Since its founding, Liberia has had a unique relationship with the United States. Its history is closely linked with American slavery and the abolitionist movement in the United States, and the West African nation was founded as a colony for former African American slaves and free blacks, who were encouraged to emigrate from the United States during the early nineteenth century. During the early twentieth century, a black nationalist movement in the United States attempted to send more settlers to Liberia.

Liberia’s first American settlers were eighty-eight free-born African Americans who went there in 1820 and settled at Cape Mesurado, at the mouth of the St. Paul River. Most of these people were educated and free, and many owned property in Maryland and Virginia. Although they had not been born into slavery in the United States, they had not enjoyed full citizenship rights as Americans. By the time Liberia declared its independence in 1847, several thousand more free-born African Americans and former slaves had joined them in the new nation. These original immigrants and their descendants were afterward known as Americo-Liberians[Americo Liberians]Americo-Liberians.LiberiaAfrican Americans;and Africa[Africa]Abolitionist movement;and Liberia[Liberia]LiberiaAfrican Americans;and Africa[Africa][cat]AFRICAN
[cat]EMIGRATION;Liberia[03210][cat]SLAVERY;Liberia[03210][cat]REFUGEES AND DISPLACED PERSONS;Liberia[03210]Abolitionist movement;and Liberia[Liberia]

Liberia’s Early Immigrants

By 1824, the original Cape Mesurado Colony was home to several hundred settlers and had been renamed the Liberia Colony. Throughout the 1820’s, other colonies were established along the coast. These included New Georgia, which was settled by Africans from other parts of the continent who had been liberated from Slave trade;and Liberia[Liberia]slave ships by U.S. naval vessels while they were being carried to the Western Hemisphere. After these people were set free in the new colony, they became known as “Congos.”

Meanwhile, several additional colonies were established under the sponsorship of colonization societies, including the American Colonization SocietyAmerican Colonization Society, and the state legislatures of Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. The colonies expanded along Liberia’s coast throughout the 1830’s and 1840’s. The population of the region was made up of three distinct groups of people: the original settlers from America, enslaved Africans who had been liberated from slave ships, and the region’s indigenous peoples, primarily from Malinké-speaking societies. Americo-Liberians and Congos would always constitute a small minority of the total population of Liberia, but they dominated the politics and economy of Liberia through the nineteenth century and most of the twentieth century. By the twenty-first century, however, average Liberians no longer made distinctions among descendants of the original settlers of Liberia.

By 1847, when the Republic of Liberia declared its independence, approximately 15,000 Americans had settled in the country, along with a few thousand newly so-called Congos. Several European nations quickly established diplomatic relations with Liberia, but the United States did not recognize the new nation until 1862.

Twentieth Century Liberia

Liberia was long an anomaly in sub-Saharan Africa, most of which was colonized by European nations during the late nineteenth century. By the twentieth century, Liberia and Ethiopia were the only sub-Saharan countries that had not been colonized by Europe, but Liberia differed from Ethiopia, on the other side of the continent, in being politically dominated by non-African settlers, most of whom came from the United States. The country’s Americo-Liberian rulers did not even recognize members of Liberia’s indigenous societies as citizens of the new nation until 1904. During the 1920’s, Garvey, MarcusMarcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement AssociationUniversal Negro Improvement Association tried to start a new resettlement program to send African Americans to Liberia, but only a small number of people emigrated to the country.

Meanwhile, Liberia developed painfully slowly. Even its borders with its colonial neighbors remained poorly defined until well into the twentieth century. In his 1936 book, Journey Without Maps, author Greene, GrahamGraham Greene trekked 350 miles through Liberia’s rain forests. The only map available at the time from the U.S. government showed a wide swath of Liberia as being unexplored, with a vast, empty space fancifully labeled “cannibals.”

The Americo-Liberians governed Liberia through a single party. Although their governments were often corrupt, the country remained relatively stable until 1980, when an army sergeant named Doe, Samuel K.Samuel K. Doe brought down the government in a swift coup and had its Americo-Liberian leaders executed. Afterward, ethnic tensions increased until 1989, when Doe’s former chief of procurement, Taylor, CharlesCharles Taylor, invaded Liberia from neighboring Côte d’Ivoire and took control of the government. Taylor’s regime was marked by a long, bloody civil war, during which 200,000 Liberians died, and about one-third of the nation’s population fled to neighboring countries. Thousands of Liberian immigrantsAfrican immigrants;LiberiansLiberians who had the means to do so fled their war-torn nation and sought refuge in the United States, essentially reversing the trend of Americans returning to the shores of West Africa. Liberia’s civil war officially ended in August, 2003, when all the warring parties agreed to a cease-fire. However, by then, much of Liberia lay in ruins, and a
massive humanitarian disaster existed.

Liberian Immigration to the United States

From the early 1990’s through the first years of the twenty-first century, nearly 20,000 Liberians settled in the United States. Nearly three-quarters of them resided in Rhode Island;Liberian immigrantsRhode Island. Many of them were descendants of African American slaves who had long maintained ties with their extended family members in the United States. In seeking refuge, they began returning to the homeland of their ancestors, the United States. To afford these new immigrants legal protection, the U.S. government began granting them Temporary protected status;Liberian immigrantstemporary protected status (TPS) in 1991. By 2005, TPS had been extended to thousands of Liberians, many of whom had been living in the United States for a decade or more and had either renewed or established new family, social, and economic ties with the United States. In September, 2006, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced that the TPS program would stop on October 1, 2007, effectively ending the refugee status Liberian immigrants had enjoyed in the United States. However, Liberians already registered under TPS were allowed to remain in the United States under a new status into March, 2009. As that extension was about to
expire, President Barack Obama signed an order allowing the Liberians to remain in the United States another year.

Because Liberia remains a fragile state with a weak economy and nearly nonexistent infrastructure, many U.S. government leaders believe that forcing the return of nearly 20,000 immigrants to Liberia could easily overwhelm the frail nation. To address the issue, the [a]Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act of 2007Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act of 2007 was introduced in the U.S. Senate in February, 2007. A similar bill, the [a]Liberian Refugee Immigration Protection Act of 2007Liberian Refugee Immigration Protection Act of 2007, was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in April. 2007. Both forms of legislation were designed to permit eligible Liberians living Liberian immigrantsin the United States to apply for permanent resident status. However, both bills were still awaiting passage in 2009.LiberiaAfrican Americans;and Africa[Africa]

Further Reading

  • Clegg, Claude Andrew. The Price of Liberty: African Americans and the Making of Liberia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004. Comprehensive history of the origins and early development of Liberia.
  • Koser, Khalid, ed. New African Diasporas. New York: Routledge, 2003. Describes the waves of immigration of the late twentieth century from Africa to the United States and to northern Europe and the United Kingdom.
  • Murdza, Peter J., Jr. Immigrants to Liberia, 1865 to 1904: An Alphabetical Listing. Newark, Del.: Liberian Studies Association of America, 1975. Detailed list of all the African American families who settled in Liberia during the late nineteenth century.
  • Ndubuike, Darlington. The Struggles, Challenges, and Triumphs of the African Immigrants in America. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2002. Discusses the struggles of African immigrants in adapting to American society.
  • Smith, James Wesley. Sojourners in Search of Freedom: The Settlement of Liberia by Black Americans. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1987. Another interesting history of the founding of Liberia by African Americans.

Abolitionist movement

African Americans and immigrants

African immigrants

American Colonization Society

“Brain drain”



Remittances of earnings

Slave trade