In 1994, Wilmot Collins, a thirty-one year old refugee whose travails had left him weighing just ninety pounds, arrived in Helena, Montana. There, he was reunited with his wife, who had made it to Helena two years earlier with their now two-year old daughter. America, thought Collins, provided individuals like himself a second chance. In a way, Collins’s arrival also gave America a second chance, an opportunity to come to terms with its original sin. Why? Because Collins was from Liberia, America’s troubled offspring that was conceived in racism.
America’s founders were well aware that human bondage and racial prejudice contorted their professed love of freedom and equality. In response, in 1816, a host of prominent statesmen, business leaders, and religious figures created the American Colonization Society (ACS), insisting that the solution to the existence of slavery and racism in a country founded on liberty and equality was to colonize black Americans beyond the nation’s boundaries. Unlike abolitionists, who championed universal freedom and racial equality, and unlike proslavery advocates, who contended that black people were naturally inferior to white folk and therefore were better off enslaved to them, colonizationists argued that black Americans could be equal to their white counterparts, but only if they left the U.S. If they remained in America, however, racism would forever prevent them from reaching “the full stature of men.”
With the assistance of the federal government, the ACS created the colony of Liberia in 1821. These developments galvanized free black Americans, who decried the racist assumptions that undergirded the colonizationist crusade, and worried that what was being touted as a voluntary program would soon become an involuntary one, a fear that was not unfounded given what was happening to another group of free people of color, Native Americans. Free black Americans pushed back, insisting that America was their native country, and they would never give up that claim, nor would they forsake the millions of their brothers and sisters who continued to suffer under the yoke of bondage.
Yet some African Americans were willing to move to Liberia: There were those who reckoned that the U.S. would never fulfill its egalitarian promises; others wanted to proselytize among indigenous Africans; and still others were slaves whose owners offered them freedom on the condition that they leave for Liberia. Over the years, black Americans’ interest in emigration usually heightened when racism was resurgent. Such was the case during the 1850s, when the draconian Fugitive Slave Law jeopardized the liberty of free black Americans and when the Supreme Court ruled in the Dred Scott decision that black Americans were not citizens and had “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” The same could be said of the post-Reconstruction period, when lynchings, disenfranchisement, sharecropping, convict labor, and other forms of exploitation brutalized black people. Ultimately, 16,000 African Americans emigrated to Liberia.
It’s not clear who among the 16,000 were Wilmot Collins’s forebears. Collins told me that, according to family lore, two brothers emigrated, with one keeping the Collins surname and the other changing his to “Gilpey.” If that was the case, perhaps the emigrants in question were thirty-year-old Stephen Collins and seventeen-year old Barbary Collins, who had recently been freed and who left Maryland for Africa aboard the Liberia Packet in December, 1851. At the time of the Collins’s embarkation, African Americans comprised 28 percent of Maryland’s population—a modest number by southern standards—but what made Maryland distinctive was that nearly half of the state’s black residents were free. White Marylanders had long fretted over the matter, and they tried to stem the growth of the free black population by requiring newly liberated persons to leave the state. That was the law of the land in Maryland when Alvin Dorsey emancipated the two Collins’s and seven other slaves. Little is known about Dorsey, except that he freed the aforementioned individuals by will, a tactic that allowed slaveholders to dangle the carrot of freedom before bondspersons in the hope of exacting obedience and hard labor from them. Whatever Dorsey’s thinking, the Collins’s and others accepted his testamentary offer of liberty in Africa. The party technically sailed overseas under the auspices of the Maryland State Colonization Society, which operated independently of the ACS, and were landed in the former organization’s settlement at Cape Palmas. The place was dubbed “Maryland-in-Africa,” and many years later, it was the hometown of Wilmot Collins.
In Africa, American emigrants like the Collins’s, as well as their descendants, were called “Americo-Liberians,” and this group dominated Liberia’s indigenous population well into the 20th century. In 1980, however, a military coup overthrew the Americo-run government. Then, in 1989, the country descended into a horrific civil war.
Wilmot Collins was literally caught in the crossfire. Two of his brothers perished in the carnage, while he and his wife Maddie fled to Ghana. There, they endured what Collins described as a “grueling” vetting process to gain entrance into America. Indeed, just as Stephen and Barbary Collins had had to leave behind kin when emigrating to Liberia, the journey to America required familial separation for Wilmot Collins. Maddie was admitted first, partly because she had once been an exchange student at Helena High School, and a sympathetic host family was helping expedite her vetting process. Two weeks before she was scheduled to depart, Maddie discovered she was pregnant. Maddie and Wilmot decided that she should get out while she could, hazarding all while with child and without her husband. As for Wilmot, the vetting process was so slow and excruciating, at one point he was ready to give up. But finally, two years later, in early 1994, Wilmot was permitted to come to America.
How had U.S. race relations changed between Stephen and Barbary Collins’s departure and Wilmot Collins’s arrival? Although 19th century colonizationists failed to rid the nation of black people, they bequeathed to posterity an ideology that was used to justify Jim Crow segregation—namely, the infamous “separate but equal” doctrine. Black people would remain in America after the Civil War and Reconstruction, and in theory they even could be “equal” to their white counterparts, so long as they were separate from them. Of course, black facilities were never actually equal, and, more to the point, the Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that whole concept was misguided: Separate facilities, explained the Court, are inherently unequal. Yet the subsequent fall of Jim Crow was accompanied by calls for “law and order,” a racially-coded distress signal that would eventually lead to the War on Drugs and the current system of mass incarceration, which has resulted in the imprisonment of millions of black Americans, often for petty, non-violent drug violations, and provided the basis for legalized discrimination in housing, welfare, education, voting, and the like after their release. In short, Stephen and Barbary Collins left America when it maintained the world’s largest slave system, and Wilmot Collins came to America when it was erecting the world’s the largest prison system.
Montana was, by Collins’s account, fairly welcoming. There were “more decent people in this state than there are racists,” he explained. Even so, refugees coming there would need “thick skin.” Collins spoke from experience: On one occasion, the Collins’s house was vandalized with Klan letters and graffiti telling them to “go home to Africa.” Unbowed, Collins settled in, becoming a naval reservist, a child protection specialist with the Montana Department of Health and Human Services, and an adjunct instructor of Psychology at the University of Montana-Helena. Then, over twenty years after his arrival in Helena, he decided to run for mayor against a man who had won four consecutive contests for the position.
Collins did not make race a campaign issue. Nevertheless, it was there, like anti-matter, detectable even if unseen. The mayoral contest occurred a year after the 2016 election, when Donald Trump’s racially divisive campaign for the presidency had ended in victory and when refugee policies had embroiled the state’s gubernatorial race. And even as Collins focused on youth homelessness, affordable housing, and securing additional resources for first responders, a controversy over what to do about a Confederate monument in Helena—the only one in the Pacific Northwest—infused race into the contest.
Yet perhaps the most telling moment came when Collins and his wife were door-knocking at dusk. As it grew darker, Maddie started worrying, fully aware of the fate of countless black people who were “in the wrong neighborhood,” who “fit the description” of a wanted criminal, or who had “made a sudden move.” Wilmot said he knew what could happen if “someone feels threatened on their property.” The Collins’s apprehension shows that colonization’s separatist ideology still haunts the nation, that there are still places where black folk are seen as unwelcome outsiders. But their decision to continue canvassing illustrates the resolve and faith required to thwart those colonizationist demons. Indeed, after his electoral triumph, Collins issued what was essentially an anti-colonizationist manifesto. “I knew,” he declared, “I lived a community that was accepting and tolerant.”
Eric Burin is a Professor of History at the University of North Dakota. He is the author of Slavery and the Peculiar Solution: A History of the American Colonization Society (2008) and editor of Picking the President: Understanding the Electoral College (2017).