A superior historical and journalistic investigation, tracing the lives and legacies of freed slaves in America and Africa.
Freelance journalist Huffman, a native of Mississippi, found the tale of Prospect Hill in his backyard after inheriting a piano from the long-abandoned plantation. Prospect Hill’s founder, a South Carolina planter named Isaac Ross, died in 1836, leaving a will that stipulated that “at the time of his daughter Margaret Reed’s death, Prospect Hill would be sold and the money used to pay the way for his slaves who wanted to emigrate to Liberia, where a colony of freed slaves had been established by a group called the American Colonization Society.” Reed died in 1838, whereupon the will became the subject of a long court battle on the part of Ross’s heirs, scandalized at the thought that so much property would pass from their hands. Amazingly, the courts honored Ross’s instructions. In 1849, most of his slaves were freed, and some 200 went to Africa, accompanied by another 200 or so freed by sympathetic members of the Ross family. In Liberia, Huffman writes, “the freed slaves . . . remained cohesive despite dispersing throughout Mississippi in Africa,” and they created anew the world they had left behind—to the extent that many of them became slaveholders. The sharp social and economic division between the returned “Americos” and the native “Congo,” Huffman discovers upon traveling to Liberia, underlie the civil war that has been raging there over the last two decades. His reports from the field are full of smart observations on the history of a nation that, although closely linked to the US, has too long been ignored. “We have a commonality, despite our differences,” one Liberian tells him. “It all goes back to America, because America established this country, which is why America cannot allow everything to be in vain.” Alas, America has done little in the way of intervention—even though, Huffman writes, the failed state of Liberia has lately become fertile ground for al Qaeda operatives involved in the lucrative diamond and arms trades.
Thought-provoking and expertly told—and a most promising debut.