A Grandmother’s Story

By Lindsey Burgess

Liberia was established in 1821 by the American Colonization Society as an alternative to staying in the United States for people who had been freed from slavery. Many slaveholders throughout the South believed the growing number of free African Americans threatened their slaveholding societies, and religious and political figures in the North believed that freed people would not be able to succeed in the United States because of their supposed racial inferiority. People from America were sent to Liberia were called Americo-Liberians. Ironically, they benefitted from colonial status, and controlled the economic, political, and social fabric of the country. Clashes with indigenous groups eventually led to civil war in Liberia in the late 1980s. Artemus Gaye, 42, is the seventh great-grandson of Abdulrahman Ibrahim Ibn Sori, a leading figure among the first Americo-Liberians. Gaye was born in Monrovia, Liberia and came to the United States in the late 1990s to study. He lives in Chicago and runs a non-profit, Isabella and Ibrahima. 

Burgess: When did you find out that you were related to Abdulrahman?

Gaye: I didn’t know anything about Abdulrahman officially [documented] until I came to the United States in 1997. We didn’t know anything about Abdulrahman [at all] until the Liberian Civil War when my great-grandmother told us while we were fleeing Monrovia. She started telling us about how her family came from the United States to New Georgia (Liberia).

But I was in Michigan in 1997 when this whole process [of discovery] began again. I was interested in hospital counseling and enrolled in the trauma program. My peers [in my program] emphasized that in order to know yourself, you must know your past. I began doing full research on my history and Liberian history in 1998 and it was through that process I went to Natchez, Mississippi on vacation. There was a lady called Kathleen Moody who I met in Natchez who told me the story of a prince who came to Natchez.

Burgess: What stories did you hear growing up about his life?

Gaye: My great-grandmother [Tarlo Rahman] was the griot [troubadour of oral tradition] in our family. She knew this part of our history. That was her role. She knew the history of our past, but didn’t tell us this until we were all together fleeing the civil war.

Burgess: Do you remember around when she told you?

Gaye: She told me around 1990 before the president died and it was curfew time. She used to tell the story, everyone was gathered around. She was telling everyone about their past and she told us why were fighting the civil war in the first place. We used to be a happy family. I’m from New Georgia, Liberia. It was called New Georgia because of the slaves from Georgia that went to Liberia. My grandmother always knew she had Mississippi roots.

Burgess: What was the role of the American Colonization Society in Liberia?

Gaye: Some see it as a group that tried to bamboozle its way into Africa by putting African-Americans in Africa, but I see it as a group with mixed review and people who had different ideas for the solution. Francis Scott Key wanted freedom for blacks, whereas Henry Clay was a straight up racist.

Burgess: What do people think of the American Colonization Society in Liberia? Is there a divide between native people and the African-Americans who were sent there?

Gaye: There was serious tension. The tension was about “who you are”? If you’re coming to Africa after being discriminated against and enslaved and moved back to Africa and still see Africans engaged in the slave trade you were hurt. That was the first major conflict between people and the Americo-Liberian class. The tension did not stop until recently. That was the first major tension. Over the years, once you become a minority they tend to look down upon you. This wealth and politics are controlled by the Americo-Liberia class. Now the native class has changed their names etc. They also control the culture. I have to have the name ‘Roberts’ or ‘Jones’ to be accepted in mainstream society. There was a whole reorganization of the culture.

Burgess: Did you find any other descendants of people involved in Abdulrahman’s case?

Gaye: I’ve found many descendants of Abdulrahman today. Two ex-governors of Louisiana were direct descendants of the slave master [Thomas Foster]. I was able to go and find their information. I’ve founded Andrew Marschalk’s relatives as well [Andrew Marschalk was the editor of the Natchez Gazette and worked on behalf of Abdulrahman]. They’re all living in Natchez, Mississippi. I found a descendant of Henry Clay; they’re in Nashville. Also, descendants of Thomas Jefferson and Francis Scott Key. I met other descendants as well. We started finding links in Guinea and in other parts of the United States.

Burgess: What is something interesting that you found in your research?

Gaye: The manumission books of African Americans to Liberia lists every slave ship with free blacks. Him [Abdulrahman] and [his wife] Isabella were listed separately coming from Tennessee. There was no evidence of them listed together, or what they were doing in Tennessee.

Burgess: Who were some of the early groups of Americans of African descent in Liberia?

Gaye: Liberia was founded in 1822. The American Colonization Society was sponsored by politicians, religious leaders, and other influential people like James Monroe. Most people don’t know that an American navy ship in 1860 saved a slave ship that was carrying 400 slaves from the Congo area. Once the navy rescued the ship, they sent them to Liberia. This also caused a lot of tension.

1 thought on “A Grandmother’s Story”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *