It’s 1850, and an African American man named Samuel H.G. Sharp is living the “American Dream” millions of people in the U.S. arriving by birth or migration before and after him have envisioned for themselves. The 41-year-old lives with his wife, Henrietta, age 36, and their seven children, ranging in age from one to fifteen, in a home in Union Township, Camden County, NJ. Sharp earns and saves enough as a carpenter to own $800 worth of real estate, more than any other head of household living near him. (The closest is Peter Mott, age 40, who owns $600 worth.) He also stands out from his adult neighbors in his literacy; out of 134 people living near him, 66 (nearly 50%) are over the age of 20, and 82% of that portion cannot read or write. Sharp’s place of birth makes him more similar to his neighbors, all of whom are black or, per the classification of the day, mulatto. Like most of them, he was born in a state in the Mid-Atlantic where slavery was legal.
Sharp, then, was born in 1809 in a slaveholding state, and by age 41, he lived with his wife and children as a free man just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. He worked for a wage. He owned property. His education and real estate outpaced that of most of his neighbors.
Nonetheless, Samuel H.G. Sharp was ready to make a move. In a letter dated 1853, just three years after the 1850 census, Sharp wrote about what he witnessed on a visit to Liberia: “Every man can vote. I visited the courts where I saw colored men judges, grand and petit jurymen, squires, constables, &c. Business is carried on correctly as in the United States.” He intended to return to Liberia with his family, and perhaps he did; there is no record of Samuel, Henrietta, or their children in New Jersey or surrounding states in census data for subsequent years.
Sharp’s “Problem,” or the Country’s?
How do we interpret Sharp’s letter? It appears in the appendix of the book, Liberia, or Mr. Peyton’s Experiments, published in 1853 by Sarah Josepha Hale, an ardent supporter of the American Colonization Society. Founded in 1816 as the American Society for Colonizing the Free People of Color in the United States, ACS aimed to colonize free, U.S.-born blacks in Africa and Christianize the African continent, thereby resolving the “problem” of free black people in America. Backed by federal funding and approval from presidents Madison and then Monroe, the U.S. Navy “coerced a local ruler to sell a strip of land [near Sierra Leone] to the Society” in 1821.
The settlement was named Liberia three years later. Liberia claimed its independence from ACS in 1847, but the movement for colonization continued while the stakes for blacks in the U.S. heightened. The country was expanding west and lawmakers were deciding whether slavery would expand with it. To help quiet the argument for secession this debate was causing, Congress passed The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, incentivizing slave traders to kidnap free black people.
Set in the decade before the Civil War, Mr. Peyton’s Experiments is a fictional account of a scenario Hale imagines a would-be abolitionist facing at that time. A Virginia planter’s son decides to free his slaves but is perplexed by what to do with them after that. Deed land to them to work for their own earnings and benefit? The planter is sure black people lack the morality and work ethic needed for that. Give them money to migrate to northern states? Northerners will be mean to them and will lead them into waywardness. The “poverty, criminality, and irreligion among the country’s growing black population” that had driven Presbyterian minister Robert Finley to found ACS in 1816 has continued.* (Black Prophets of Justice, 24-25) The only solution is colonization.
In the introduction, Hale presents colonization as a “charitable” and godly cause and asks readers to imagine “emigrants returning, civilized and Christianized, to the land … their fathers had left degraded and idolatrous savages. … The aim of this little book … is to show the advantages Liberia offers to the African, who among us has no home, no position, and no future” (emphasis mine).
Hale espoused the opinion of the subset of white Christians who supported both abolishing slavery and deporting free black people to Africa. Notice my word choice here and that of Hale’s in the introduction to Mr. Peyton’s Experiments. To Hale, Black people are “African,” not colored Americans or American Negroes. “No position” and “no future” speak to her certainty that parity would never arrive. Writing this in 2019, I know it’s politically correct to use “African Americans” instead of “black people,” but in 1816 when ACS was founded, and in 1853 when Hale published her book, the citizenship of people some eight to ten generations removed from Africa was precarious at best. The Fourteenth Amendment, which grants birthright citizenship to everyone, including those formerly enslaved, was not passed until 1868. Until then, were black people Americans? Africans co-existing in a country that belonged to and was meant for white people only? Americans whose ancestors happened to be descended from Africa (and for most blacks, also from England, Holland, or other parts of Europe) and who deserved equal rights? Some other identity entirely?
Interpreting Sharp’s Letter
How did Samuel H.G. Sharp see himself in 1853? Given where it’s published, we can interpret his letter as propaganda supporting ACS, but it also offers insight into the status he held in the U.S. and the position he wanted but perhaps thought he would never achieve unless he left the country he was born in. In Liberia, he sees black men in charge of the judiciary, and lo and behold, a country under black leadership has not fallen apart. It’s unclear whether by “business,” Sharp means all legal matters, industry, or the economy more broadly. Regardless, it would be fashionable today to critique Sharp’s approval of U.S. capitalism, Eurocentric ideas of what defines civilization, or social hierarchies that continue to influence our courts and wealth disparities. But from Sharp’s perspective in 1853, he knows the system he has lived under, and he knows he’s built a bit of wealth out of it. Business being “carried on correctly” is proof of Liberia’s stability.
Sharp notes that “Every man can vote.” This observation implies that whether or not he believes he will ever have the right to vote in the U.S., he wants it. For him, agency appears to have meant leaving for Liberia to go get it.
What would Sharp have done in 1853 if he had known amendments abolishing slavery, granting birthright citizenship and equal protection under the law for citizens, and giving black men voting rights would all be passed within the next seventeen years? Would the presence of black men in high positions have been a wonder? Would he have visited Liberia at all?
Implications for Today
Perhaps Sharp would have still visited Liberia, and he wouldn’t have regretted it. We know now that the rights guaranteed in the aforementioned amendments are still questioned for African Americans, black people, and other people of color. Even the path to naturalization is undecided or impossible for many. In November 2019, the Supreme Court of the United States heard arguments in favor and against ending Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. People living in the U.S. under this program have been protected from deportation. They were not born in the U.S. and did not enter the country with visas permitting them to be here. They have been protected because they arrived here as children and grew up here but have no path to citizenship. In August 2019, the President of the United States even suggested using an executive order to abolish birthright citizenship, presumably to keep children born to immigrants from obtaining citizenship automatically.
Also over the summer, the president targeted Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley—none of whom are white, three of whom were born in the U.S., all of whom are citizens—on Twitter with taunts for them to “leave” the U.S. and “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” His tweets echoed Hale’s belief that though whites, too, are immigrants, America is their home and not meant to be shared with an “other.”
The tweets also give some credence to H.W. Johnson’s prediction in 1865. Johnson, a black attorney in Canandaigua, N.Y., and supporter of ACS, gave a lecture on “The Future of the Colored Race in America” at Genesee Wesleyan Seminary in Lima, NY. A secondhand account of the lecture appears in volume 41 of the African Repository, an ACS monthly journal. According to the report, Johnson believed that “the colored race cannot for centuries, if indeed they can ever, attain to political and social equality in America with the white. … Even the most sanguine of his race tell him that they do not expect to attain this equality in a shorter time than three hundred years.” Johnson also emigrated to Liberia.
Johnson was a black American who held low expectations of his country and of white Americans’ full acceptance of black people as equals deserving the same rights. Over the past 155 years or so, America has run as far away from Johnson’s prediction as it has towards it. Will the next 145 years justify or disprove his belief? And how are African Americans today continuing to resist attacks against social and political equality, preparing for the possibility that it may never exist, or living with the best and worst scenarios?
We’ll keep exploring African American agency in Philadelphia’s resistance history as long as Chronicling Resistance continues.
*See Swift, David Everett. Black prophets of justice: activist clergy before the Civil War. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. 1989.
Research and writing time for this essay was funded by the Pennsylvania Abolition Society.