Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)

Degree Granting Department


Major Professor

John M. Belohlavek, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Brian Connolly, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Stephen Prince, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Johnhenry Gonzalez, Ph.D.


Civil Rights, Slavery, Politics, Nationalism


This work explores the role that ideas about Africa played in the development of a specifically American identity among free blacks in the United States, from the early nineteenth century to the Civil War. Previous studies of the writings of free blacks in the Revolutionary period, and of the American Colonization Society (ACS), which was devoted to removing them back to an African homeland, have suggested that black discussions of Africa virtually disappeared after 1816, when the colonization movement began. However, as this work illustrates, the letters, books, newspapers, and organizational records produced by free blacks in the antebellum era tell a different story. The narrative of the ancestral homeland free blacks created in the late eighteenth century, when the Atlantic slave trade still supplied slaves to the United States, was one that emphasized the connections between Africa and its scattered descendants throughout the Americas. After the establishment of the ACS in 1816 free blacks’ dialogue related to the land of their ancestors did not disappear, but it did change dramatically. As this study reveals, the overarching impact of colonization, racial pseudo-science, and racism generally in the antebellum period, made Africa a subject that free black leaders and writers could not avoid. They had to talk about it. Paradoxically, they found that they needed to validate Africa, even as they rejected it. Free black Americans found themselves faced with the tasks, ultimately, of legitimizing their African origins, even as they spurned the idea of Africa as home.