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William Nesbit Replies to T. Morris Chester on Colonization

Harrisburg's African American community had debated the issue of colonization--the practice of removing free African Americans to the colony of Liberia on Africa's western coast--more than twenty years before the issue again was raised in the violent decade before the Civil War by the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 (see Harrisburg's African American Community Opposes Colonization, 1831). However Harrisburg's Thomas Morris Chester, son of a prominent local restaurateur, unable to see a profitable future for African Americans in the United States, had embraced the idea of a making a new life in Africa, undertaking the journey himself several times to Liberia, where he taught school and edited a newspaper, the Star of Liberia.  T. Morris Chester would continue to champion the colony until the start of the Civil War.  (R. J. M. Blackett, Thomas Morris Chester, Black Civil War Correspondent, 1989, pp. 11-30)

While Chester championed the idea of colonization, many prominent and influential African American leaders, after toying with the idea of emigration as a Black nationalist issue in response to the desperate outlook foreshadowed by the Fugitive Slave Act, ultimately rejected it as a persistent racist scheme to rid the United States of free Blacks.  One of those was William Nesbit, of Altoona, who in 1855 published the pamphlet Four Months in Liberia, Or, African Colonization Exposed, a highly critical essay against the feasibility of colonization.  Nesbit had sailed to Liberia under the auspices of the American Colonization Society in 1853, and his booklet was a recounting of his experiences and observations in the colony.  He subsequently toured the northeast debating the issue, backed by such heavyweight activists as Martin Delany and Robert Purvis.

Public meetings were held to debate this issue, and in Harrisburg the African American community gathered again in the same place that, twenty years before, had echoed with these same arguments for and against colonization,  Wesley Union A.M.E. Zion Church.   Prior to the meeting reported below, Chester had publicly denounced Nesbit's publication, and Nesbit subsequently challenged him to a public debate, but Chester was heavily involved with his studies by this time, having enrolled at Thetford Academy in Vermont.

The following article is from the August 31, 1855 edition of The Frederick Douglass Paper:



A meeting of the colored people was held in the Wesleyan Bethel church in Harrisburg, on the 17th inst., which was organized by the appointment of the Rev. S. Scott as President and C. J. Dorris, Secretary.  The object of the meeting being stated by Mr. Jones of Baltimore, Mr. Wm. Nesbit was introduced to the meeting, who proceeded in a lengthy speech to give his experiences of a residence in Liberia.  He alluded to the extreme heat and unhealthfulness of that climate, the frightful mortality existing there among emigrants, rendering it nothing else but [a] magnificent grave yard to persons born in this climate, that mortality extending even to domestic animals imported here.  The swampy condition of the country, its agricultural prospects, equality of its products, difficulty of clearing the land, the want, suffering, and misery to which the mass are exposed, -- the tendency to retrograde and fall back to heathenism, -- the pseudo city of Moravia, -- the contempt and mal-treatment heaped upon the natives by the colonists, -- the trade in Rum introduced by some colonists and Missionaries, tending to degrade the native still lower.  He then adverted to the conduct of Thomas Chester, who assailed his book and published to the world a false slander, -- challenged him (N.) to discuss the relative merits of their reports and when N. came forward, Chester failed to meet him before an audience of colored people.  After he had concluded a motion of thanks was tendered to the speaker when the meeting adjourned.

Further Reading

Thomas Morris Chester's experiences in Liberia are chronicled in the book Thomas Morris Chester, Black Civil War Correspondent, by R. J. M. Blackett, and published by Da Capo Press, New York, 1989.

Read the petition to congress by an assemblage of Harrisburg's white population in 1837:  Dauphin County Citizens Petition Congress in Support of African Colonization.

Read the response by Harrisburg's African American community, in opposition to colonization, published more than twenty years before the debate between Chester and Nesbitt:
Harrisburg's African American Community Opposes Colonization, 1831

Covering the history of African Americans in central Pennsylvania from the colonial era through the Civil War.

Support the Afrolumens Project. Read the books:

The Year of Jubilee, Volume One: Men of God, Volume Two: Men of Muscle

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