NEH Grant for Virginia Emigrants to Liberia Project

April 9, 2020

IATH and a team of independent scholars have been awarded a $127,000 NEH’s Humanities Collections and Reference Resources Grant for the Virginia Emigrants to Liberia Project. This project is a joint undertaking between IATH and independent scholars Jane Ailes and Deborah Lee, building on work begun by Lee and Marie Tyler-McGraw in 2008 with the Virginia Center for Digital History. The team will compile a dataset of information about the 3,650 Virginians who made the transatlantic trip to create and establish the colony of Liberia as a home for emigrant free African Americans, providing users will access to original documents such as ships’ lists and personnel correspondence.

The project data is drawn mainly from American Colonization Society (ACS) records, ship records, and letters written by and about the emigration experience, and provides a glimpse at the full range of the efforts involved before, during, and after the voyages, and the complexities of establishing a new colony in a difficult and sometimes hostile environment. The letters offer insights into the difficult decisions made at all stages of the process – emancipation, the constant need for financial support, a grueling voyage, tropical disease, and conflicts between the settlers and the West African indigenous groups. Almost one third of those who made the journey between 1820-1866 were from Virginia (which then included modern-day West Virginia), and a wide range of people were involved, including former enslavers, ACS political proselytizers, black church groups, and extended family members, as well as ACS agents, auxiliary members, and facilitators in Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland.

This project is part of a larger collaborative with Virginia Lives in the History of Liberia, based at the Joseph Jenkins Roberts Center for the Study of the African Diaspora at Norfolk State University. That project, led by Drs. Stephanie Richmond and Patrick Mbajekwe, both Associate Professors of History, aims to broaden the scope of participation to include organizations in Liberia, and to identify Liberian descendants of the initial Virginia emigrants.