4/20/2005 6:00:00 PM MINOR / ‘Mississippi in Africa’
By BILL MINOR
JACKSON — No story carved out of the history of Mississippi is more fascinating than the one of 200 freed slaves from a Jefferson County plantation who were resettled in the new African nation of Liberia.
“Mississippi in Africa” was the name given then to the Liberian enclave that the former Mississippi slaves of Prospect Hill plantation owner Isaac Ross created 170 years ago after being resettled in Africa. That’s also the name Jackson journalist and public relations specialist Alan Huffman gives to his wonderfully researched book retelling the story of the amazing pre-Civil War journey of the freed slaves to the continent of their origin.
Rather, the stories.
Because, as Huffman makes amply clear, the bizarre two-century old saga of ex-slaves set free by their owner, who had liquidated his plantation so they could begin a new life in Liberia, became revised in the retelling over two centuries, from one generation to another.
But Huffman as an excellent reporter doesn’t stop just with simply reconstructing the loose ends of the epic of how a gaggle of emancipated Mississippi slaves immigrated to Liberia. He spent several risky weeks in the civil war-torn nation seeking evidence of what became of “Mississippi in Africa” and its descendants.
Before that, he pored through dusty, crumbling record books dug out of long-unused storages in Jefferson County’s courthouse to find any mention of Prospect Hill plantation and Ross’ slaves.
His book, while published a year ago, remains timely because of Liberia’s continued instability and the danger it poses to American interests as a breeding ground for the international terrorist network. United Nations troops now patrol the nation’s streets after brutal President Charles Taylor’s forced departure in 2003.
The title of the book fascinated me when notices of Huffman’s “Mississippi in Africa” initially appeared. But I’m ashamed to say that I failed to get a copy until awhile back a World War II shipmate of mine who lives in San Diego, CA spotted it on the Internet, got a copy and sent it to me.
Certainly Huffman’s account of the freed slaves’ saga is rich material for a movie—from a deadly revolt and burning of Prospect Hill’s mansion by Isaac Ross’ slaves as they frustratingly awaited his heirs to set them free and grant them the dowry promised in his will—to the unlikely cultural conflict they became embroiled in after arriving in Africa.
You might well say it is historic irony that wherever Mississippians go, be they even black Mississippians, civil war is bound to follow.
That is but a capsule version of what Mississippi in Africa triggered in Liberia beginning in the late 1840s when the 200 transplanted slaves of Jefferson County cotton plantation owner Isaac Ross arrived in the African nation newly created and adopted by the American Colonization Society as the abolitionist home for freed American slaves.
Perhaps understandably, the ex-slaves of the plantation South sought to recreate in Liberia a minis-version of the patrician lifestyle known only to the wealthy plantation owners back where they came from in Mississippi.
As they established their own vast plantations and built their own Greek Revival mansions in Africa, the ex-Mississippians, now known as Americo-Liberians, found themselves in a new kind of tribal warfare with native Africans. It later spilled over into in a civil war whose remnants exist until today.
How did Huffman become consumed with the idea of unraveling the many layers of the Mississippi in Africa epic?
A battered grand piano that once stood in the parlor of Ross’ Prospect Hill mansion—one of the pieces of elegant furniture that filled the home of the wealthy former South Carolinian—had somehow wound up in Huffman’s possession through a distant Ross descendant.
The once-grand, though no longer playable instrument, as Huffman tells, became his portal to get the complex story of the legendary two-continent journey of the Jefferson County slaves.
Old Isaac Ross had died in 1836, leaving several children, notably his daughter, Margaret Ross Reed, whom he most trusted. However, several of their widened families as heirs of the Ross name contested the family patron’s will and the old man’s grant of freedom to the Prospect Hill plantation slaves and shares in the proceeds in the estate.
In the interim, a slave revolt broke out on the Jefferson County plantation and a young woman died when the Ross’ mansion was set afire, precipitating a lynching of several slaves suspected of setting the fire.
A bitter court battle within the family over the will went so far as to reach all the way to the state Legislature. But the Ross-Wade family members desiring to carry out Isaac Ross’ wishes finally won out and by 1848 contingents of freed Ross slaves had shipped out of the port of New Orleans for their promised land in Liberia.
But tragedy plagued the lives of the freed slaves as a number died after being stricken with cholera before they shipped out of New Orleans. Some others died of illnesses on arriving in Liberia. But the bulk of them amazingly persevered and built Mississippi in Africa— Greenville was the name given their village and Sinoe their County.
Huffman steered through dangerous roadblocks to track down several descendants of the original Mississippi settlers. One is a banker in Monrovia, who incidentally, hopes to come back to America.
The freed slaves of Isaac Ross, however, never would enjoy the shares of Prospect Hill plantation he left them. The money was consumed in the long litigation brought by his heirs after Ross’ death.
And no trace of Prospect hill plantation or its mansion still exists.
Except for the grand piano Huffman has in his home in Bolton.