Back to Africa: Grant Crigler, Mose Davis and Boldin Taylor
Grant Crigler, Mose Davis and Boldin Taylor were part of an initial group connected to the Chief Sam movement. In fact, Davis reportedly gave "the first 50 dollars in...[the Chief Sam movement]."3 Aside from being a crucial part of an extraordinary campaign, it's important to stress that the group itself was attempting to achieve something few US-born citizens, black or white, past or present, ever do: permanently emigrate.
Chief Sam: "the Moses that has come to deliver them..."During the movement's brief existence between 1913 and 1915, some 500 African Americans—primarily from the then new state of Oklahoma—would liquidate their assets to help support the campaign and pin all hopes for a new life in Africa promised through the movement by its leader. Chief Sam supporters were enthusiastic, even fervent in belief in the movement's goal: to establish a thriving colony in the Gold Coast of and for African Americans, with its own industries, schools, churches, supply systems, and African American owned property. This stands in pronounced contrast to other contemporary groups' opinions. Nationally syndicated columns had been reporting on the movement's progress ever since it began. Coverage was mixed, frequently dismissive or full of outright disparaging skepticism, even in African American newspapers. Prominent African American intellectuals of the day, such as George Washington Carver and W. E. B. Du Bois, were vociferous critics of the campaign at the time. However, nothing seemed to dissuade the movement's supporters.
Chief Alfred Charles Sam (1880 – 1930s?) was a Gold Coast born commercial merchant and was initially interested in establishing commercial relations between Africa and the U.S. African American community before becoming a pioneering pan-Africanist. How Sam came to develop and lead the movement is a story in itself. After being persuasively encouraged—perhaps even recruited—by members of a long developing "back to Africa" emigration community, Sam's charisma, commercial connections and organizational skills, quickly showed he was not only able to lead such a movement but would also be fulfilling a role he himself came to believe he was destined to play. It would take over a year to build a viable base of support for the campaign, with many obstacles to overcome, but by the summer of 1914 everything seemed in place.
Earlier in the year, several hundred African Americans trekked from Oklahoma to the Gulf Coast of Texas, eventually gathering in Galveston. There they eagerly awaited the arrival of the SS Liberia—a repurposed steamer that had been acquired with supporters' funds and that would carry them "back to Africa". Many ended up waiting for months, camped out in makeshift housing around the city; among them were Crigler, Davis and Taylor. Expectations were desperately high and before the SS Liberia would set sail, it would receive a rapturous send off. As a bottle of palm oil was smashed over the prow of the ship, 13-year old Lucille Garrett was chosen to proclaim: "I christen thee Liberia —ship sent by God to take the black man back to the land of his forefathers."4
And so, just after WWI broke out in August 1914, the SS Liberia set sail for the Gold Coast, but with fewer than one-third of its intended passengers. The others who stayed behind were left disappointed but not disillusioned. It would, however, prove to be the only substantial voyage associated with the movement.
Unfortunately, "by the spring of 1915, famine and an outbreak of influenza resulted in the deaths of more than half of the migrants." 6 By the summer of 1915, the majority of the remaining Chief Sam migrants had left the Gold Coast, though an unknown number remained and dispersed to other parts of the continent. As it turned out, few would follow the first wave and within a couple of years the movement itself would fracture and ultimately collapse, both in the U.S. and in West Africa.
The boat transported a mere sixty passengers—most of them former slaves-turned-homesteaders from the new state of Oklahoma—but carried the dreams of thousands of African American exodusters. [Chief] Sam had first come to the United States as a merchant trading in timber, rubber, and cocoa, but soon found himself organizing African American farmers and landowners who hoped to emigrate from the U.S. and settle his homeplace in the Akyem region of the Gold Coast. 5
Less than two years after their arrival in Liberia, Crigler, Davis and Taylor returned to the U.S. via Havana, arriving in New Orleans on 16 May 1916. A Consular agent in Monrovia added the following note to Mose Davis’ 1916 emergency passport application for return to the U.S.:
Small but telling traces of their journey can be found in consular registration documents, passport applications, ships' manifests and newspaper articles from the time. While the exact personal reasons for the three's emigration and eventual return are not know, it is of course an understatement to assume they were looking to build a better life—away from the racism, disenfranchisement, Jim Crow laws and violence that so many African Americans faced throughout the U.S. Based on the reports of other Chief Sam returnees, their premature return was caused by a number of insurmountable difficulties the entire group faced during their attempted resettlement.
Indian Territory: “Here the Negro can rest from mob law...”
The fact that most of the would-be emigrants, including Crigler, Davis and Taylor, were already recent settlers to Oklahoma was no accident.
Since Reconstruction, many African Americans had become well-traveled—and continually frustrated—internal migrants. Oklahoma ("Indian Territory" until 1890) would became an endpoint for thousands, though to many it was seen as more of a beginning. West Africa was the real geographic goal on many people's minds. The Chief Sam movement didn't quite make that dream a reality, but it more than set the scene for what was to come, i.e. the Great Migration. However, the increasingly brazen and brutal violence against African Americans in cities across the U.S. that would erupt during the early stages of the Great Migration was just around the corner. Shortly after the Sam movement collapsed, the devastating violence of the 1917 East St. Louis race riot, the Red Summer of 1919 and Tulsa race massacre of 1921 would throw its burgeoning African American communities into an utter chaos, but the U.S. was forever changed.
The motivation for going to other states was similar to the idea of going to Africa. 'We as a people are oppressed and disfranchised,' one westward migrant wrote in a letter in 1891. 'We are still working hard and our rights taken from us. [T]imes are hard and getting harder every year. We as a people believe that Africa is the place but to get from under bondage are thinking of Oklahoma as this is our nearest place of safety.7
One of the photo albums I've assembled contains a precious handful of photos of individuals associated with the Chief Sam movement, along with many more African Americans who were working in Liberia as missionaries, teachers, engineers and doctors. It coalesces into a remarkable microcosm of expatriate African Americans in a seemingly improbable place and time.
In 1916, two years after the Chief Sam voyage took place, other African Americans would leave Oklahoma for West Africa. The movement of this group left a small paper trail among consular documents, but unlike the Chief Sam movement their story didn't attract any major media attention and their ultimate fates are difficult to ascertain.
78-year-old Hannah Love was part of this group and applied for an emergency passport on 22 Aug 1916 in Havana, Cuba for travel to Liberia via the Canary Islands. Love's last residence was given as Wynnewood, Oklahoma. By the time she got to Havana, she and her colleagues had been traveling for six weeks and the voyage from there to Monrovia would take another four weeks.
Love was part of a small group of at least ten African Americans from Wynnewood, Oklahoma who were headed to West Africa in 1916, all of them indicating that they did not intend to return to the U.S. Like the Sam émigrés, some would ultimately return to the U.S. a few years after their arrival, but it appears that others resettled to Africa permanently.
EpilogueShortly after returning to the U.S. after his ill-fated first trip to the Gold Coast, Boldin Taylor would emigrate to Liberia permanently where he continued his calling as minister. He remained in Liberia until his death in the 1930s. Some of his children accompanied him on his transatlantic voyages and would permanently settle in Liberia.
After moving back to the U.S. in 1916, Grant Crigler carried on with his life as an Oklahoma farmer, dying there in 1931.
Mose Davis also returned to Oklahoma, were he continued farming with the family he left behind in 1914. Like other married men that made the voyage, he had probably intended for his family to join him in the Gold Coast (Ghana) after settling, but returned when the hardships became unbearable and the future uncertain. Born into slavery between 1861 and 1864, Davis moved from Mississippi to Oklahoma in the early 1900s, eventually settling in the "negro paradise" of Mantee, Oklahoma (in today's Hughes County). Chief Sam had visited the community years before, capturing the attention of hundreds of black Oklahomans like Davis with his extraordinary ambitions.
Davis died in nearby Okmulgee, Oklahoma in 1922.