MIA picMississippi in Africa (Gotham Books, 2003)

Mississippi in Africa recounts the saga of 200 freed Mississippi slaves who sailed to Liberia before the American Civil War to become part of a new American-African colony.

Through research, interviews and edgy, wartime travelogue, the book documents a drama that spans two centuries and two continents, culminating with Liberia’s civil war.

When wealthy Mississippi cotton planter Isaac Ross died in 1836, his will provided that his plantation, Prospect Hill, be liquidated and the proceeds used to pay for his slaves’ voluntary passage to the newly established colony of Liberia in West Africa. Ross’s grandson contested the will for more than a decade, prompting a revolt in which a group of slaves burned Ross’s mansion to the ground, killing a young girl who was among the family members inside. Following the uprising, a group of slaves who were held responsible were lynched.

After the will was upheld by the Mississippi Supreme Court, in 1845, the freed slaves emigrated to their new home, christened Mississippi in Africa, where they struggled to create a new country of their own while battling indigenous tribes that were still involved in the slave trade.  In the late 20th century, the seeds of resentment sown over a century of cultural conflict sparked a civil war that raged until 2003.

178778In addition to chronicling this epic saga, the book explores the different way it is remembered by descendants of its central figures: the slave owners who supported the repatriation; those who opposed it; the freed slave emigrants to Liberia; and the slaves who chose to remain in Mississippi, enslaved, rather than leave.

The book’s publication sparked an effort to restore the second house built at Prospect Hill, where gatherings have attracted a unique array of descendants, including those who trace their lineage to both sides of the dispute that divided the slave holding family; to the slaves who chose to remain in Mississippi; and to the freed slaves who settled in Liberia — all of whom have in common only their connection to Prospect Hill.

This C-SPAN video highlights the continuing saga.

Mississippi in Africa is currently distributed by University Press of Mississippi.