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The American Settlers of Liberia

by Catherine Reef

Age Range: 10 & up

Pub Date: Nov. 25th, 2002
ISBN: 0-618-14785-3
Publisher: Clarion

What usually appears in textbooks as a footnote to a footnote of history is given a fuller treatment in an uneven yet laudable accounting. Most American schoolchildren learn of Liberia (if at all) in connection with the abolitionist movement of the early 19th century. In 1822, the American colony of Liberia was established on the coast of West Africa with the specific intent of settling freed slaves far away from the maelstrom of racial unrest that was the US at the time. Here, where textbooks leave off, is where the real story of Liberia begins, and Reef (Sigmund Freud, not reviewed, etc.) does a generally creditable job of telling it. From the mixed motivations of the white men who supported the enterprise to the mixed feelings of the African-American population for whom it was established, the narrative thoroughly explores the intellectual and ideological context of the day. It introduces the 19th-century settlers of Liberia as Christian, primarily middle-class black Americans who traveled to Africa to make a country of their own. The account draws heavily on primary source materials, including copious excerpts from the journals, letters, and, later, publications of the colonists. Perhaps because of this reliance, the narrative is weighted heavily toward the Americo-Liberians (as the settlers called themselves) and their own vision of nation-building. Unfortunately, it does not really question the emergence of a class system that placed those Americo-Liberians squarely at the top—even though the conclusion of the history indicates that what modern Liberia has become in large part stems from conflicts between colonizer and colonized. The account is handsomely accompanied by archival material, including photographs; it might have been better served by the inclusion throughout of maps, which are relegated to an appendix. Despite its flaws, this offering stands as a valuable addition to children’s literature both of African-American history and of American imperialism, and deserves recognition for its attempt to tell the story behind the footnote. (index, endnotes, bibliography) (Nonfiction. 10+)