February 10, 2012 | Myrna Anderson

In February, the Calvin community will learn about the freed slave who founded the Baptist Church in Liberia, the Tuskegee Airmen and soul food.

Lott Carey was born in 1780 in Charles County, Virginia. He was born a slave. By 1813, using money he had earned working in a tobacco warehouse, he bought his freedom. Carey attended a bi-racial church and eventually became a Baptist minister—an avid evangelist. He was inspired by the expedition of Samuel J. Mills and Ebenezer Burgess who surveyed areas of Sierra Leone with a goal of establishing an African-American colony there. In 1821, backed by the American Colonization Society, he sailed to Liberia with his family and a group of freed slaves. There he established the first Baptist church in that country and eventually served as the colony’s pastor, governor, chief missionary and lay-physician.

“He was a gospel person—all about the saving of souls,” said history professor Eric Washington, who will explore Carey’s life in a lecture titled: "I am an African: Lott Carey and the first American Mission to Africa.” The lecture, held at 3:30 p.m. on Thursday, February 16, in the Meeter Center Lecture Hall, is part of Calvin’s February-long celebration of Black History Month.

“I think Lott Carey is a remarkable man,” Washington said. “He had the opportunity to remain in Richmond as a free person, and he chose to go to the ‘Promised Land’ … . To pick up and become a missionary in any day is remarkable.”

Motive to move

Carey is an interesting study, Washington added, because of the tensions that surrounded the repatriation of African Americans in his day. Groups like the American Colonization Society were backed by blacks and whites alike, but not for the same reasons:

White former slave owners often favored re-settling freed blacks in Africa to because they believed the two races couldn’t live together harmoniously. Former slaves wanted to return to Africa, Washington said, because, even after achieving freedom, they had no hope of carving out successful futures in America. “It was a complex phenomenon,” he summed up.

Washington figures that by the late 19th century approximately 12,000 African Americans moved to Liberia through the American Colonization Society. He’s excited about introducing his audience to Lott Carey: “As instrumental as he was in settling Liberia and its institutions, he’s very little known,” Washington said.

Also on the calendar for the Black History Month celebration is a group-showing of Red Tails, the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, an all-black squadron of World War II fighter pilots and their battle against segregation in the armed forces. The Calvin community is invited to view the film, on Thursday, Feb. 23, at Celebration Cinema. (To attend the showing, contact multicultural affairs administrative assistant Ebonie Atkins at era4@calvin.edu.)

The month of events will conclude with the Celebration of Soul, held at 4 p.m. on Wednesday, February 29 in the Fish House. "The Celebration of Soul has kind of become our finale to the month," Atkins said of the event, an African American cultural celebration, featuring a sampler of sould foods. She reflected on why it's important to devote a month to studying Black History. "I think it's a time to acknowledge the contributions of African Americans as they've lived in this country," she said, "and the more you learn, the more there is to know."

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