In 1800, an enslaved couple named Gabriel and Nancy Prosser planned a huge slave rebellion in Virginia. Even though they failed, their rebellion scared slaveowners, who were starting to favor colonization—or freeing Black people and sending them to Africa. A group called the American Colonization Society even formed to promote the idea. But most Black people weren’t interested; they wanted to stay in the U.S., the country they built with their own labor.
The Prossers’ rebellion shows that antiracists have always fought racist power through whatever means they can find. Colonization, which is also sometimes called the Back-to-Africa Movement, applies the logic of white racism to Africa—its advocates wanted Black people to colonize Africa just like white people colonized the U.S. But it’s also based on the segregationist idea that Black people belong to Africa just because their ancestors lived there. (By that logic, white people wouldn’t belong in North America!)
Even though Thomas Jefferson still owned slaves, he liked the idea of colonization. When he became president, he kept contradicting himself. For instance, he passed a law to stop the slave trade, but instead, he started forcing the people he enslaved to have children—and told other slaveholders to do the same. After his presidency, Jefferson publicly apologized for slavery but then went home to his plantation.
Jefferson’s contradictions were really about the conflict between his own self-interest—he profited from enslaving and exploiting people—and his moral principles. He tried to have it both ways, and it didn’t work. The only way for him to follow his morals would have been for him to free his slaves and ban slavery, but he wasn’t willing to do it. This is even more of a reason to believe that assimilationist ideas like uplift suasion will never work: racist elites do not abandon racist policies that benefit them even when they know they are immoral.
Jefferson never stopped pushing for colonization. When sending Black people to Africa started looking unlikely, he proposed the new Louisiana Territory instead. This didn’t work either, because nobody could agree whether to legalize slavery in the new midwestern states. This debate ended in the Missouri Compromise: Congress added a slave state (Missouri) and a free state (Maine) at the same time.
Jefferson’s colonization plans and the Missouri Compromise show that the middle ground between slavery and freedom is still slavery—just as the middle ground between racism and antiracism is still racism. It’s impossible to build a more equal society while also satisfying racist elites, whose power and privilege depends on inequality. In modern terms, Jefferson was willing to recognize and check his privilege, but he was never willing to give it up, so he never became a true antiracist.
Jefferson hoped that Black Americans would civilize Africa by colonizing it, while the U.S. could become “a playground for rich White Christians.” On his deathbed, he refused to free the people he enslaved—he needed to sell them to pay off his debt. They ended up being the last people he ever saw. All in all, Jefferson was sometimes a segregationist and sometimes an assimilationist—but never an antiracist.
While Jefferson’s debts show how capitalism forces people to exploit others to survive, his lifelong failure to free the people he enslaved also proves that he ultimately chose his personal profit over his moral values. In fact, this is what he wanted for the U.S. too: he hoped the white elite could keep the wealth that enslaved Black people built for them, while kicking Black people out of the country and forcing them to start over.