Making a Middle Class: African American Women and the Emergence of the Liberian Nation

Sunday, January 7, 2018: 9:00 AM
Virginia Suite B (Marriott Wardman Park)
Marie Stango, California State University, Bakersfield
During the early nineteenth century, over twelve thousand African Americans settled in Liberia, on the Western Coast of the African continent, as part of the colonization movement sponsored by the American Colonization Society. By the late 1830s, a mercantile middle class of settlers argued for an increased role in the governance of the colony, and, in 1847, successfully mounted an independence movement that wrested power from the Society. Though this story is well known, less clear are the ways in which African American women participated in Liberian politics during the late 1830s and 1840s. This paper examines the development of a settler middle class by examining the ways in which African American women presented themselves, and by proxy, their nation, to an American audience.

For settlers in Liberia, their identity as African Americans took on new meanings once outside of the United States. From the coast of Cape Mesurado and Cape Palmas, African Americans refashioned new identities as freed people and presented themselves as a model for emancipatory politics. Gender, and in particular, depictions by and about women, were critical to this process. In this paper, I argue that African American women were central to this process, as they exhibited their refined taste and benevolent work both in writing and in visual culture. Through both print and visual culture, settler women displayed for American and international audiences the extent to which Liberian society had developed into a middle class nation. In discussing manuscript, print, and daguerreotype sources from Liberia, including newspapers such as the Liberia Herald and Augustus Washington’s images of the Liberian middle class, this paper examines African American women’s participatory politics in colonial and early republic Liberia to illustrate the centrality of black women to the colonization and emancipation projects.

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