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)

Cuffee’s dream was that free African Americans and freed slaves “could establish a prosperous colony in Africa,” one based on emigration and trade. As Wright put it, “Cuffee hoped to send at least one vessel each year to Sierra Leone, transporting African-American settlers and goods to the colony and returning with marketable African products.” 

Sierra Leone was already populated in part by former American slaves who had received their freedom by running away from their masters and joining the British as black Loyalists in the Revolutionary War. When the British lost to the Americans, many of these black Loyalists were settled in Nova Scotia. And when conditions there proved too harsh, they had petitioned to be relocated in Sierra Leone.

To distinguish his plan from British and American efforts essentially to use colonization as a way of removing the threat that free African Americans posed to the continuation of slavery, in 1811 Cuffee founded the Friendly Society of Sierra Leone, a cooperative black group intended to encourage “the Black Settlers of Sierra Leone, and the Natives of Africa generally, in the Cultivation of their Soil, by the Sale of their Produce.” He made two trips to the colony that year.

In 1812, after returning from Sierra Leone, Cuffee traveled to Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York to form an African-American version of the British “black poor” organization. Named the “African Institution,” it had self-contained branches in each city, and was charged with mounting a coordinated, black-directed emigration movement. 

Cuffee’s close friend, the wealthy sailmaker and inventor James Forten, became the secretary of the Philadelphia African Institution, while Prince Saunders, a well-known teacher and secretary of the African Masonic Lodge in Boston, became the secretary of the Boston African Institution. Cuffee’s movement seemed to be gaining steam among some of the most powerful and wealthy leaders of the free black community throughout the North.

On Dec. 10, 1815, Cuffee made history by transporting 38 African Americans (including 20 children) ranging in age from 6 months to 60 years from the United States to Sierra Leone on his brig, the Traveller, at a cost of $5,000. When they arrived on Feb. 3, 1816, Cuffee’s passengers became the first African Americans who willingly returned to Africa through an African-American initiative.  

Cuffee’s dream of a wholesale African-American return to the continent, however, soon lost support from the free African-American community, many of whom had initially expressed support for it. As James Forten sadly reported in a letter to Cuffee dated Jan. 25, 1817, a meeting of several thousand black men had occurred at Richard Allen’s Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, to discuss the merits of Cuffee’s colonization program and the work of the African Institution. The news was devastating: “Three thousand at least attended, and there was not one soul that was in favor of going to Africa. They think that the slaveholders want to get rid of them so as to make their property more secure.” And then in August, Forten co-authored a statement that declared that “The plan of colonizing is not asked for by us. We renounce and disclaim any connection with it.” 

When Paul Cuffee died just a month later, on Sept. 7, 1817, “the dream of a black-led emigration movement,” Dorothy Sterling concludes, “ended with him.” However, the cause of black emigration would be taken up by a succession of black leaders, including Henry Highland Garnet, Bishop James T. Holly, Martin R. Delany, Bishop Henry McNeal Turner and, of course, Marcus Mosiah Garvey.

As always, you can find more “Amazing Facts About the Negro” on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root.