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“The Negro's Peculiar Work”: Jim Crow and Black Discourses on US Empire, Race, and the African Question, 1877–1900



In 1887, T. Thomas Fortune published an editorial, “The Negro's Peculiar Work,” in the black newspaper the New York Freeman, wherein he reflected on a recent keynote speech delivered by Reverend J. C. Price on 3 January in Columbia, South Carolina, to commemorate Emancipation Day. Price, a member of the Zion Wesley Institute of the AME Zion Church, hailed from North Carolina and his denomination considered him to be “the most popular and eloquent Negro of the present generation.” On the occasion meant to reflect on the meaning of the Emancipation Proclamation (which went into effect on 1 January 1863) for present-day African Americans, Price turned his gaze away from the US towards Africa. In his speech “The American Negro, His Future, and His Peculiar Work” Price declared that African Americans had a duty to redeem Africans and help them take back their continent from the Europeans who had partitioned it in 1884–85. He railed,

The whites found gold, diamonds, and other riches in Africa. Why should not the Negro? Africa is their country. They should claim it: they should go to Africa, civilize those Negroes, raise them morally, and by education show them how to obtain wealth which is in their own country, and take the grand continent as their own.

Price's “Black Man's Burden” projected American blacks as agents of capitalism, civilization, and Christianity in Africa. Moreover, Price suggested that African American suffering under slavery, failed Reconstruction, and Jim Crow placed them in a unique position to combat imperialism. He was not alone in seeing parallels between the conditions of “Negroes” on both sides of the Atlantic. Many African Americans, Afro-Canadians, and West Indians saw imperialism in Africa as operating according to Jim Crow logic: white Europeans would subordinate and segregate Africans, while economically exploiting their labor to bring wealth to Europe.

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1 T. Thomas Fortune, “The Negro's Peculiar Work,” New York Freeman, 15 Jan. 1887; American Colonization Society, “Minutes of the Board of Directors,” African Repository, 63, 2 (April 1887), 5051.

2 Price quoted in Fortune.

3 Michele Mitchell uses this phrase in ‘The Black Man's Burden’: African Americans, Imperialism, and Notions of Racial Manhood 1890–1910,” International Review of Social History, 44 (1999), 7799.

4 For works that cover the 1877–1900 period see Campbell, James T., Middle Passages: African American Journeys to Africa, 1787–2005 (New York: Penguin Books, 2007); Mitchell, Michele, Righteous Propagation: African Americans and the Politics of Racial Destiny after Reconstruction (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005); Skinner, Elliot Percival, African Americans and U.S. Policy toward Africa, 1850–1924: In Defense of Black Nationality 1850–1924 (Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1992); Power-Greene, Ousmane K., Against Wind and Tide: The African American Struggle against the Colonization Movement (New York: New York University Press, 2014); Sherwood, Marika, Origins of Pan-Africanism: Henry Sylvester Williams, Africa, and the African Diaspora (New York: Routledge, 2011); Sanneh, Lamin, Abolitionists Abroad: American Blacks and the Making of Modern West Africa (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001); Adeleke, Tunde, UnAfrican Americans: Nineteenth-Century Nationalists and the Civilizing Mission (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1998); Redkey, Edwin, Black Nationalists and Back-to-Africa Movements, 1890–1910 (New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press, 1969); Moses, Wilson Jeremiah, Alexander Crummell: A Study of Civilization and Discontent, 1st edn (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).

5 Tyrell, Ian, Transnational Nation: United States History in Global Perspective since 1789 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 2.

6 Tyrell, Ian, Reforming the World: The Creation of America's Moral Empire (Princeton, NJ and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2010), 2.

7 For example, see Tyrell, Reforming the World, 44–45, 57–58, 131–33; and Rosenberg, Emily S., Spreading the American Dream: American Economic and Cultural Expansion, 1890–1945 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1982). Most books written about this period focus on the Caribbean, Latin America, Asia, and the Pacific.

8 See Mitchell, Righteous Propagation.

9 Forslund, Catherine, Anna Chennault: Informal Diplomacy and Asian Relations (Wilmington, DE: S. R. Books, 2000), xiv.

10 See Gienow-Hecht, Jessica C. E., “What Are We Searching For?”, in Gienow-Hecht, Jessica C. E. and Donfried, Mark C., eds., Searching for a Cultural Diplomacy (New York and Oxford: Berghan Books, 2013), 3-12, 11.

11 Mitchell, Righteous Propagation, 51–52. See Stephens, Michelle Ann, Black Empire: The Masculine Global Imaginary of Caribbean Intellectuals in the United States, 1914–1962 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005); Blain, Keisha N., “‘We Want to Set the World on Fire’: Black Nationalist Women and Diasporic Politics in the New Negro World, 1940–1944,” Journal of Social History, 49, 1 (Fall 2015), 194212; and Blain, Keisha N., Taylor, Ula Y., and Leeds, Asia, eds., Women, Gender Politics, and Pan-Africanism, special issue of Women, Gender, and Families of Color, 4, 2 (Fall 2016), on gender and black internationalism in the early twentieth century.

12 The African Question,” African Repository, 53 (July 1877), 7879.

13 African Destiny,” African Repository, 53 (Jan. 1877), 23.

14 Robinson, William H., “The Proceedings of the Free African Union Society and the African Benevolent Society” (1976), Faculty Publications, Paper 329, vii–xii, 16–17, available at

15 Shick, Tom J., Behold the Promised Land: A History of Afro-American Settlers in Nineteenth-Century Liberia (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), 56.

16 See Blyden, Nemata, “The Search for Anna Erskine: African-American Women in Nineteenth-Century Liberia,” in Higgs, Catherine, Moss, Barbara, and Ferguson, Earline Rae, eds., Stepping Forward: Black Women in Africa and the Americas (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2002), 3143; Blyden, , “‘We have the cause of Africa at Heart’: West Indians and African-Americans in 19th Century Freetown,” in Dixon-Fyle, Mac and Cole, Gibril, eds., New Perspectives on the Sierra Leone Krio (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2006), 91105; Blyden, , “Edward Jones: An African American in Sierra Leone,” in Pulis, John W., ed., Moving On: Black Loyalists in the Afro-Atlantic World (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc. 1999), 159–82.

17 See Guyatt, Nicholas, Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation (New York: Basic Books, 2016).

18 “American Colonization Society: A Memorial to the United States Congress,” 1 Feb. 1820, in Blaustein, Albert P. and Zangrando, Robert L., eds., Civil Rights and the Black American: A Documentary History (New York: Washington Square Press, 1968), 7071.

19 See Fett, Sharla, Recaptured Africans: Surviving Slave Ships, Detention, and Dislocation in the Final Years of the Slave Trade (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016).

20 Campbell, Penelope, Maryland in Africa: The Maryland State Colonization Society, 1831–1857 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1971); Wellman, Judith, Brooklyn's Promised Land: The Free Black Community of Weeksville, New York (New York: New York University Press, 2014), 100–2; African Civilization Society,” in Brotz, Howard, ed., Negro Social and Political Thought, 1850–1920: Representative Texts (New York and London: Basic Books, 1966), 191.

21 “African Civilization Society,” 194.

22 Ibid.

23 Vorenberg, Michael, “Abraham Lincoln and the Politics of Black Colonization,” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, 14, 2 (Summer 1993), 2245; Edward W. Blyden, “The Call of Providence to the Descendants of Africa in America,” in Brotz, 112–26, 119, 125–26.

24 3 Sept. 1877 letter by Blyden partially quoted in Liberia at the Court of St. James,” African Repository, 53 (Oct. 1877), 117–18; Clegg, Claude A. III, The Price of Liberty: African Americans and the Making of Liberia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 98.

25 Vorenberg, 22–45.

26 American Colonization Society, African Repository, 51 (April 1875), 55.

27 American Colonization Society, Annual Report of the American Colonization Society: With Minutes of the Annual Meeting and of the Board of Directors (Washington, DC: American Colonization Society, 1866), 7; Canney, Donald L., Africa Squadron: The U.S. Navy and the Slave Trade, 1842–1861 (Dulles, VA: Potomac Books, Inc., 2006), xixiii.

28 Krauthammer, Barbara, Black Slaves, Indian Masters: Slavery, Emancipation, and Citizenship in the Native American South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013), 76; Mitchell, Righteous Propagation, 19–26.

29 Angell, Stephen Ward, Bishop Henry McNeal Turner and African-American Religion in the South (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1992), 121–22.

30 Letter from Rev. Dr. Henry M. Turner, Savannah, Georgia, January 26, 1876,” African Repository, 52 (July 1876), 8486.

31 This sentiment solidifies in the 1890s as part of the American white man's burden narrative, especially after the Spanish–America War. See Lorini, Alessandra, Rituals of Race: American Public Culture and the Search for Racial Democracy (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1999), 64.

32 Tyrell, Reforming the World, 57–58.

33 Shick, Behold the Promised Land, 109–11, 118,

34 Gerard Ralston, Liberian consul general, “Slave Trade Draft,” 16 Aug. 1858, Foreign Office, FO/96/31/7, 110–13, The National Archives of the UK.

35 Treaty of Friendship and Commerce between Her Majesty and the Republic of Liberia,” in The Annual Register, Or, A View of the History and Politics of the Year 1850 (London: George Woodfall and Son, 1851), 377.

36 Minutes of Evidence Taken before the Select Committee on Africa (Western Coast),” Parliamentary Papers, House of Commons and Command, Volume V (London: HMSO, 1865), 163–64.

37 Shick, 120–21.

38 Pakenham, Thomas, The Scramble for Africa: 1876–1912 (New York: Random House, 1991), 13, 11–16; Sanford, Henry Shelton, “Report on the Annual Meeting of the African International Association, in Brussels, in June 1877,” Journal of the American Geographical Society of New York, 9 (1877), 103–8.

39 Haven, Gilbert, “America in Africa,” North American Review, 125, 257 (July–Aug. 1877), 147, 152–53; Haven, , “America in Africa, Part II,” North American Review, 125, 259 (Nov.–Dec. 1877), 521.

40 Africa and America,” African Repository, 53 (April 1877), 6263; “The African Question,” African Repository, 78–79.

41 American Interests in Western Africa,” African Repository, 53 (July 1877), 8889; United States, Department of State, Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States, Volume I (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1879), 341–45; Duignan, Peter, The United States and Africa: A History (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 121, 136.

42 “The United States and Liberia: Letter from Commodore Shufeldt,” African Repository, 1 Oct. 1881, 126–30.

43 Stone, Guy, “The Foreign Office and Forced Labour in Portuguese West Africa, 1894–1914,” in Hamilton, Keith and Salmon, Patrick, eds., Slavery, Diplomacy and Empire: Britain and the Suppression of the Slave Trade, 1807–1975 (Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 2009).

44 “England on the Congo River,” New York Freeman, 26 April 1884.

45 Pakenham, 23–33, 239; Duignan, The United States and Africa, 133.

46 “Participation of the United States in the Congo Conference,” H.R. Rep. No. 2655, at 1–2 (1885), 48th Congress.

47 Ibid. Andrew G. Curtin of Pennsylvania chaired the committee, and Perry Belmont (NY), Judson C. Clements (GA), William R. Cox (NC), and Charles Stewart (TX) expressed the minority views.

48 Pakenham, 254; Duignan, 133–38; In the Senate of the United States. January 14, 1886. – Referred to the Committee on Foreign Relations and ordered to be printed. General Act of the Conference of Berlin. S.Misc.Doc. 68, 49th Congress, 1st Session.

49 H.R. Rep. No. 2655, at 1–2 (1885).

50 Hogan, Michael J., ed., Paths to Power: The Historiography of American Foreign Relations to 1941 (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 23. See Kinley Brauer, “The Great American Desert Revisited: Recent Literature and Prospects for the Study of American Foreign Relations, 1815–1861,” in ibid., 44–78; Edward P. Crapol, “Coming to Terms with Empire: The Historiography of Late Nineteenth-Century American Foreign Relations,” in ibid., 79–116; Brooks, George E., Yankee Traders, Old Coasters & African Middlemen: A History of American Legitimate Trade with West Africa in the Nineteenth Century (Boston: Boston University Press, 1970).

51 Pakenham, 254; Duignan, 133–38.

52 Slave Trade and Importation into Africa of Firearms, Ammunition, and Spirituous Liquor (General Act of Brussels), at

53 D. Augustus Straker, “The Land of Our Fathers,” New York Freeman, 23 Jan. 1886.

54 Blyden, Edward W., “The African Problem and the Method of Its Solution” in Brotz, , Negro Social and Political Thought, 126–39, 130, 132–34, 139.

55 Little, Lawrence S., Disciples of Liberty: The African Methodist Episcopal Church in the Age of Imperialism, 1884–1916 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2000), 46, 70, 74, 204; Robinson, J. G., “Africa, and the Educated and Wealthy Negroes of America,” African Methodist Episcopal Church Review, 10, 1 (1893), 161–62. Little calls attention to Robinson's article Robinson, J. G., “The Negro Must Go to Africa,” Recorder, 17 (Jan. 1895).

56 Facts about Africa and the African Negro,” African Methodist Episcopal Church Review, 14, No 1 (1898), 453–56.

57 Cooper, Anna Julia, “Has America a Race Problem? If So, How Can It Best Be Solved?” (1892), in The Voice of Anna Julia Cooper: Including a Voice from the South and Other Important Essays, Papers, and Letters, ed. Lemert, Charles and Bhan, Esme (New York: Rowan and Littlefield, 2000), 121–33, 132.

58 Fortune, T. Thomas, “Will the Afro-American Return to Africa?”, African Methodist Episcopal Church Review, 8, 4 (April 1892), 387–91, 387, 391.

59 Redkey, Edwin S., Black Exodus: Black Nationalist and Back-to-Africa Movements, 1890–1910 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1969), 99126.

60 Minkah Makalani, “Pan-Africanism,” in “Africana Age: African & African Diasporan Transformations in the 20th Century,” at

61 Noble, Frederick Perry, The Congress on Africa (n.p., 1894), 282–83. Massaquoi went on to become a Liberian diplomat serving in Hamburg, Germany in the 1920s.

62 Fortune, T. Thomas, “The Nationalization of Africa” (1895), in Bowen, J. W. E., ed., Africa and the American Negro: Addresses and proceedings of the Congress on Africa: Held under the Auspices of the Stewart Missionary Foundation for Africa of Gammon Theological Seminary in Connection with the Cotton States and International Exposition December 13–15, 1895 (Atlanta: Gammon Theological Seminary, 1896), 204.

63 H. M. Turner, “Essay: The American Negro and the Fatherland,” in Bowen, 195, original emphasis; Harris, Paul W., “Racial Identity and the Civilizing Mission: Double-Consciousness at the 1895 Congress on Africa,” Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation, 18, 2 (Summer 2008), 145–76; Jones, Jeannette Eileen, In Search of Brightest Africa: Reimagining the Dark Continent in American Culture, 1883–1936 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2010), 9297; Shepperson, George, “Pan-Africanism and ‘Pan-Africanism’‘Pan-Africanism’: Some Historical Notes,”“Pan-Africanism and ‘Pan-Africanism’: Some Historical Notes,” Phylon, 23, 4 (4th Qtr. 1962), 346–58, 353–54.

64 Shepperson, 354; Ayittey, George B. N., “The United States of Africa: A Revisit,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 632, Perspectives on Africa and the World (November 2010), 8788.

65 W. E. B. Du Bois, “To the Nations of the World” (1900), 3, W. E. B. Du Bois Papers (MS 312), Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts, Amherst Libraries, at

66 For more on post-1900 black internationalism see Makalani, Minkah, In the Cause of Freedom: Black Radical Nationalism from Harlem to London, 1917–1939 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011), 711; Manela, Ezra, The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2007); McDuffie, Erik S., Sojourning for Freedom: Black Women, American Communism, and the Making of Black Left Feminism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011).

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