In the following account historian William L. Katz revisits an essay he first wrote in 1968 as the introduction to the reprinted volume of William Lloyd Garrison’s Thoughts on African Colonization which was first published in 1832. In the article below he describes the first mass protest meeting at Philadelphia in 1817 that eventually led to a nationwide black rejection of African colonization and compares it to the Black Lives Matter Movement that grew out of local protests in 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri over the killing of Michael Brown. Katz notes that in both Ferguson and Philadelphia nearly two centuries earlier, a “grassroots” protest arose which became so powerful that established African American leaders were compelled to join and support it.
In January 1817 nearly 3,000 African American men met at the Bethel A.M.E. Church (popularly known as Mother Bethel AME) in Philadelphia and denounced the American Colonization Society’s plan to resettle free blacks in West Africa. This gathering was the first black mass protest meeting in the United States. The black leaders who summoned the men to the church endorsed the ACS scheme and fully expected the black men who gathered there to follow their leadership. Instead they rejected the scheme and forced the black leaders to embrace their position.
The genesis of this remarkable meeting can found in the early efforts of Captain Paul Cuffee, a wealthy black New Bedford ship owner. After an 1811 visit to the British colony of Sierra Leone which had been established to receive free blacks and later recaptives -- blacks freed by the British Navy from slaving vessels taking them from Africa to the New World -- Cuffee envisioned a similar colony for African Americans somewhere in West Africa. To promote his vision, Cuffee, at great financial loss, brought 38 black volunteer settlers from the United States to Sierra Leone in 1815.
When he returned to the United States with news of the resettlement he persuaded many of the most influential black leaders of the era