Did Lincoln Want to Ship Black People Back to Africa?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: The Great Emancipator’s original solution for America’s race problem.

“Emancipation of the slaves, proclamed [sic],” J. Waeschle, 1862
“Emancipation of the slaves, proclamed [sic],” J. Waeschle, 1862 Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Editor’s note: This article was originally published Sept. 22, 2014. For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these “amazing facts” are an homage.

Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 92: When President Abraham Lincoln met with free black leaders in 1862, what did he propose?

Today marks the anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s “shot heard ’round the world.” I’m referring, of course, to the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation he fired off from the White House on Sept. 22, 1862, five days after the real bullets had been fired 70 miles outside of Washington, D.C., at the Battle of Antietam (then and now the bloodiest day in American history, with close to 23,000 casualties). 

What little Union victory there was in Gen. Robert E. Lee’s withdrawal from Maryland gave Lincoln the opening he needed to issue the Confederacy his ultimatum: If it remained in a state of rebellion come Jan. 1, 1863, he would sign an executive order rendering “all” of its “slaves … then, thenceforward, and forever free.”

For any student of American history, this is well-trod ground. But here’s what you may not know about those crowded days of late summer 1862. While weighing emancipation, Lincoln also had a very different kind of ultimatum on his mind—for African Americans. For much of his first years in office, Lincoln was obsessed with solving America’s seemingly intractable race problem by persuading free blacks to lead the way for an exodus that would wash the United States of the original sin of slavery—without having to live alongside those it had enslaved.  

To help sell his plan, the president had a meeting convened with local black leaders in Washington. It was billed to them as a policy conversation, but Lincoln wasn’t really eager to listen. He wanted to deliver a message about a mission, and they had been chosen to receive it.

The African-American Delegation

Historian Kate Masur helps recount the strange-but-true tale in her essay “The African American Delegation to Abraham Lincoln: A Reappraisal,” in the June 2010 issue of Civil War History. The chairman of the free-black delegation was Edward M. Thomas, messenger to the House of Representatives and a respected cultural leader in Washington’s black community. He was known, Masur writes, “for his collections of fine arts, coins, and a personal library of almost six hundred volumes.”  

Joining Thomas in the delegation:

  • John F. Cook Jr., a local school leader who had studied at Oberlin College.
  • John T. Costin, who, like Thomas and Cook, was a Freemason.
  • Cornelius Clark, a member of the influential Social, Civil, and Statistical Association in Washington (Cook and Thomas also were members).
  • Benjamin M. McCoy, a teacher and leader in the Asbury Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington.