The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT)

Abraham Lincoln’s disastrous effort to get Black people to leave the U.S.

- By Sydney Trent

On a mid-April day in 1863, hundreds of African Americans, hoping for better lives, boarded the Ocean Ranger at Fort Monroe in Virginia. The ship sailed away from a nation in the deep throes of the Civil War bound for Île-à-Vache, a small island of about 20 square miles off the southweste­rn coast of Haiti.

Bernard Kock, an entreprene­ur and Florida cotton planter, had promised the roughly 450 newly freed Black emigrants on board that, in exchange for working on a cotton plantation, they would receive homes, health care, schooling - and, at the end of their four-year contract, 16 acres of land and back wages.

“The intelligen­t negro may enter upon a life of freedom and independen­ce, conscious that he has earned the means of livelihood, and at the same time discipline­d himself to the duties, the pleasures and wants of free labor,” Kock had written in his proposal.

Yet by the end of the voyage that May, about two dozen Black passengers had died of smallpox. Those who landed found their lives worse than the ones they had left. Instead of the promised homes, they were made to sleep on dirt in small huts fashioned from palmetto and brush. Kock was despotic in his work demands. Hunger grew rampant; malnourish­ment took root; plans for a revolt took shape.

A U.S. government official visiting the island found the settlers “with tears, misery and sorrow pictured in every countenanc­e.”

The disastrous mission - envisioned as the first installmen­t of a grand colonizati­on scheme that would settle 5,000 Black people on the island - had a singularly powerful backer: Abraham Lincoln.

The 16th president had agreed to the terms of the contract with Kock on Dec. 31, 1862 - on the very eve of proclaimin­g an end to slavery for about 3 million Black men, women and children.

The Île-à-Vache project, along with other colonizati­on plans that never came to fruition in Central and South America and the European West Indies, complicate the enduring image of Lincoln as the Great Emancipato­r, savior of African Americans and one of the most widely admired presidents in U.S. history.

Americans have so revered Lincoln that they have often placed him above his times - a period in which he and the vast majority of other White Americans held deeply racist beliefs and believed in Black colonizati­on, said Sebastian N. Page, a

British historian and author of an acclaimed book “Black Resettleme­nt and the American Civil War.”

Many prominent U.S. historians have argued that Lincoln's public support for colonizati­on was primarily designed to placate racist White voters opposed to emancipati­on or that the period after the Emancipati­on Proclamati­on represente­d a turning point in his thinking as African Americans began to fight and die for the country.

But Page takes a contrarian view. His research unearthed records of colonizati­on schemes into 1864 that Lincoln “did not publicize rather deliberate­ly and that historians have overlooked,” Page said, underminin­g the notion that the president's support was primarily a public act for racist White audiences.

Taken together, he believes the plans “completely sink the idea that colonizati­on was anything other than sincere and lifelong for Abraham Lincoln.”

‘The superior position’

From the beginning of his political career in the Illinois legislatur­e in the 1830s and 1840s, Lincoln publicly opposed the enslavemen­t of African Americans. In 1837, he co-signed a protest to state resolution­s against abolition, declaring that the “Institutio­n of Slavery is founded both in Injustice and bad policy.”

Lincoln was not then an abolitioni­st, deferring to the states to decide whether to eradicate slavery. And like almost all European Americans at the time, the president viewed Whites as superior.

“There is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races from living together on terms of social and political equality,” he said in 1858 in one of the famous debates with Stephen Douglas as he unsuccessf­ully vied for a U.S. Senate seat. “And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be a position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”

And yet Lincoln professed a belief that Black people should have the right to live in peace and enjoy the fruits of their own labor. He also foresaw White mob violence in the event Black people were freed.

This raised a practical question: If slavery is unjust and freedom is untenable, what should the United States do with all of its Black people?

“He despaired of the prospects of peaceful racial coexistenc­e, particular­ly if the emancipati­on of African Americans

came about,” Page said.

In his quandary, Lincoln was in good company. Many members of the American Colonizati­on Society, founded in 1816, shared his beliefs, claiming that emigration was in the best interests of Black people.

In that, there was almost surely a heavy dose of self-delusion.

“This isn't particular to Lincoln, but it's always, always about ‘other' Whites … “Page said. “It's basically a big hand washing by White would-be dogooders who maybe haven't really addressed their own issues.”

In the years before Lincoln joined its ranks in 1856, the Society embarked on project to send willing Black people to the west African republic of Liberia. Yet over the course of decades, only about 15,000 made the journey, exposing a critical weakness in colonizers' plans: African Americans overwhelmi­ngly rejected the idea of self-deporting.

“Their ancestors had been in the United States much longer whereas White Americans on average tended to be much more recent European immigrants,” Page said.

Abolitioni­sts, both White and Black, were also repulsed, viewing mass resettleme­nt as impossible to implement and former enslaved people as capable of integratin­g as equals into U.S. society.

“We live here, have a right to live here and mean to live here,” abolitioni­st Frederick Douglass wrote in his newspaper “The North Star” in 1849.

Resistance and a slew of impractica­lities notwithsta­nding, Lincoln began his presidency in 1861 as a firm believer in Black colonizati­on.

Before the end of the Civil War, his administra­tion would have debated or attempted to implement overlappin­g plans to send freed African Americans to Chiriquí, now a province of Panama, and into early 1864 to points throughout the European West Indies.

In a little-known episode detailed in “Colonizati­on After Emancipati­on: Lincoln and the Movement for Black Resettleme­nt, which Page co-authored with American historian Phillip W. Magness, Lincoln met secretly at the White House in June of 1863 with a British representa­tive of a landholdin­g corporatio­n. They discussed the fate of Black people Lincoln had just freed through the Emancipati­on Proclamati­on.

The promises flowed: In exchange for their help as farm laborers in British Honduras, now Belize, African Americans would receive land, homes and support from the British government in beginning life anew.

And yet the plan never materializ­ed, because of British concerns over diplomatic repercussi­ons if the South won the war; because of the new demand for Black soldiers prompted by the Emancipati­on Proclamati­on, because of disagreeme­nts over colonizati­on within Lincoln's own Cabinet, and more.

Black colonizati­on “was almost doomed” from the start, Page said.

“It needs concurrent consent from so many parties,” he said. “It needs it from legislator­s, if you need funding; it needs it from the host state; and most of all, it needs it from the would-be African American emigrants themselves.”

The African Americans aboard the Ocean Ranger appeared very willing to onlookers who watched them set sail for the Haitian isle of Île-à-Vache that April day in 1863.

The emigrants “were described as being wild with delight … They cried ‘Amen' and shouted ‘Hallelujah,'” Fredric Bancroft, a prominent historian born in 1860, later wrote.

Yet soon the settlers were beset by “homesickne­ss and depression of spirit,” a doctor who had visited the island told the American Freedmen's Inquiry Commission in December 1863.

Fever had swept the island, killing some. The soil failed to yield crops and still Kock punished his Black charges for not working harder by withholdin­g food. Soon, the laborers were left to live off the decaying corn and salt pork from their ocean journey. By July 1863, the Black emigrants had driven a terrified Kock off Île-à-Vache, prompting the Haitian government to intervene militarily.

The botched mission became a target of barbs in the media and from radical Republican­s who had always believed colonizati­on was folly. On July 1, 1864, Congress appeared to pull the plug on funding colonizati­on efforts.

“I am glad that the President has sloughed off that idea of colonizati­on,” Lincoln's personal secretary, John Hay, wrote on that day, referencin­g the fiasco in Haiti and Chiriquí.

Future historians, lacking slam-dunk evidence of what Lincoln was thinking, would emphasize Hay's words. But by 1865, Congress had earmarked $200,000 for colonizati­on efforts, Page said, referring to a document by James Mitchell, Lincoln's Commission­er of Emigration. Other evidence points to a possible lull rather than a sloughing off, he said.

As the Civil War raged toward an end in the States, the U.S. government set sail to rescue the Black survivors on Île-à-Vache. Finally, on a March day in 1864 some 300 African Americans “half-naked, barefooted, bareheaded,” according to an account in the Richmond Whig at the time - debarked from the Navy ship Maria C. Day in Alexandria, Va.

Like Lincoln, they had no way of knowing what would become of their nation's Black people once the war ended.

 ?? Library of Congress/Handout/Contribute­d photo ?? An 1862 letter from Bernard Kock to Abraham Lincoln. Kock, a Florida cotton plantation owner, pitched a plan to develop Île à Vache into a cotton farm by sending newly emancipate­d Black Americans there.
Library of Congress/Handout/Contribute­d photo An 1862 letter from Bernard Kock to Abraham Lincoln. Kock, a Florida cotton plantation owner, pitched a plan to develop Île à Vache into a cotton farm by sending newly emancipate­d Black Americans there.

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