Paul Cuffe was the founder of the African nation of Liberia, the first free nation in Africa employing the principles of Western countries. He was bom free on Cuttyhunk Island in Massachusetts. His father was a for¬ mer slave who married a Wampanoag Native American woman, and together they raised a boy who, by the age of 16, had left home to earn his living by the sea.
Cuffe was well-suited to this life, and became wealthy from the success of his fishing, whaling and shipping expeditions. His fleet of 10 ships sailed to both the European and African continents regularly.
Though he was a wealthy and powerful businessman in America,Cuffe believed that only in Africa could he live truly free from racism, which had not ceased even after the American Revolution.
In 1778, with the signing of the Massachusetts Constitution, Cuffe and all other African- Americans, as well as all Native Americans in Massachusetts, lost their right to vote. It was an indignity that abolitionists could not accept quietly.
In response, Cuffe stopped paying taxes. He argued that African-Americans and Native Americans were on the front lines of the Revolutionary War with all other Amer¬ icans. They were buying their country with their lives. In 1783, a Massachusetts court voted in agreement with Cuffe and his sup¬ porters, and reinstated voting rights to all free, tax-paying African-Americans.
This victory was the first political one for Paul Cuffe, who went on to build a school on his farm for the children of his community before launching the plan that earned him the name “Father of the Black Back-to-Africa Movement.”
In 1810, Cuffe made his first trip to Sier¬ ra Leone in Africa with the puipose of founding an African-American colony that would support itself through trade with the United States. Five years later, he traveled back with 38 of the first settlers of a new country.
Once the American Colonization Society convinced Congress to acquire African lands for the settlement of free African-Americans, the country of Liberia, named for “liberty,” was founded. (The American Colonization Society, founded by white slave owners, was an organization dedicated to moving free African-Americans to African colonies in order to deflect their attention from the abolitionist move¬ ment in America).
Though over 14,000 Americans returned to Africa over the next 30 years, many of Cuffe’s contemporaries, including Richard Allen (see no. 6) and Absalom Jones, stayed to protect the roots of the African- American community fighting for freedom in America.