By James Andrew Whitaker
As the only country in Africa that was formally colonized from the United States, Liberia has an intimate yet troubled historical connection with the American South. Several states (including Georgia and Mississippi) sent previously enslaved “free Blacks” to Liberia in league with the American Colonization Society, which existed primarily to send African-Americans as settlers to West Africa. These relocations were carried out from a number of states in the American South. For example, approximately 300 freed slaves went to Liberia during the 1840s from the estate of Isaac Ross in Jefferson County, Mississippi, and started what became known as “Mississippi in Africa” in what is now Sinoe County, Liberia. This relocation was orchestrated by the Mississippi State Colonization Society, which was affiliated with the American Colonization Society for part of its history. The colonization movement consisted of a chaotic set of interests, which ranged from abolition, to missionization, to the perpetuation of slavery.
I visited Sinoe County to conduct fieldwork-based research on historical memory and oral history during the summer of 2022. As I walked through Mississippi Street in Sinoe’s county seat of Greenville and visited with local people in the surrounding area, I was often struck by similarities with the Mississippi Delta. In addition to common challenges, which ranged from unemployment to water access, the buildings, hospitality, and relaxed lifestyle were familiar to experiences back home. Although Sinoe County is practically unknown in Mississippi, many local people there had at least heard of Mississippi and its shared history. Local people in Sinoe County varied in their understandings and interpretations of these historical connections. Some described Mississippi as a kind of mother country while others merely said that they had heard there was a past connection of some kind that explained current names like “Mississippi Street” and the “Mississippi Inn” in Greenville. These narratives are entangled with the complicated history of the Americo-Liberian settlers who are often understood as founders of Liberia, but also by some as erstwhile oppressors of the Indigenous people living in the region. Such divisions came to the forefront during the Liberian conflicts of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries from which the country is still recovering. A few people in Sinoe asked me why Mississippi had not come to help them and why we had abandoned the ancestors of those early settlers.
My visit to Liberia was part of a larger project that I have been working on for a couple of years now at Hinds Community College and partnering universities in Mississippi to build new and mutually beneficial bridges between Mississippi and Liberia. With support from a fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies and Mellon Foundation, we have created a Mississippi-West Africa seminar series to aid in public education about past and present ties between these two regions. We are also in the process of developing an exhibit to further public education of Mississippi’s “special relationship” with Sinoe County, Liberia. Our goal is to build on these initiatives to create ongoing academic exchanges with Liberia.
Towards this goal, we aim to send students from Hinds Community College to Liberia during the summer of 2023. We hope to build upon this study abroad to create educational opportunities for Liberian students in Mississippi. During a recent visit by Honorary Consul General Cynthia Blandford and Liberian Embassy Counselor Nadia Sartus Kamara as keynote speakers in the Mississippi-West Africa seminar series, we discussed our goal and ways of building new bridges between Liberia and Mississippi through education, cultural exchange, and development. We are actively developing relationships with Liberia to achieve this goal. For example, we have signed Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) this year with the University of Liberia and Cuttington University. Through the creation of new and mutually beneficial relationships, we hope to build upon our shared history and to find common purpose to meet shared challenges in the present.
The Hinds Community College Foundation is currently raising funds to support the Liberia Cultural Exchange program. For more information or to make a gift, please contact Matt Jones or Robyn Burchfield at (601) 857-3363 or email them at Foundation@HindsCC.edu.
Dr. Whitaker is an Instructor of Anthropology & Sociology, Department of Social Science, Hinds Community College, and Adjunct Faculty, Department of Anthropology & Middle Eastern Cultures, Mississippi State University.