Exodus and Colonization: Charting the Journey in the Journals of Daniel Coker, a Descendant of Africa

By Thomas, Rhondda R. | African American Review, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

Exodus and Colonization: Charting the Journey in the Journals of Daniel Coker, a Descendant of Africa


Thomas, Rhondda R., African American Review


At Sea, Feb. 24, Thursday May He that was with Moses in the wilderness, be with us; then all will be well.

--Daniel Coker, The Journal of Daniel Coker, a descendant of Africa

On January 31, 1820, hundreds of well-wishers packed the African Church in New York City to commemorate the first voyage to Africa undertaken by the American Colonization Society (ACS). When the ceremony ended, the attendees joined thousands of spectators outside of the church in escorting the emigrants and ACS agents to the wharf where their ship the Elizabeth was anchored in the icy North River (Ashmun 241-42). While the passengers waited for their journey to begin, Rev. Daniel Coker, one of the emigrants, began writing in the journal that he would keep throughout their transatlantic voyage and early settlement in Africa. In the first entry in The Journal of Daniel Coker, a Descendant of Africa, From the Time of Leaving New York, in the Ship Elizabeth, Capt. Sebor, on a Voyage for Sherbro, In Africa, in Company with Three Agents, and About Ninety Persons of Colour, With an Appendix (1820) that he recorded on Friday, February 4, 1820, Coker notes, "This evening Mr. Bacon, read Duet. [sic] c. 11, and made some very appropriate and feeling words on the same; and I feel that his remarks were felt by most present" (2). Bacon, a Harvard-educated lawyer and Episcopal priest, read the portion of scripture in which Moses reminded the Israelites of their miraculous deliverance from bondage and the protection they experienced during 40 years of wilderness wandering. Similarly, as the emigrants prepared to leave the United States, Bacon encouraged them to go forward fearlessly, obey God's commandments, and teach His laws and the story of their Exodus experience to their children. Bacon thus posits Africa as free blacks' new Promised Land, and inadvertently characterizes the US as Egypt. His appropriation of the Exodus narrative to justify the ACS's removal of free blacks from the US ensured the survival of an unreconstructed white promised land supported by slave labor.

The black emigrants who embarked on this transatlantic journey also hoped that the trip would lead to an African promised land. The competing Exodus narratives that emerged during their voyage and early settlement in Africa reflected the mixed motivations of individuals whose divergent dreams for an African Canaan could not be reconciled. Unlike Europeans who had traveled to the New World and transformed it into their promised land, African American Israelites secured passage on a ship sponsored by an organization that affiliated itself with the Egypt they hoped to leave behind. As Coker and the emigrants struggled to escape the oppressive conditions in their native land, race complicated their attempts to merge sacred and secular worlds and thereby create a new space in which they could experience the Canaan promised by Exodus.

Coker had resisted the ACS's recruitment efforts, but an unexpected turn of events led him to embrace emigration. At the 1816 meeting that he and Rev. Richard Allen called to organize the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, delegates elected him as the first bishop, but he resigned in favor of Allen for reasons that remain unclear. At the first AME Conference in Baltimore later that year, Allen rebuked Coker for publicly criticizing his preaching style. In 1818, church leaders found Coker guilty of undisclosed charges and dismissed him from the Connection; Coker also filed for bankruptcy that year (Phillips 138). (1) During the AME Conference in 1819, church officials accepted Coker's petition for readmission to fellowship, but restricted his access to the pulpit, allowing him to preach only at the invitation of a local elder. This decision severely hampered Coker's efforts to unify the AME churches in Baltimore. He continued teaching at a school for black children but was not able to support his family (Corey 177-78). (2) In 1820, Coker sought new opportunities by accepting passage on the ACS's first voyage to Africa. …

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