Mississippi in Africa

Mississippi in Africa: The Saga of the Slaves of Prospect Hill Plantation and Their Legacy in Liberia Today

Alan Huffman
Copyright Date: 2004
Pages: 336
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  • Book Info
    Mississippi in Africa
    Book Description:

    When wealthy Mississippi cotton planter Isaac Ross died in 1836, his will decreed that his plantation, Prospect Hill, should be liquidated and the proceeds from the sale be used to pay for his slaves' passage to the newly established colony of Liberia in western Africa. Ross's heirs contested the will for more than a decade, prompting a deadly revolt in which a group of slaves burned Ross's mansion to the ground. But the will was ultimately upheld. The slaves then emigrated to their new home, where they battled the local tribes and built vast plantations with Greek Revival-style mansions in a region the Americo-Africans renamed "Mississippi in Africa." In the late twentieth century, the seeds of resentment sown over a century of cultural conflict between the colonists and tribal people exploded, begetting a civil war that rages in Liberia to this day. Tracking down Prospect Hill's living descendants, deciphering a history ruled by rumor, and delivering the complete chronicle in riveting prose, journalist Alan Huffman has rescued a lost chapter of American history whose aftermath is far from over.

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-754-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-x)
    (pp. 1-12)

    Long slats of moonlight fall through the shuttered window, across the floor, and up the legs of the massive old grand piano that commands a corner of my living room. It is the middle of the night and the room is still and quiet, which is odd, considering that a few moments before, I was awakened by the sound of random banging on the piano keys. I had pictured my dog Jack with his paws on the ivory, chasing a moth, but in the dim light I see that the piano’s keyboard is closed, and that Jack is nowhere to...


      (pp. 15-22)

      Nekisha ellis watches as I hoist the massive old record book onto the Xerox machine, unable to prevent it from pulling apart at the seams. With each turn of a page, bits of parchment break away and rain down upon the floor. I look up at her and wince.

      “Don’t worry,” she says, and smiles apologetically. “It’s just old.”

      Nekisha is a deputy court clerk in Jefferson County, where the surviving documents chronicling the Prospect Hill litigation are housed. A smile comes naturally to her face. She watches brightly as one irreplaceable record after another crumbles in my hands.


      (pp. 23-30)

      Isaac ross was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1760, moved with his family as a child to near Camden, South Carolina, and then, as a young man, enlisted in the revolutionary army. By war’s end he had been promoted to the rank of captain and commanded a company of South Carolina dragoons who fought in the battles of Kings Mountain, North Carolina, in 1780, and Cowpens, South Carolina, in 1781, both of which were patriot victories. In the latter battle, he lost his right eye. He wore a glass replacement for the rest of his life.

      By his early...

      (pp. 31-42)

      It is a halcyon day, the sun high and warm but the ground still cool in the shadows, and in Jefferson County’s remaining fields the last of its farmers are breaking ground. It is mostly the bottom lands that they plow now, for soybeans rather than cotton, using great John Deere tractors that belch diesel smoke as they groan against the earth. The plowing still brings the scent of fresh earth to the countryside, but the field cabins are mostly gone, and one man can do in a day what took weeks for more than a hundred men in 1825....

      (pp. 43-56)

      As a slaveholder in 1830s Mississippi, Isaac Ross’s motives for seeking to repatriate his slaves were no doubt questioned by his Northern peers in the American Colonization Society, and likewise his devotion to the Southern way of life was likely questioned by neighboring planters who considered him a closet abolitionist. One can’t help wondering, too, if his slaves wondered whether he would ever make good on the deal.

      Slaveholders who supported African colonization were caught in the crossfire of a burning issue of the era: how best to deal with free blacks, whether for humanitarian reasons or out of fear....

      (pp. 57-70)

      By mid-january 1836, everyone would have known that Isaac Ross was dying—the family, the neighbors, and the slaves, including Enoch, his manservant, with whom Ross had had a close but tumultuous relationship during the last few years. Ross’s dying meant very different things to his grandson, Isaac Ross Wade, who was to be the executor of his estate, and to his daughter Margaret Reed, who was about to lose her father and face the consequences of carrying out the directives outlined in his will.

      The scene must have been awkward when Ross called his remaining family to his side,...

      (pp. 71-82)

      Turner ashby ross is a glib man with a deep, gravelly voice who speaks slowly, as if he has all the time in the world. He lives in Vicksburg, Mississippi, and is the brother of Laverne McPhate. Like her, he is proud of his ancestry—proud both that Isaac Ross voluntarily freed his slaves, and that one of his grandfathers fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War.

      “My name come from the general he fought under in the war—Turner Ashby,” he says. Ashby was an icon of the lost cause, known as the Black Knight of the Confederacy,...

      (pp. 83-94)

      From correspondence between Isaac Ross Wade and his chief attorney, Henry Ellett, it is apparent that the restraints issued by the lower courts were making it increasingly difficult for Wade to foot the bill for the ultimately futile litigation. In July 1847 Ellett wrote to say that “the whole case in which I was originally employed—to resist the right of the colonization society to the negroes—has been settled against us by the High Court and the remaining controversy must relate entirely to the adjustment of your private interests with the Estate and the Society. It is now a...

      (pp. 95-102)

      “It’S a hell of a lot of Rosses in this town that aren’t related to us, that we know,” Delores Ross says, over the phone. “They’re a darker complexion, the ones I’m talkin’ about.”

      She is referring to the descendants of the Prospect Hill slaves who did not take the one-way trip to Liberia, whether by choice or because they were not given the option. Delores, is descended from slaves from other plantations, but, surprisingly, also traces her ancestry to the slaveowning Rosses, which means she is no blood relation to the Rosses whose slave ancestors remained at Prospect Hill....

      (pp. 103-116)

      The sign, set against a backdrop of used car lots, convenience stores, and nondescript houses along U.S. 61, offers a curious introduction: WELCOME TO PORT GIBSON, TOO BEAUTIFUL TO BURN. Even without the incongruous setting, it seems a dubious boast.

      The quote is attributed to General Grant, whose army passed through after defeating the Confederate forces in the area during the Civil War, and who, it is said, spared the town the torch for aesthetic reasons. At first it is easy to imagine that Grant, at war behind enemy lines and preoccupied with chasing the Rebels back into Vicksburg, literally...

      (pp. 117-128)

      Laverne mcphate did not think of it as trespassing, it sounds a lot like it. The land was posted and the gate locked, so she slipped through the woods to approach the stranger’s house with her video camera. She wasn’t there to film the decaying manse, which is hidden far down a dirt road that is almost impassable when it rains. It was the cemetery she was after, because Isaac Ross is buried there. Although Laverne never lived at Prospect Hill, and she is aware that the current owner jealously guards his privacy, she felt she had every right to...

      (pp. 129-138)

      The road to prospect hill is narrow and rutted now, threading its way through the depopulated Jefferson County countryside, past abandoned houses and barns, and old cotton fields long since grown up in trees. Great mats of purple wisteria bloom over entire groves, marking the sites of forgotten houses with a psychedelic display each spring. Here and there fallen trees funnel the road down to one lane, which poses no real problem, because we pass only two trucks and a handful of houses over the last ten miles or so.

      Aside from a couple of posted signs, there is no...

      (pp. 139-144)

      The minivan pulls to a stop before a nondescript building in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and a woman gets out, wearing a striking West African dress of vivid purple with golden sunbursts and red embroidery along the hem. She bears an armload of bulging plastic bags, and eyes me curiously.

      “Is this where the …” I begin to ask.

      “Yes!” she says, and offers a wry smile. “You must be the man who’s working on the book on Ross.”

      I nod.

      “Well, you come to the right place. Everybody knows the Rosses.” She pronounces the name with a strong Liberian inflection,...

  4. Part II LIBERIA

      (pp. 147-150)

      A river glimmers dimly in the gathering dusk as the jet banks for its approach to the Monrovia airfield. Fires burn in clearings of the jungle nearby, sending smoke through the ruins of the Roberts Field Hotel and the roofless hangars and aircraft graveyard edging the runway of the bombed-out airport. Aside from a scattering of lights within the reclaimed terminal and tower, the airport is dark. Passengers clamor to get out when the plane rolls to a stop before the terminal: doe-eyed missionary volunteers from Minnesota; furtive businessmen from Libya, Germany, and France; ebullient young athletes on the Liberian...

      (pp. 151-168)

      There is a long historical backdrop to the unrest that has gripped Liberia in recent decades. Beginning as early as the 1500s, the coastal region, which was crucial to trade with Europeans, had been contested, first by competing indigenous tribes and later by freed-slave immigrants, including those who arrived from Prospect Hill in the 1840s. Wars, revolts, and blockades have repeatedly swept the coastline, often spilling over into the interior. Although there have been periods of calm and prosperity, sometimes for decades at a time, the area’s settlement history—even before colonization—has been hard fought.

      The region that was...

      (pp. 169-178)

      An american in the bar of Monrovia’s Mamba Point Hotel is giving Monica Morris a hard time. The selection of take-out pizzas doesn’t suit him, his order takes too long, the beer is not cold. He glares at Monica, who listens politely as she leans against the bar, but appears unperturbed. Then he adds, “You’ve got something on your lip.”

      “It’s my lipstick,” she says, in a dulcet voice.

      I glance over and see that her lipstick is flecked with silver sparkles. She is not looking at him. She gazes out the window at the long boats sliding past, on...

      (pp. 179-194)

      Out of a population of just over 3 million, only about 5 percent trace their ancestry to the United States, yet from all appearances in Monrovia, this is a nation of America-philes. On the streets I see “USA” T-shirts, American flag decals on cars, even a “Proud to Be an American” bumper sticker on the back of a pickup truck. On the radio I hear an ad for Showbiz Ladies Boutique announcing a new shipment of “American fashions.” Despite its uneven record in supporting Liberia during its moments of crisis, America represents the promise of a better life. Everyone knows...

      (pp. 195-208)

      The cab barrels toward a bomb crater so large that there is only room for one car to pass. A Mercedes approaches from the opposite direction, lights flashing, which prompts our driver to step on the gas. Suddenly we pass into a different zone—from manageable disorder to chaos, just like that.

      We careen toward a young, one-legged man who hobbles on crutches near the curb, blocking our only escape route should we lose the contest with the Mercedes. The passengers in the backseat begin shouting at the driver as we head toward the crippled man, who watches us bear...

      (pp. 209-216)

      Reverend charleston bailey lives in a small, cinder-block house behind St. Teresa’s convent, where Peter Toe has arranged for me to take a room. The house is almost devoid of furniture, but is otherwise comparatively comfortable. It stands in an area that feels more like a neighborhood than a war zone, though no place in Monrovia, aside from walled compounds, feels in any way protected.

      Edward has known Reverend Bailey, who is originally from Sinoe County, for years, and had hoped that he might be able to supply me with contacts in Greenville. Now that I won’t be going to...

      (pp. 217-232)

      Every night the young men who work at St. Teresa’s convent gather in the TV room to watch movies on the VCR. It is a real luxury for them, and they will watch anything that is available. When I return to the room I’ve taken at the convent, after a day spent trudging the streets in search of Rosses while trying to sort out real and perceived threats from the government, I see them gathered before the TV watching old American movies likeThe Sound of Music. Tonight, as I pass through the room, Abraham Johnny, who does the laundry,...

      (pp. 233-242)

      An incubus of smoke from burning garbage slowly drifts over the wall of St. Teresa’s, enveloping the garden where Benjamin Ross and I sit beneath a tree filled with pale pinkish orchids. I have asked several people what kind of tree this is but surprisingly, no one knows. It is something like a magnolia, very old, with roots that sprawl over the surface of the ground.

      This garden is the closest thing to a sanctuary I have found in Monrovia, aside from the carefully manicured, fortified compound of the American embassy. It provides a welcome respite from the din of...

      (pp. 243-260)

      Edward railey was a small boy in 1990 when his family’s Louisiana home was nearly destroyed by the war. The family repaired the house only to see the fighting return, and this time they were forced to scatter, which was a serious trauma for him at such a young age. He fled Louisiana on foot with a local Methodist official and two other walking for two days.

      “We walked by the beach from Sinoe to the Cesta River so the soldiers, the fighters—who were mostly sixteen– or seventeen-year-old kids—would not find us,” he says. “If they found us...

      (pp. 261-272)

      One of the guards stops me as I am leaving the convent to tell me he has a message for me from the American embassy. Someone had attempted to deliver the message to my room, but I did not answer the knock at the door, he says. The message is from Sarah Morrison at the U.S. Information Service, asking me to come to her office.

      It has been more than a week since I have been called to the embassy compound, but I have been half-expecting to hear from them each day, because the UN sanctions vote seems imminent. I...


      (pp. 275-280)

      It is a bright spring morning in McComb, Mississippi, when I arrive at James Belton’s house to find him sorting through stacks of papers at his kitchen table, piecing together the riddle of his family’s tumultuous past.

      James represents an unexpected windfall—a crucial source who appeared after I thought my research was finished. He is an inquisitive man with a quietly keen mind. A retired schoolteacher who now works as a federal housing inspector in McComb, he has spent the past several years researching his family history, which stretches back to South Carolina and encompasses the saga of Prospect...

      (pp. 281-302)

      Enoch ross is a high school basketball player in Walla Walla, Washington. He was a founder of an African-American church in Connecticut. He participated in lowa’s constitutional convention in 1844. An Internet search for “Enoch Ross” produces nearly one hundred hits, but none of the incarnations fits the parameters of the story of Prospect Hill. It is still unclear what became of the remaining key player in the story—Isaac Ross’s mysteriously treated manservant.

      Court documents show that Enoch and his family were freed two decades before the Civil War and allowed to emigrate to a free state in the...

    (pp. 303-306)

    In june 2003 the fighting between LURD rebels and Charles Taylor’s forces swept into Monrovia, killing hundreds of civilians and endangering an estimated 97,000 refugees huddled around the city, including 18,000 living in one high school without electricity or running water.

    French military helicopters and a French warship had earlier evacuated about 500 trapped foreign nationals, including many Americans and Red Cross and UN staff. Soon England, France, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and several African heads of state called on President Bush to deploy American troops as part of a proposed peacekeeping force in Liberia. Cameroon’s UN ambassador, Martin Chungong...

    (pp. 307-312)
    (pp. 313-316)
    (pp. 317-320)
  10. INDEX
    (pp. 321-329)
  11. [Map]
    (pp. 330-331)