Friday, September 16, 2011
Mississippi in Africa update
It was a remarkable story that seemed to unravel into thin air. Several versions had been in circulation for generations -- for more than 150 years, in fact. But in each of them the screen went blank just as the plot started getting good.
That's precisely how writers find themselves in the throes of writing a book. Once I heard the story of Mississippi in Africa, I had to know how it ended. How could anyone hear that a group of slaves had emigrated from a Mississippi plantation, decades before the Civil War, to a place in Liberia called Mississippi in Africa, and not want to know what had become of them?
The plot was launched in the 1830s, when an antebellum Mississippi cotton planter and Revolutionary War veteran named Isaac Ross decreed in his will that after his daughter’s death his slaves should be freed and his plantation, called Prospect Hill, should be sold, with the proceeds used to pay the way for the freed slaves to a colony established for the purpose on the coast of West Africa, in what is now the nation of Liberia. A very weird story. I can't say, unequivocally, why Ross did what he did; you can decide for yourself by reading the book. But perhaps not surprisingly, some of his heirs were averse to the idea of selling the plantation, freeing the slaves, and paying their way “back to Africa,” in the vernacular of the times, though most of the slaves had been in America for many generations, and no doubt knew as much about the African continent as a person in Des Moines named O’Reilly knows about Ireland.
After a bitter, decade-long contest of Ross’s and his daughter’s wills by his grandson, Isaac Ross Wade, during which a slave uprising led to the burning of the Prospect Hill mansion, the death of a young girl, and the lynching of a group of slaves, approximately 300 of the slaves did immigrate to Liberia, beginning around 1845, to a parallel universe called Mississippi in Africa. A few of the slaves were not given the option to immigrate, for unknown reasons, and one family was freed outright and allowed to move to a free state in the U.S. What ultimately happened to the ones who were freed outright is still unknown; I hoped my book would spark some revelation about them, but so far, no go.
Because there were many conflicting versions of the story, I set out to find descendants of all the relevant groups in the U.S. and in Liberia. The immigrants from Prospect Hill were the largest group to settle in Liberia, a nation established by the American Colonization Society, which was comprised of abolitionists and slave holders who had different, yet strangely complementary reasons for wanting to export freed slaves. The book Mississippi in Africa was the result of my research; this note was prompted by a reader’s email inquiring about the people I interviewed and got to know during the course of my research.
During that research, which began in the late 1990s, I interviewed Isaac Ross’s descendants in Mississippi, most of whom were proud of his legacy of having freed his slaves (and who, in a curious twist, turned out to be both black and white); I interviewed descendants of the heirs who had contested the will, who had a decidedly different take on the story, and descendants of the slaves who had chosen to remain in Mississippi, enslaved, and, finally, of descendants of the freed slaves who had immigrated to Mississippi in Africa.
In Liberia, which was at the time mired in a bloody civil war, I found that the immigrants had largely assumed the role formerly assigned to their masters, occupying the top tier of Liberian society, and that while some had been benevolent toward those less fortunate than them, others had oppressed and even enslaved members of the indigenous population. That disparity contributed directly to the nation’s two civil wars, from 1989 to 1996 and from 1999 to 2003, illustrating that Dixie isn’t the only place where old times are not forgotten.
The Prospect Hill story became more remarkable the deeper I probed, and along the way I met a remarkable cast of characters who shed light not only on its outcome but on the complex racial dynamics and cultural legacy of Ross’s actions. As readers of the book may recall, among those characters were three young men, the Railey brothers, native Liberians whose ancestors had come from Mississippi, who were, in 2001, when I arrived, trapped in a war zone. The Railey brothers made sure I was safe while I was in Liberia, and we remained in touch for many years. I still occasionally correspond with one of them, Augustus.
I also occasionally get emails from readers who are curious about certain aspects of the story, and I recently heard from one who wondered how the Raileys and a few other people mentioned in the book are faring today. Here was a reader after my own heart, someone who recognizes that no story ever truly ends, that as long as the characters live and breathe, it continues to unfold. I only wish I had more information to impart.
In any event, herewith is what I do know, 10 years later.
In her email, the reader, a woman named Susan Hataway, wrote that she wondered “if the people all survived these past ten years... especially the Railey brothers and Peter Robert Toe and family. Well, actually, I wonder about all of the Raileys including ‘The Old Ma’.”
Among those, Peter Toe Roberts (whose name, I regret to say, I transposed in the book, as Peter Roberts Toe) was the man who was to have guided me to Mississippi in Africa from the nation’s capital, Monrovia, until that plan fell apart. The Old Ma was the Raileys’ grandmother, a delightful, indefatigable woman who had carried on her Mississippi ancestors’ tradition of quilting, at which she was quite accomplished. As far as I know, the Railey brothers themselves – Edward, Kaiser and Augustus -- are all well, but I only know bits and pieces about Peter.
For many years the Railey brothers and I corresponded by phone and by email, as they sought to extract themselves from the poverty and violence of a nation at war with itself. What they really wanted was to go to college, either in the U.S. or at the University of Liberia, in Monrovia. I was never able to find a U.S. university or institution to sponsor them, and it takes money to attend the University of Liberia, which is something that was always in short supply. Theirs was not an easy lot, but the brothers are, if nothing else, persistent.
During our correspondence, I received this thoughtful email from their sister, Princess:
Hope you are doing fine as we are. We, my brothers and myself would like to wish you happy belated birthday and pray God's choicest blessings upon you.
Augustus is getting married on the 19th day of July and has chosen you as one of his Patrons. Hope it meets your approval. Have a pleasant Easter as we all retrospect on our risen Lord and Saviour.
Bye for now and stay blessed.
From all of us:
Princess, Kaiser, Augustus and Edward Railey.
Just so you know, a patron, in this context, is just what it sounds like – a benefactor.
In another email, Augustus informed me that their mother and grandmother, the Old Ma, had died within a few months of each other. The Old Ma had suffered a stroke during a meeting to discuss funeral arrangements for another family member. Edward emailed to say that before she died “she asked us as to weather we can still hear from you, and we told her only by e-mail.”
Also since deceased is Rev. Charleston Bailey, a descendant of freed American slaves whom I interviewed, at the Raileys’ suggestion, in Monrovia. Rev. Bailey was a font of information, and I was sorry to hear that he was gone. He was 90, which is impossibly old by Liberian standards.
My other guide while I was in Liberia – he was really more of a “fixer,” in the parlance of journalists, the chief person I relied upon to ensure that I didn’t get into trouble -- was Jefferson Kanmoh, who I identified in the book only as a “student activist” for fear that he would suffer repercussions from the insane and violent government of then-President Charles Taylor. Only after the war ended and Taylor was exiled did I feel comfortable revealing his name.
More than anyone I met there, Jeff, who was imprisoned, nearly starved and was shot during his time as a student activist, serves as a shining beacon for Liberia -- brilliant, fearless, circumspect, noble and morally upright. Once legitimate elections were held in postwar Liberia, he was elected to the national Congress, representing Sinoe County, which encompasses Mississippi in Africa, as well as Louisiana, which was settled by freed slaves from that state. Jefferson and I continue to stay in touch.
Through a mutual acquaintance who introduced us, Jefferson had set me up with the Raileys, and with Peter Toe Roberts, who planned to host me in Mississippi in Africa, before the Taylor government intervened and prevented me from going there. Peter, who endured his own travails, was more or less a doctor in Mississippi in Africa, and, like Jefferson Kanmoh, is an honorable, compassionate and committed man who has saved many lives. He and I remained in touch for several years, but have since lost contact. Sorry, Susan. And sorry, Peter.
I contacted a mutual friend of Peter’s in hopes of finding out how he is getting along, but I haven’t heard back, and my googling produced no results. I did find a younger man named Peter Toe on Facebook who hails from Sinoe County and now lives in Monrovia, but so far I’ve gotten no response to my message asking if he is related to the Peter Roberts I knew. The last word I got about Peter was from an American doctor working for a missionary group who had rented a house from him in Greenville, the capital of Sinoe County, in 2008. At the time, he was doing well.
Another key character, Nathan Ross Sr., the son of a Prospect Hill slave who emigrated to Liberia and fathered him when he was an old man – remarkably, the math adds up -- died in 2004 in Maryland (in the U.S., as opposed to Maryland, Liberia). I have lost touch with his son Nathan Jr., who, at last report, was living in the U.S., and his nephew Benjamin, who I interviewed in Monrovia when he was attempting to emigrate to the U.S.
Among the notable sites I visited in Liberia, two institutions are still in operation: The J.J. Ross High School, a private school in Monrovia established by the Ross immigrants; and the National Museum, which was looted numerous times during the civil war and today houses a collection of only about 100 of its original 6,000-plus artifacts. Fortunately, several historical paintings were protected during the fighting by a man who barricaded himself inside a building across the street to prevent their destruction.
Back in the U.S., Ross descendant Turner Ashby Ross, who I quoted in the book, is also since deceased. But Ann Brown, who helped me piece together the Ross family’s genealogy, is still around, diligently documenting graves throughout Jefferson County. And James Belton, who is descended from Prospect Hill slaves who chose not to emigrate to Liberia, and who filled in some of the most important blanks in the story, is retired now, living in McComb, Miss., busying himself with researching his family history and organizing reunions.
The Prospect Hill house itself, which is the second on the site, having been built in 1854 after the first was burned in the uprising, by Isaac Ross’s grandson (the one who contested the will, and somehow managed to regain the estate), still stands, but it is badly deteriorated. It was recently bought by a New Mexico-based group called the Archaeological Conservancy with the aim of stabilizing it until someone can be found to buy and restore it; the conservancy plans to retain an archaeological easement to ensure that the plantation’s buried artifacts remain available to scholars in hopes that they can shed light on the property’s history.
The conservancy’s regional director, Jessica Crawford, who facilitated the purchase of the house, represents the newest addition to the cast of characters of the Prospect Hill saga, having put in countless hours cleaning out the structure, nailing down rusty tin on the roof, and clearing underbrush from the grounds and the adjacent cemetery, which is the site of a towering monument erected in Isaac Ross’s honor by the Mississippi Colonization Society. Jessica has also located several descendants whom I never came across, and has befriended a peacock left behind by Prospect Hill’s last owner. The peacock is currently the only occupant (unless you count the unidentified growling thing that inhabits the rubble of a collapsed rear room); Jessica named him “Isaac.”
Among the other key figures in the Liberian saga, former Liberian President Charles Taylor remains imprisoned in The Hague following the conclusion, in March 2011, of his three-year trial for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in neighboring Sierra Leone during that nation’s civil wars. His judgment is pending.