Letters Link Loudoun, Liberia

Letters Link Loudoun, Liberia

Loudoun Museum to tell little-known black history story.

Finding freedom in exchange for losing one's home is the "tragic tale" the Loudoun Museum has to tell, as Douglas Foard, museum director, said about the museum's plans for a new exhibit.

The Lucas-Heaton letters between a former slave-owning family in Purcellville and their freed slaves give a glimpse into the American Colonization Society's proposed end to slavery. The nine letters are displayed on a rotating basis in the back room of the museum, a beginning to a little-known story the museum plans for an exhibit this July.

"We want to do an exhibit on the society and the impact [it had] on this part of Northern Virginia," said Randy Davis, museum curator, adding that the slave experience is "not particularly well-documented." He gave two reasons: a lack of interest in African-American history until the 1960s and 1970s and a lack of artifacts, since poorer populations typically used what they owned until the objects broke. As a result, the exhibit will include very few objects and consist mostly of props and interpretations in addition to the letters.

Black History Month is this February, an extension of Negro History Week started by Carter G. Woodson in 1926 to recognize the achievement and contributions of African-Americans. Woodson, a Howard University historian and the second black to graduate from Harvard behind Booker T. Washington, chose February because it includes the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas.

"It's a time we can celebrate black history as an aspect of American history," Davis said.

FOLLOWING the American Revolution, one-fourth of Virginia's population was slaves and free blacks. In 1810, Virginia passed a law requiring blacks freed from slavery to leave the state within one year. Many Virginians saw colonization as a practical solution to moving the blacks out of the Commonwealth, according to information provided in the museum's current display on the Lucas-Heaton letters.

"This movement was disproportionately popular in Virginia," Davis said.

In 1816, two men, including Charles Fenton Mercer of Loudoun County, founded the American Colonization Society to establish a black colony on the west coast of Africa. The society ceased as a national movement by the 1830s, divided over the reasons members had for sending freed blacks to Liberia: to help bring an end to the institution of slavery or to rid the Commonwealth of freed blacks, who were trained in crafts and skills and potentially could take over jobs held by whites.

"It could never have worked. The slaves were already westernized," Davis said, adding that the English language and American values, skills and culture were not useful in Liberia. "They tried to set up a western style colony in West Africa. ... It was difficult for them to readjust to the climate. That was very problematic."

"These are Americans sent into exile," Foard said. "It shows how powerful the process of Americanization is. ... Within a few generations, these people express themselves and think like Americans."

The American Colonization Society developed at a time when the states lacked a unified policy for enslaved and free blacks, said Debra Newman Ham, professor of history at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Md. Each state developed laws related to slavery, which began in 1619 when indentured servants were brought in from Africa. "Then the colonists blatantly brought in Africans for enslaving them for life," she said.

DURING THE NINETEENTH century, about 15,000 to 20,000 blacks emigrated to Liberia through the American and other colonization societies.

"Most free blacks refused to go," Ham said, adding that blacks claimed their labor helped build the American nation and wanted to fight for their citizenship and an end to slavery.

Jesse and Mars Lucas emigrated to Liberia, two of the 58 manumitted slaves and free blacks to travel there on the brig "Liberia." The Loudoun Manumission and Emigration Society arranged for 30 Loudoun blacks to take the 43-day voyage, including nine members of the Lucas family. Shortly after the Lucases arrived in Liberia, Albert Heaton wrote to Jesse and Mars Lucas in April 1830, "You have gone to a country where the No'blest feelings of Liberty will spring up, and knowing full well the prize you have won, in going to Liberia, you will I hope secure it ... the prize I mean is the prize of Liberty."

The Loudoun Museum obtained the Lucas-Heaton letters in the mid-1990s from a descendent of the Heaton family, sending the letters to a professional conservator for display in the late 1990s. The letters are dated from 1830-39 during the Lucas's stay in Liberia.

"They maintained an almost familial relationship with the former slaves, corresponding with them as if they were brothers or family members," Davis said.

In the letters, the Lucas brothers talked about their experiences in Liberia and described their dwellings, the food they ate and the farming methods they used, trying American techniques for crops and soil that were different in Liberia.

"It's very rare to have this kind of correspondence," Davis said.

Ham said the correspondences reflects a "little-known dimension of American history:" blacks were literate and had a relationship positive enough to continue contact with their former masters.

THE LOUDOUN MUSEUM plans to submit a federal grant application to the Institute of Museum and Library Services for the American Colonization Society exhibit. The two-year grant would allow the museum to travel the exhibit to public libraries in the county and to locations outside of the county that show an interest in the exhibit

"As far as I know, this museum has never produced a traveling exhibit," Foard said. "The Smithsonian does that regularly. It would be nice if we could do it too."