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African Civilization Society (AfCS)

African Civilization Society (AfCS)

The African Civilization Society was a Christian missionary and black-emigration organization. After it was founded in September 1858, the society was led by Henry Highland Garnet (18151882), a well-known Presbyterian clergyman. From the beginning, the AfCS had close ties with the New York State Colonization Society, and several of the Colonization Society's leaders sat on the eighteen-member AfCS board of directors. Both societies had their offices in Bible House in New York City, and both shared an interest in settling free blacks in Africa, although the white-sponsored colonization movement had been vigorously opposed by northern free blacks ever since its founding in 1817.

The AfCS constitution advocated the "civilization and evangelization of Africa, and the descendants of African ancestors in any portion of the earth, wherever dispersed." Under Garnet's leadership, the AfCS focused this broad directive on establishing a colonial settlement in Yoruba, a region of West Africa. Garnet envisioned the Yoruban settlement as a base from which to extend the supposed benefits of Western civilizationparticularly commerce and Christianityto the entire African continent. The Yoruban settlement also had an antislavery objective. AfCS leaders believed that by encouraging native Africans to grow cotton, they might undermine the profitability of American slavery and the slave trade.

The AfCS generated much interest and gained a substantial following, particularly through the endorsement of Henry M. Wilson, Elymas P. Rogers, and several other noted African-American clergymen. But the society's close association with leaders of the New York State Colonization Society made it suspect in the minds of many black leaders. Frederick Douglass (18181895), James McCune Smith (18131865), and J. W. C. Pennington (18071870) led the anti-emigrationist attack and criticized Garnet personally for his involvement in the African emigration movement.

The society's financial resources never matched its ambitious program. One of the AfCS directors, Theodore Bourne (18211910), traveled to England early in 1860 to build interest and gain financial backing for the Yoruban settlement. Even with the support of an English AfCS affiliate, the African Aid Society, Bourne encountered insurmountable difficulties. Martin R. Delany (18121885), the organizer of the Niger Valley Exploring Party, was also in Britain promoting his own African settlement proposal. Competition between the two programs created doubt and confusion and dampened enthusiasm among British reformers. Later in 1860, Elymas P. Rogers led an AfCS-sponsored expedition to West Africa to survey possible locations for the Yoruban settlement. The mission was cut short by Rogers's death from malaria shortly after his arrival in Liberia. Garnet traveled to England in August 1861 in a final, futile effort to revive flagging interest in African settlement.

In the early 1860s the AfCS began distancing itself from the controversial subject of African emigration, focusing more on home missions. The Civil War opened up new opportunities for missionary activity among former slaves in the South. Under the guidance of a new president, the Presbyterian clergyman George W. Levere, the AfCS directed its attention to freedmen's education. From 1863 through 1867, the AfCS sponsored several freedmen's schools in the Washington, D.C., area and parts of the South.

See also Garnet, Henry Highland; Missionary Movements


Bell, Howard H. Search for a Place: Black Separatism and Africa, 1860. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1971.

Miller, Floyd J. Search for a Black Nationality. New York, 1982.

michael f. hembree (1996)

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