Quote of the Day: “Do not look where you fell, but where you slipped.” –Liberian proverb
TB finally got around to reading my friend-in-law Alan Huffman’s book Mississippi in Africa, and I’m glad I did. The title of the book refers to an area in the west African nation Liberia named Mississippi. It was so named because a large group of nineteenth century colonists happened to be former slaves from Mississippi plantations. As they established themselves in their new nation, they borrowed heavily from the place names, family names, architecture and social customs learned as slaves back in Mississippi. The book tells the story of Huffman’s attempt to track the fortunes of the descendants of the slaves from Prospect Hill plantation in Jefferson County. Many of the Prospect Hill slaves were freed and transported to Liberia before the American Civil War, while many others remained in the area, mostly as slaves until after the war.
It is a fascinating story and unsatisfying in some ways, due mostly to the author’s insistence on writing non-fiction instead of supplying a tidy, feel good, Hollywood style ending. Of course, the ambiguities the reader is left with are precisely what make the book so thought provoking and I believe important, particularly for Mississippians who often think (if they are white) of the antebellum era as one of prosperity and gentility without focusing on the forced laborers who made the columns and hoop skirts possible; and who think (if they are black) that slaveowners were all whip wielding masochists bent on working their hands to death in pursuit of another dollar.
The first half of the book is set in Jefferson County, Mississippi. After explaining how he got hooked by this story in the first place, Huffman proceeds to give the historical facts so far as they are known about life on a leading southern plantation several decades before the shots fired at Fort Sumpter. The picture he paints, drawing from legal records, contemporary personal correspondence, and oral histories of both slave and master lineage is one of a mostly genteel, gentle form of servitude. Isaac Ross, as head of the white family that owned the plantation was by all accounts a generous and caring master. Slaves on his plantation were allowed little personal liberties such as unescorted trips to town, vocational training and even basic education. Families were kept together. And central to the story, provision was made in Ross’ will that upon his death all of his slaves were to be offered freedom with the catch that they would have to migrate to Liberia, at Ross’ expense and with his continuing support. Though Huffman takes pains to emphasize the evils of slavery even under this benign version, the account likely please an antebellum southern apologist. But to take this away from his story would be to misread it entirely.
Old man Ross finally passed and arrangements began to be made to send the Prospect Hill slaves by ship to Liberia. But the old adage–you don’t know your relative until you share an inheritance–proved sadly true. Ross’ son stood to lose a fortune in free, trained labor with the departure of the slaves and he would not abide it. He contested the will, excited the emotions of his peers against the slaves’ interests and exerted his influence upon the politicians to block his father’s intentions. For over a decade he drug out his battle to invalidate the will until, amazingly, the Mississippi Supreme Court sided with the supporters of the will and allowed the migration to begin. Hard feelings developed between the slaves and Ross the younger and life on the plantation began to grow more difficult in these years. By the time the ship of slaves set sail, most of the funds Isaac Ross originally set aside to support his people upon their arrival in Africa was gone and a young child of the Ross family was dead as a result of an uprising by the increasingly frustrated laborers. Huffman tracked down numerous descendants of both slave and master still living in and around Jefferson County. What he found, besides several incomplete versions of the uprising story, was a legacy of poverty for the slaves who remained in Mississippi, and even the steady decline in fortunes for the progeny of the master. Benign relative to the stereotypical plantation Prospect Hill may have been, but the impact of slavery on continuing generations of its residents, black, white and mixed has shown the system that brought great wealth for a few decades came at the cost of economic ruin and racial distrust for many decades more.
The second half of the book began with Huffman traveling to Liberia in hopes of visiting the other Mississippi and tracking down descendants of the Prospect Hill colonists. Like the great river, the story at this point began to meander. Huffman’s plan was the direct line–land in Liberia, make his manners in the capital, then continue on to Greenville, Mississippi, Liberia to track down the heirs, view their antebellum style homes and learn about their fortunes after leaving America. Only Liberia is a first class mess, and though in a lull between its own interminable civil wars when Huffman visited in the early part of this decade, violence, corruption and paranoia still reigned supreme. The direct line did not exist. The most unsatisfying part of the book for the reader, and undoubtedly the author, was his inability to set foot in Mississippi in Africa. Fortunately for the story, less so for the people involved, the wars had driven many of the folks Huffman was searching for to Monrovia where he was forced to stay.
I’ve described Liberia as a mess, and truly that’s a charitable word. But the people with whom Huffman interacted were hospitable, kind, thoughtful and protective. Almost all of them were extremely pro-American and they in fact viewed the United States as their mother country and seemed to lack comprehension of the fact we barely know of their existence. The Prospect Hill descendants told of their ancestors’ arrival and difficult acclimation period that was succeeded by a gradual increase in control of the best land in the country. This was all made possible by their education and experience in Mississippi in America. Eventually, along with other colonists from other slaveholding areas, these “Americos” came to dominate Liberia politically, economically and socially.
So the slaves who made it back to Africa show the up side of the peculiar institution, right? We all know better. Among the customs brought with them upon settling in Liberia, the former slaves brought an ingrained sense of master and servant. As soon as they become established in Liberia they began to institute their own form of involuntary servitude on the natives. Predictably, the result was class hatred and enduring bitterness. For over a hundred years the Americos maintained control as a dominant minority, but beginning around 1980 the lower, serving classes had enough and began to revolt. What resulted was a two decade long regional bloodbath, the fall of Americo rule and the destruction of virtually everything the colonists had built, including those antebellum homes. The Prospect Hill descendants dispersed in all directions, many were killed, all became impoverished. Most wanted nothing more than to “return” to the United States. The country in ruin, its new generation of leaders turned to eastern Europeans and even Muslim extremists as allies and financial partners.
The subtitle of Huffman’s book is “The Saga of the Slaves of Prospect Hill Plantation and Their Legacy in Liberia Today”. One can only hope the story isn’t over and that a future printing of Mississippi in Africa will include an epilogue that provides the happy ending. For now, the legacy of those people is one of continued suffering. But there is also a legacy of survival, perseverance and hope that may one day allow them to leave behind the stain of their slave ancestry entirely. It’s not altogether different than what white and black Mississippians have experienced or what they still have going for them.
If the author ever reads this I feel sure he will be confounded at what I took away from his book. As ever, the myriad thoughts a good book provokes are difficult to pass along in written word and the factual summary is of necessity oversimplified. But if you have an interest in Mississippi history or race relations or if you are curious at all about the nation of Liberia and its connection to the United States, you ought to read the book.