worsening with Great Britain. On April 19, 1812, U.S. Customs in Westport, Mass., seized Cuffee’s ship and its cargo upon its return from Sierra Leone and Great Britain as being in violation of the embargo. When customs refused to release his property, Cuffee sought redress directly from President James Madison. 

On May 2, 1812, he went to the White House, where he met with Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin and with Madison himself, who greeted him warmly and ordered that his goods be returned. Madison queried Cuffee about his recent visits to Sierra Leone, and his ideas about African-American colonization of the new British colony.

The British had founded a settlement there for London’s Committee of the Black Poor; it was called the Province of Freedom in 1787. Then Freetown was founded as a settlement for freed slaves in 1792, the year when the black Loyalists (including George Washington’s former slave, Harry Washington) arrived from Nova Scotia. In 1808, Sierra Leone became a colony.