Originally published by Time
Whether or not they knew it, the crowds who cheered President Donald Trump at a July 17 rally in North Carolina by chanting “send her back” in reference to Rep. Ilhan Omar were part of a long American story of telling certain people they don’t belong in the country. The chants — which even many of his fellow Republicans called racist— came days after Trump sparked outrage by tweetingthat Omar and three of her fellow Democratic Congresswomen of color, all of whom are Americans, should “go back” if they have problems with the U.S. On Monday, Trump continued to take aim at them. And this story isn’t just taking place in the federal government: on Friday, a black Georgia state representative claimed that a man at a grocery store told her to “go back” where she came from.
These words stood out for being part of a very particular anti-immigrant strainin American history: the idea that people who are deemed “inferior” or “other,” even if they were born in the U.S., are not really American and thus ought to leave. The contours of the “in” and “out” groups have evolved — though white Anglo-American Protestants have dominated the former — but the idea has deep roots.
One moment that particularly illustrates this dynamic, historians say, came nearly 200 years ago, amid a U.S.-backed effort to send free black Americans to Africa.
“That’s a very concrete example of telling people who were born in this country that they don’t belong here and they have to ‘go back,'” says historian Kunal M. Parker, author of Making Foreigners: Immigration and Citizenship Law in America, 1600–2000.
This idea began to take shape practically as soon as the United States became home to a significant community of free black people, which was not long after the American Revolution. There were efforts to abolish slavery in some places and new laws that made it easier to free enslaved people, but the idea that free people of different races could live together as Americans was terrifying to many elites. Slave rebellions in the South furthered the panic. One of the “solutions” that emerged among those who felt that way was that, even though slavery had been an institution in North America for centuries and many African Americans had no personal ties to Africa, freed people could leave.
As James Ciment details in Another America: The Story of Liberia and the Former Slaves Who Ruled It, in 1816, the American Colonization Society (ACS) was founded in the tavern of the Davis Hotel in Washington, D.C. The ACS built on ideas articulated by Thomas Jefferson, who five years after the Declaration of Independence wrote that people who’d been freed from slavery should be “removed beyond the reach of mixture” from the country.
The ACS had an example to go off: Freed slaves from Britain had settled in Sierra Leone in 1787, and it became an official British colony in 1808. In 1815, the black Philadelphia shipping magnate Paul Cuffee — who felt that Africa offered the best future for his fellow free African Americans — paid $5,000 to send 38 African Americans (including 20 children) there.
To some African Americans, the idea of leaving the United States and starting fresh somewhere closer to the land from which their ancestors had been taken was inherently appealing. But the society’s members often focused more on the removal aspect than on the fresh start. They were mostly white political elites, including Daniel Webster and U.S. Senator Henry Clay, who at an early meeting exposed the idea’s underbelly when he declared that the ACS could “rid our country of a useless and pernicious, if not dangerous portion of its population” while spreading enlightenment to “a benighted quarter of the globe.” A Supreme Court Justice, Bushrod Washington (George Washington’s nephew), agreed to serve as its symbolic President. State legislatures in Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia started appropriating funding to encourage colonization, and some slave owners made manumission contingent on leaving the country, according to Parker.
In 1820, 88 free black settlers and three ACS representatives sailed to Sierra Leone begin the search for West African territory that would be a fit for the society proposed by their group. Around December 1821, ACS traded some muskets, gunpowder, tobacco, rum, shoes, beads and soap (worth nearly $300at the time) for the land that would become Liberia.
ACS chose that name in 1824, based the Latin word for “free,” and named its capital Monrovia for the American president at the time of its founding, James Monroe, who was instrumental in securing a $100,000 federal grant for the project. The emigrants came to be known as “Americoes.” Virginia-born Joseph Robert Jenkins, who had emigrated in 1829, became Liberia’s first governor in 1841, and its first President in 1847 after he declared its independence from the American Colonization Society.
By the Civil War period, about 15,000 free African-Americans emigrated to Liberia, but most were against the initiative.
“They saw it as a removal,” says Mae Ngai, a historian of immigration at Columbia University. “Some African Americans did support this idea because they thought they’d never be able to be included in America, and [moving there] was a choice made out of a determination that they would never be welcome in the U.S. even though they were born in the U.S. But the majority of African Americans did not support this.”