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Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersThe Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
The Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
Theme: FreedomTheme: EnslavementTheme: CommunityTheme: IdentityTheme: Emancipation
Theme: Emancipation

Daguerreotypes attributed to Augustus Washington, ca. 1837
"Here I am a man!"
- Letters from Peyton Skipwith, 1834-1846, selections (PDF)
- Letters from Samson Ceasar and the former slaves of J. H. Terrell, 1834-1835, 1857-1866
- Daguerreotypes of Liberian leaders by Augustus Washington, ca. 1857

The portraits at right of African American leaders in Liberia were taken by Augustus Washington, a free black man convinced that the "true home" for the African American was in Africa. Washington and the men he photographed were in the minority among black Americans, most of whom opposed emigration and colonization proposals as veiled attempts to exile all black people from the United States. Between 1820 and 1864, only 11,000 African Americans emigrated to Liberia (4,000 free blacks and 7,000 former slaves who gained freedom by agreeing to emigrate to Liberia).1 The significance here is not in numbers but in the meaning that Liberia held for African Americans in the 1800s. Was Liberia a welcome haven or just a new form of plantation servitude?
  • Letters from Peyton Skipwith. Born enslaved in Virginia in 1800, Peyton Skipwith was emancipated at age 33 by his owner, John Hartwell Cocke, who espoused the migration of freed slaves to Liberia, the west African colony founded in 1821 by the American Colonization Society. In 1833 Cocke sent Skipwith with his wife and six children to Liberia. For over thirty years they wrote letters to him; five letters from Peyton Skipwith are presented here. Cocke's letters to the Skipwith family, however, have been lost. (Peyton's brother, George, was an overseer at Cocke's Alabama plantation. His letters to Cocke are included in Theme II: ENSLAVEMENT: #4, Driver).

  • Letters from Samson Ceasar and the former slaves of J. H. Terrell. From the University of Virginia Electronic Text Center Rare come two sets of letters from former Virginian slaves resettled in Liberia—six letters from Simon Ceasar (five to his former slaveholder) and forty-four letters from the former slaves of James Hunter Terrell. We recommend all six of Ceasar's letters; and, from the Terrell letters, note especially those written by Mary Michie, Hugh Walker, William Douglass (to Rev. Slaughter, Dr. Minor, and "a friend"), Henry and Millie Franklin, David Scott, and Maria Barrett (to Dr. Minor).

  • Daguerreotypes of Liberian leaders. The son of a former slave, Augustus Washington learned to produce daguerreotype photographs while at Dartmouth College and later opened a studio in Hartford, Connecticut. Here we view fourteen of his portraits of African American emigrants in Liberia, as exhibited by the National Portrait Gallery (Smithsonian). How does Washington pose his subjects? How do they present themselves? How do their portraits define the leadership of the new country? (Washington's portraits of wealthy white residents of Hartford are included in Theme IV: IDENTITY, #5, Artists.)

Discussion questions
  1. How do African American emigrants to Liberia respond to the new country and their new lives?
  2. How do their lives change over the years in Liberia?
  3. What do they communicate about their lives to their former slaveholders?
  4. What do they request in their letters?
  5. What messages to relatives do they transmit in their letters?
  6. Where are they most open and direct in their letters, as far as you can determine?
  7. How does Augustus Washington pose his subjects? How do they present themselves?
  8. How do their portraits define the leadership of the new country?
  9. For the letter writers and for Augustus Washington, is Liberia a welcome haven or a new form of plantation servitude?
  10. Consider these readings and photographs in light of the debate among black Americans on colonization proposals. (See IDENTITY: #8, Emigration). What did Liberia come to symbolize in the debate for both sides?

Framing Questions
  • How did enslaved African Americans construct communities over time? What were their principal characteristics?
  •  What obstacles did slaves confront in constructing communities?
  •  How did white Americans respond to the collective behavior of African Americans?
  •  How was autonomy exercised through community by antebellum African Americans?

Letters from Peyton Skipwith:  7
Letters from Samson Ceasar and
former slaves of J. H. Terrell:
Read online; print selected letters.
Daguerreotypes of Liberian leaders: View online; print selected daguerreotypes.

Supplemental Sites
Liberia, in African-American Mosaic, Library of Congress

Maps of Liberia, 1830-1870 , from the Library of Congress

Liberia, history and links, from PBS Global Connections

Liberia and the United States: Historic Ties and Policy Connections, lesson plan and resources from PBS Global Connections

1 "A Durable Memento: Portraits by Augustus Washington, African American Daguerreotypist," exhibition, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, 1999-2000; online exhibition at

Images: Philip Coker (Chaplain of the Senate of Liberia), John Hanson (Senator from Bassa County), and James Priest (later Vice President of Liberia), in Liberia, ca. 1837, daguerreotypes attributed to Augustus Washington. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Daguerreotype Collection.

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

1. Buying Freedom   2. Death as Freedom   3. Abolition
4. Liberia   5. Civil War I: Slaves   6. Civil War II: Soldiers
7. Emancipation, 1864-1865   8. The Institution

TOOLBOX: The Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
Freedom | Enslavement | Community | Identity | Emancipation

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