Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Personality Spotlight: Joseph Jenkins Roberts

The African colonization movement had many proponents in 19th century American; among those included were Presidents James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, and later, Abraham Lincoln. Senators Henry Clay of Kentucky, Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, and John Randolph of Virginia also voiced support for the idea. These men and many like them believed that the best solution to the "Negro Question" was their removal to their "native" Africa. I wonder if they stopped to consider that almost all of these people of color they wished to deport were born in America, not Africa. Probably not. Later supporters such as Lincoln would suggest colonization to Africa, Central America, or even the Caribbean islands...anywhere but America.

There were a small number of African Americans who also felt their best chance for a good life existed outside of America. One such man was Joseph Jenkins Roberts. Roberts was born in 1809 in Norfolk, Virginia. His biological father was a white Welshman, and his mother was a free woman of color. Roberts actually had only one African American grandparent. Roberts' stepfather James Roberts, was a boatman on the James River, and by the time of his death had accrued considerable wealth for an African American of the day. After the death of James Roberts the family moved to Petersburg, Virginia, where Jenkins continued in the family boating business and apprenticed as a barber. Jospeh Jenkins Roberts' patron, William Colston, was prosperous black resident of Petersburg who loaned his private library to Roberts and helped educate the young man.

After hearing about the plans of the American Colonization Society, the Roberts family decided to emigrate to Liberia. With the help of Colston they established a business there that exported goods to American and they sold items to other African immigrants in a store they owned. One of Joseph Jenkins Roberts' brothers became a bishop in the Methodist church while another studied medicine in Massachusetts before returning to practice in Liberia. In 1833 Roberts became the sheriff of the colony, and in 1839 was named vice governor of Liberia. In 1841 he was appointed as the first non-white governor, and then in 1846 the Liberian legislature declared independence and Roberts was elected as the first president of Liberia in 1847.

During his first term of presidency (1847-1856) Roberts worked diligently for European and United States recognition. Liberia was formally recognized by both France and England, as well as Norway, Sweden, and Austria, but the U.S. did not recognize Liberia until 1862. Roberts' second term as president lasted from 1872-1876. Roberts faced many issues that proved difficult to overcome. Disputes between immigrants and indigenous peoples was always a significant hurdle that even exists to this day, and modernization and industrialization was also a problem not so easily solved.

Joseph Jenkins Roberts is a story that few Americans (white or black) know about today, but it is just another example of how an individual of an oppressed people rose to greatness and helped pave the way for later generations.

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