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Producer, videographer, editor: Ernie Lee Martin
Kentucky and Liberia
In the West African country of Liberia, you’ll find a town named Clay-Ashland in an area known as “Kentucky in Africa.” This special edition of Kentucky Life explores the history behind those names and traces family ties that bind Liberia and Kentucky.
Liberia was established in the 1820s as a resettlement colony for American blacks. The seeds of the idea were planted in 1815, when Paul Cuffee organized a voyage of free blacks to Sierra Leone. Cuffee, a devout African-American Quaker, dreamed of a fresh start for blacks who could use skills they had acquired in America to build a new nation of their own. But he died not long after that initial voyage, and the idea of colonizing blacks “back to Africa” soon began to attract followers whose motives were political rather than altruistic.
As the conflict over slavery heated up in the early 1800s, many abolitionists hoped that removing former slaves to Africa would further their cause by eliminating the need for whites and freed blacks to live and work together (a possibility only radicals entertained at the time). Some slaveholders were troubled by the morality of slavery and wanted to free their slaves—but only if the former slaves could then be sent far away. Meanwhile, other slaveholders who had no intention of relinquishing their own slaves supported the removal of those already freed because they saw the freedmen as economic competitors and potential fomentors of slave revolt. Whites representing all of these viewpoints came together in the American Colonization Society, though the alliance was always uneasy. The society’s founders included Kentucky statesman Henry Clay, a slave owner himself who favored emancipation in theory but advocated a conservative, gradual approach.
In 1821, the ACS purchased land in Africa to found the colony of Liberia (“land of the free”). A Kentucky state affiliate was formed in 1828, and the members began to raise money for transporting Kentucky blacks—free volunteers as well as slaves set free on the condition that they agree to emigrate—to Africa. In its three decades of existence, the Kentucky Colonization Society managed to send only about 650 people to Africa. But the society did raise enough money to buy a 40-square-mile site along the St. Paul’s River—Kentucky in Africa. The principal town, established in 1846, was named in honor of Clay and his Lexington estate, Ashland.
One man who did make it to Africa from Kentucky was Alfred Francis Russell (left). Russell’s mother, Milly, was only one-eighth Negro, and his father was probably white. But Milly and Alfred were both black by the standards of the time, and both were slaves. Freed by their mistress, the second wife of one of Kentucky’s largest slaveholders, they left Bourbon County for Frankfort on foot in 1833 to begin their journey to Liberia. Milly died of disease there in 1845—a common fate among the early colonists—but Alfred made a name for himself and eventually became a member of the Liberian government. He was vice president when President Anthony Gardiner resigned over a border dispute in 1883, and Russell served out the remaining year of Gardiner’s term as president.
A dozen years later, another Kentuckian became president of Liberia. William David Coleman, born in Fayette County, had come to Africa at the age of 11. He entered politics in his 30s, serving as a representative, a senator, and vice president, then succeeded to the presidency in 1896 when Joseph Cheeseman died in office. Coleman was re-elected to the presidency twice. In the photo at the top of the page, William’s great-grandson, Othello Coleman, visits his ancestor’s monument in Clay-Ashland.
Our exploration of the Kentucky-Liberia connection also includes a visit with Mary Dixon, a deaconess at the First Baptist Church of Clay-Ashland. She recalls hearing community elders sing about Kentucky at gatherings during her childhood.
Postscripts: Life in Liberia was harsh from the beginning, and the country has had a complicated history of both great hope and internal strife. Ironically, its first colonists left slavery behind only to establish a two-tiered society with sharp class distinctions between those with American roots—the “Americo-Liberians”—and the indigenous peoples. Ruled by the ACS for more than two decades, the country declared its independence in 1847.
Liberia was an early member of the League of Nations and the United Nations, and during the colonial period in Africa, its status as one of the few African-run countries on the continent made it a beacon of hope for many. But in the late 1980s, internal conflict erupted into a bloody civil war that eventually left more than 200,000 dead. Under a U.N.-brokered peace agreement, President Charles Taylor resigned and went into exile in 2003.
Liberia made news again in the fall of 2005 when its citizens chose Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf as Africa’s first democratically elected female president. Her inauguration on January 16, 2006 marked the end of the transitional government set up under the U.N. agreement—and the beginning of another new chapter in Liberia’s history.
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