A Gendered History of African Colonization in the Antebellum United States

By Dorsey, Bruce | Journal of Social History, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

A Gendered History of African Colonization in the Antebellum United States


Dorsey, Bruce, Journal of Social History


When the American Colonization Society began recruiting Northern free blacks to establish a new colony in West Africa in the 1820s, Joseph Blake, a thirty-three-year-old Philadelphia ship carpenter, joined dozens of urban free blacks who turned a deaf ear to overwhelming black opposition to the colonization scheme and set sail for Liberia. Perhaps Blake, like many of his fellow colonists, considered Liberia his only hope for true freedom. A decade later, Blake wrote to the ACS secretary charging the society's white colonial agent in Liberia, Dr. Joseph Mechlin Jr., with having seduced and "debauched" his wife, and leaving Blake to support "a mulatto child" produced by their "criminal intercourse." The consequences for Blake were numerous. His wife had become "haughty, insolent, and disobedient," and "careless" about family matters. He expressed disillusionment that a man "put here to be our father, and our guide," and "our representative, an earthly protector," could perpetrate such an evil. Still, Blake worr ied about the repercussions for the colony's reputation. "Had I killed the man," he wrote, "it would have been a stigma casted upon the Colony, that never could have been rubbed off." So Blake appealed for redress, requesting a grant of waterfront land to build a shipyard, and threatened that if he was not compensated, he would "publish [Mechlin's] conduct to the whole world." [1]

Blake's story reveals the central place of gender in the history of slavery, abolition, colonization, and the social and political condition of African Americans in the antebellum United States. This episode illustrates, however, a different gendered history from that to which antebellum historians have typically devoted their attention. Blake's experiences highlight how conceptions of manhood and debates over African colonization, both of which have been insufficiently addressed by historians, essentially fashioned the gender and racial foundations of Northern responses to the slavery problem prior to the Civil War. Those white colonization leaders whom Blake addressed certainly remained cognizant of the various masculine reactions he outlined for them. His possible manly responses ranged from violent revenge of his honor, to a reassertion of patriarchy in his family, to independence through property ownership, or finally, to exposure of the pretenses behind white colonizationists' claims of benevolence and paternalism. Although the ACS ignored Blake's pleas, for decades those same colonization society leaders had been actively promoting their reform movement as a vehicle for masculine identity for black colonists and white reformers alike.

For some time, histories of gender and antislavery have concentrated primarily upon the relationship between white women's abolitionist activism and the origins of feminism and the woman's rights movement. By no means has that narrative been completed. [2] Still, recent scholarly initiatives have encouraged historians to pursue histories that view gender as a whole, recognizing men and masculinity, as well as how gender has signified power relationships throughout human history, as indispensable subjects for historical inquiry. [3] Historians, therefore, need to pursue a more comprehensive understanding of the ways in which gender shaped and influenced Northern reformers' responses to slavery and the ideological debates regarding race and the place of African Americans in American society. This framework not only must reveal the gendered histories of the whole abolitionist movement (men and women, black and white, feminist and non-feminist), but also must encompass perspective of abolitionists' greatest riva ls for Northern whites' sympathies-the colonizationists--as well as those Northern free blacks who favored emigration while expressing their hostility to white colonization societies. This essay moves toward that objective by engendering the history surrounding the African colonization reform movement. …

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