Merlene Davis: Lexingtonian who settled in Liberia became president there

Freed slave took hard route to nation's presidency

Herald-Leader columnistAugust 25, 2011 

Alfred Francis Russell, a freed slave from Kentucky, became the 10th president of Liberia in 1883.

Now that our children are getting settled in their classrooms, I wanted to offer up that bit of information well before February when they are asked to read about the usual suspects in black history.

Russell's biography can be a means of exploring more deeply a very rich history.

That being said, Russell shouldn't be seen as a savior of Liberia, but he was a man who worked through very difficult circumstances to briefly lead a country in Africa that was formed as a means of giving some American blacks their first taste of self governance.

Depending on which account you read, Russell was born on Aug. 25 in Lexington or Bourbon County in 1817. He and his mother, Amelie "Milly" Crawford, who, like her son, was biracial, were the property of Mary Owen Todd Russell Wickliffe, a rich heiress in Kentucky, and, some said, Alfred's grandmother.

Wickliffe, whom they called "Mrs. Polly," emancipated Crawford, Russell, a cousin and her four children in 1833, and helped them make their way to Liberia, a country south of Sierra Leone that Kentucky statesman Henry Clay was heavily involved in colonizing with freed men.

Some 675 blacks left Kentucky for Liberia through the auspices of the American Colonization Society, over which Clay presided.

Many of the travelers, especially the children, died from cholera, yellow fever, and whooping cough. But mother, son and their relatives reached Africa where they were woefully unprepared to survive. Alfred was about 15, and his mother was 30.

The Kentucky affiliate of the ACS bought land in Liberia along the St. Paul River, where Kentucky in Africa was settled and Clay-Ashland was the largest town.

Alfred and his mother settled there.

In a letter he wrote in 1855 to Robert Wickliffe, the husband of Russell's former owner, Russell openly speaks of the hardships the family had endured:

"We have suffered in Africa, and suffered greatly," he wrote. "It was so long before we could find Africa out, how to live in it, and what to do to live, that it all most cost us death seeking life. We knew nothing of making a living (except Mother) had been reared like spoiled children & not servants, and if our parents or aney one else wated to give us a deserved whiping we flead to Mrs. Polly, believing that the whole State of Kentucky could not take us from beside her chair."

When he was 19, Russell began missionary work with the Methodist church, serving for 17 years. He owned a farm with coffee trees and sugar cane and eventually went into politics. He was a senator from the 1850s, off and on, for 20 years.

Some accounts note that it was the biracial class that ruled Liberia's government, economy and educational system for many decades, keeping a distance from the darker and native-born residents.

Their color and ancestry were a reason some were sent to Africa.

In that letter to Wickliffe, Russell complains of that caste system, even though he could prosper by playing the game. Power was being passed down through families, and some people were being left out "until what was once a favor, seems to be now a right," he said.

Still, he loved his new homeland and continued to see it as a good place for other blacks to come to.

"But time will work all right," Russell wrote. "We have a splendid country, rich in soil, metals, & resources of maney kinds & large enough for all the blacks in America. They would not trouble me by coming Ten thousand a month."

In 1881, Russell, a member of the True Whig Party, became vice president of Liberia, serving with President Anthony William Gardiner who was in his third term.

When Gardiner resigned in January, 1883, either because of politics or poor health, Russell ascended to the presidency.

He was not selected as his party's candidate the following year, and left office in Jan. 1884. Russell died three months later on April 4, 1884.

More information about Russell, about Kentucky's role in settling Liberia, or about the 10th president of Liberia who was also born in Lexington, can be found online or in the library. It might serve for a better grade long before February.

Reach Merlene Davis at (859) 231-3218 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3218, or mdavis1@herald-leader.com.

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