Robert Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television, was recently in the news discussing his real estate investments in Liberia. He has built a luxury resort that is providing opportunity for careers and much needed revenue. Johnson is also encouraging African Americans to learn the mutual history of Liberia and the United States. I am proud to say that I am aware of the shared history between our two countries due to family ties. After years trying to track down the descendants of 112 African Americans who left Lowndes county, Georgia in 1871 and 1872, I had the opportunity to meet them in Atlanta. The event was an annual convention hosted by descendants who are members of Arthington Reconstruction Development Association, an organization of Liberian Americans determined to rebuild their city which was devastated by civil unrest that began in 1980.
My search for these descendants started in 2003. While trying to find out more information on my family, my great aunt, Diane Ashley, spoke of relatives that moved to Africa. So as I researched this part of my genealogy and began reviewing the local history of Lowndes County, I began to piece together an amazing story.
Before March 2009, I did not know Harmon Warsaw. I live in Valdosta, Georgia (Lowndes County). Warsaw is from Arthington, Liberia (Africa) and lives near Atlantic City, New Jersey. One day I came across a website for the Arthington Reconstruction Development Association. The website provided a list of members and I quickly saw that many of their last names matched those who emigrated from my hometown almost 140 years ago. From their website, I came in contact with Warsaw.
Warsaw says that descendants representing 6 families who left South Georgia in 1871 and 1872 are currently living in America. Their surnames are Bracewell, Ponder, Obey, Turkett, White, and Wright and I recently met some of them in Lawrenceville, Georgia during their association’s annual convention. Concerning the History of Liberia, Warsaw states that, “Arthington produced more prominent citizens as opposed to any settlement, city, town or County in Liberia. Arthington produced President, County Attorney, Associate Justice, Solicitor General, Senators, Representatives, Doctors, F-4 Pilot, Civil Engineers, Mechanist, Mechanics, Police Officers, Secretary Of War, Secretary Of Interior, Expert Quilt Makers, Teachers, Expert Musicians…”
An interesting twist to this story is that Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia who is alleged to be partly responsible for Civil War in the country, is from Arthington and has family ties to Lowndes County, Georgia. The first group of 63 emigrants from Lowndes was headed by Jefferson Bracewell, a farmer and carpenter who was cited in the 1870 Census as having $6,000 of personal property. Aaron Miller, my 3rd great uncle and a farmer that owned 450 acres of land in what is now known as Hahira, Georgia, led a second group of 59 people. A record from the African Repository, a periodical sponsored by American Colonization Society, recorded the following statement from one of the Lowndes emigrants.
Another intelligent man of color, writing from Valdosta, Georgia, January 10, 1872, says: “I have often heard my father, who was born in Africa, speak in endearing terms of his native country. My grandmother also was a native of Africa. It makes me feel happy to think that there is a way for us to get back where we can have a home and become a people.”
Harmon Warsaw and Charles Taylor are cousins. Their great grandfather is John Bracewell, who was Jefferson Bracewell’s brother. Jefferson Bracewell took his wife, children, and younger sibling to Liberia (as did most of the emigrants). What I discovered through oral history and from speaking with Warsaw is that the new settlers in Liberia didn’t just break all ties with America. They continued to correspond with their relatives. After facing a difficult time in their new home in Liberia, a few of the Lowndes emigrants returned. One of them was a young woman named Laura Lane. The local newspaper in South Georgia quoted her as saying, “I left there in December 1877. I was always anxious to leave, and so wrote my former master, but never heard from him. I had nursed for a Jew until I saved twenty dollars, and then I got on a vessel and paid my way to Brazil. I remained in that country two months. I came across Captain Whitmore and hired to him for a nurse for his wife. I went on his vessel and sailed to many places- cannot remember the names. We went ashore in Cuba for awhile. On the 21st of this month (July) we landed in Savannah and Capt. Whitmore bought me a ticket home.” Laura Lane was, as you have read, was not the last to return from Liberia.
The civil unrest caused many Liberians to come to the USA. Unfortunately, I have not yet found descendants of my great uncle, Aaron Miller; however, from my friendship with Harmon Warsaw and his deep roots in Liberia, I believe I will connect with distant cousins in the near future.
Lowndes County Georgia: List of Emigrants to Arthington,Liberia
Howard, Mark D. African departure: a history of the Liberian emigrants from Georgia in the Reconstruction era. (Masters Thesis), 1999.
“Departure of our Fall Expedition.” The African Repository. 47.12 (1871): 38-40.
“List of Emigrants for Liberia.” The African Repository. 47.12 (1871): 355-356.
“Departure of our Fall Expedition.” The African Repository. 48.12 (1871): 353-354.
“List of Emigrants for Liberia.” The African Repository. 48.3 (1872): 355-356
“Local Melange.” South Georgia Times. 30 Jun. 1869.
“Another Lowndes County Negro Returned from Liberia.” South Georgia Times, Jul. 1879.
“Lowndes-Liberia Connection.” Valdosta Daily Times. 20 Jul. 98(277), 1–E