Black women have always been at the forefront of Black political movements. From Maria Stewart and Ida B. Wells-Barnett in the nineteenth century, to Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer in the twentieth century, and to the founders of Black Lives Matter (Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors), Black women have broadened our scope of what Black freedom is and who should be included in it. In 1817, a group of influential politicians and statesmen like Kentucky’s Henry Clay, artist Francis Scott Key, and future President James Madison, assembled in the U.S. Capital building to form the American Society for Colonizing the Free People of Color of the United States or the American Colonization Society (ACS). The ACS tried to undermine what Black activist women believed was their birthright by attempting to “execute a plan for colonizing (with their consent) the free people of color, residing in our country, in Africa, or such other place as Congress shall deem most expedient.” Throughout the antebellum era, Black activist women like Maria Stewart, Sarah Forten, Charlotte Forten, and Harriet Tubman analyzed the weakness of the colonizationist argument.
In the early 1830s, when the abolitionist movement was deemed to have formally begun, Black activists were not exclusively abolitionist. As the Colored Conventions Project shows, Black activists were more than single issue abolitionists. They fought for the full right to vote and to sit on juries, among other issues. All of these activities were viewed within the sphere of an engaged citizenry. As Martha S. Jones’s Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in America also shows, many African Americans saw themselves as “birthright citizens.” To be a Black citizen of the United States meant pushing against colonizationism.
Maria Stewart’s Boston political activism was founded on the notion that the U.S., for better or worse, was where her race should fight. At an 1832 speech delivered at Boston’s Franklin Hall, Stewart called out colonizationists because of an editorial she read in Boston’s abolitionist Liberator newspaper, which asserted “that we were lazy and idle.” Stewart contested the sentiment stating, “generally as a people, we are neither lazy nor idle.” Stewart did “acknowledge, with extreme sorrow, that there are some who never were and never will be serviceable to society. And have you not a similar class among yourselves?” Stewart provided a useful counterpoint. Yes, African Americans did contain a segment of the population that “never were and never will be serviceable to society,” yet in this, African Americans were just as human as whites. Stewart questioned the additional impediments to African Americans’ citizenship rights.
Stewart saw America as her home. Ultimately, the drudgery performed by her race was qualification enough for citizenship. She rebuked colonizationists again in an 1830s version of “put your money where your mouth is” when Stewart said, “if the colonizationists are the real friends of Africa, let them expend the money which they collect in erecting a college to educate her injured sons in this land of gospel, light, and liberty.” But Stewart did not have faith that colonizationists had the true interests of Black communities at heart because, “ah, methinks their hearts are so frozen toward us they had rather their money should be sunk in the ocean than to administer it to our relief.” Despite white angst about Black citizenship claims, Stewart proclaimed that “I am a true born American.” Stewart politically analyzed that African Americans were deserving of citizenship rights because they were born in the United States and should not be removed to elsewhere. Maria Stewart was not the only Black woman political activist of the 1830s dealing with whites hostile to Black citizenship; like Dr. King proclaimed from a Birmingham jail more than one hundred years later, white liberals could be just as injurious to Black freedom struggles as any rabid white racist.
Sarah Forten of the prominent Forten Philadelphia Black political activist family, in a letter to noted white abolitionist Angelina Grimké in 1837, aired some of her grievances with white abolitionists. Forten noted how “Colonization is—as you well now [sic] the offspring of Prejudice—it has doubtless had a baneful influence on our People.” Forten despised “the aim of that Institution most heartily—and have never yet met one man or woman of Color who thought better of it than I do.” Although Black men like Paul Cuffe, friend of Sarah Forten’s father James, were colonizationists, Sarah Forten believed colonization was hurtful to Black proclamations of their rightful African American identities. Forten wrote to Grimké, to educate her and by extension white abolitionists like her, about how colonization made African Americans feel about their national identities. Instead of a project of benevolence, Forten believed colonization was not in the best interest of her race because it “originated more immediately from prejudice than from philanthropy.” Colonization was about powerful white statesmen telling African Americans that “this is not your country.”1 No matter what, Black activist women like Forten personified the belief that they did not need white recognition of what they knew already: the United States was their country too.
This sentiment was also seen in Sarah Forten’s niece, abolitionist writer and teacher Charlotte Forten. In 1855, at an abolitionist lecture, a “Mr. Clark of Boston” lectured on the history of Haiti. All was well until Clark, who Forten “was beginning to think an earnest friend of freedom,” actually “proved to be a colonizationist.” At that moment, “a very decided and unpleasant change” shifted her positive feelings about Clark’s lecture. Charlotte Forten saw colonization as anti-Black and against the Black freedom struggle that she was fighting for in the mid-1850s. She craved “anti-slavery food continually,” but colonization was not on the menu she wanted served.2 Anti-colonization rhetoric was an important bedrock for how Black political activists understood what freedom was as well as its limits. Colonizing free African Americans to places like West Africa meant separating the group whose uncompensated labor produced U.S. wealth. Now that a segment of the population was free in a land where blackness and enslavement were entwined, pushing African Americans out denied them any benefit which their race’s labor should have provided.
Enslaved people produced the United States’ foundational wealth. One Black woman activist who knew well about how wealth was generated from enslaved labor was Maryland runaway Harriet Tubman. Tubman gained a growing following surrounding her “Moses” persona borne of rescuing enslaved people in and around her native Eastern Shore community in Maryland. She diligently worked to care for her parents and extended family in Auburn, New York, and she needed money. The North provided many opportunities for her to not only gain financial backers but also professional contacts, which proved useful during the Civil War, including Massachusetts Governor John A. Andrew, abolitionist journalist Franklin Sanborn, and future General Robert Gould Shaw.
At the New England Colored Convention in August 1859 located at Boston’s Tremont Temple, Tubman politically analyzed the problematic notion of relocating free and formerly enslaved people like herself elsewhere. She was introduced as “Miss Harriet Garrison” and “as one of the most successful conductors on the Underground Railroad.” Anti-colonizationist thought was broached by Tubman by “using a story of a man who sowed onions and garlic on his land to increase his diary productions.” He “soon found the butter was strong and would not sell, and so he concluded to sow clover instead.” Unfortunately, “he soon found the wind had blown onions and garlic all over his field.” She later said, “the white people had got the ’n***** here to do their drudgery, and now they were trying to root ‘em out and send ‘em to Africa.” Tubman rebuked her race’s potential uprooting by saying, “they can’t do it; we’re rooted here, and they can’t pull us up.”
Tubman saw the United States, despite the enslavement, persecution, and her being near death, as her home. Her family was there, and despite creating a living situation for her and her family, Canada was never home. Politically, Tubman theorized similarly to Stewart and both Fortens: for better or for worse, the nation was worth fighting to change. Colonization attempts would not distract them from leading the intellectual charge against groups like the ACS attempting to deprive them of the opportunity to make the nation work for Black folks. Like historian and activist Barbara Ransby wrote in Making All Black Lives Matter, Black women, including in the age of abolition, remained at the forefront of expanding Black collective dreams of freedom. We remain indebted to their activism even today.