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Cuffe, Paul

blacks cuffe’s school sierra

Paul Cuffe was a humanitarian, civil rights advocate, Quaker, businessman, sailor, merchant, and colonizer. He was born on the Massachusetts island of Chuttyhunk in 1759, the son of Cuffe Slocum, a former slave of Asante heritage, and a Native American named Ruth Moses. Refusing to use the name of his father’s former owner, a “Mr. Slocum,” young Paul chose the first name of his father as his own surname. Cuffe was the English version of the Asante word kofi , meaning“born on Friday.” the family moved to Westport, Massachusetts, where young Cuffe grew up, and in 1773, at the age of fourteen, he went to sea as a whaler. He was bright and energetic, and the earnings from his maritime merchant activities enabled him to marry Alice Pequitis, a Native American. The couple would have seven children.

In 1797, Cuffe decided to purchase farmland near Westport. The price tag of the farmland was about $3,500.00, a rather large sum in those days. Taxes on this property would lead to his active concern about the citizenship status of Massachusetts’ free blacks. Cuffe’s material status and his interest in the education of his children led him to urge the people of Westport to build a school for the children of the town. He presented his case at a town meeting, but the predominately white group opposed Cuffe’s suggestion for several reasons. While some opposed the idea because they believed that their informal school was more efficient than the suggested one, others opposed it because of its potential expense. Still others disliked Cuffe’s proposal because it was initiated by a member of a race that they consciously or unconsciously viewed as inferior to their own. Finally, Westport’s whites opposed the proposal because they did not want an integrated school in the town.

After his suggestion was rejected, Cuffe used his own money to build a school on his newly acquired farmland. He asked Westport’s whites to attend his school, with a teacher paid by him, a request that was well received. This school, built in 1797, would continue to serve as a school for all of Westport’s children for many years before it was taken over by public officials of the town.

Despite his generosity and upright personal conduct, Cuffe—along with other blacks in Westport and other Massachusetts towns—was continually discriminated against. For example, although he was a man of significant material status and paid his required property taxes, Cuffe was not allowed to vote or hold public office. Indeed, because of their race, no blacks in Massachusetts were allowed these privileges. Against this backdrop, Cuffe and his brother John Slocum, together with other blacks, decided to send a petition to the General Court of Massachusetts, appealing to that body to spare them from paying property taxes and poll dues. The petition was dismissed. As a protest of the dismissal of the petition, Cuffe and his brother chose not to pay their taxes for the years 1778, 1779, and 1780. This action would lead to their arrest and imprisonment in the jail in Taunton, Massachusetts.

Even though they were later freed, Cuffe continued to fight for the civil rights of blacks. This was reinforced reciprocally by the rise of racism in America, on one hand, and his desire to promote commerce, Western civilization, and Christianity in Africa on the other. Like other African Americans, such as Lott Carey, Daniel Coker, Joseph Jenkins Roberts, and John Brown Russwurm, Cuffe supported colonization. The American Colonization Society, which was founded a year prior to Cuffe’s death, promoted Christianity, Western civilization, and commerce through the Liberian colony that the group established on the West African coast in 1822 as a refuge for free American blacks, including former slaves. Cuffe had previously established links, for similar reasons, with Sierra Leone, a colony that had been established by British humanitarians and businessmen in 1787 for their poor blacks and the blacks who sided with the British against the Americans during the American Revolutionary War.

Cuffe’s commercial venture in Sierra Leone, unlike his commercial links with Europe and the West Indies, was not solely determined by his material wants; it was also influenced by his desire to promote Western civilization in Africa. He and other Westernized blacks believed that this would help to redeem the continent from its backwardness. Just before his voyage to Sierra Leone on his own vessel, Traveler , on January 2, 1811, Cuffe maintained that among the goals of his trip was to explore the possibility of having some black Americans of high moral and religious standards settle among the indigenous Africans in Sierra Leone, where they could promote Western values. These values would, in turn, help to spiritually and socially liberate Africa.

Cuffe’s second trip to Sierra Leone, which had been delayed by the War of 1812, began in December 1815, when he and some thirty-eight other black Americans sailed from Boston on board the Traveler for West Africa. Also on the vessel were trade items such as tobacco, soap, candles, flour, and iron.

Although they were welcomed unenthusiastically by British colonial officials—obviously because of racism and what they perceived as Cuffe’s potential threat to their leadership—the thirty-eight expatriates were allowed to stay in the colony to promote the civilization Cuffe envisioned.

Cuffe’s interest in Sierra Leone was reinforced after he returned to America in April 1816. The insults he experienced from whites during his trip from Washington, D.C. to Baltimore played a decisive role in this. That he was refused service in a café in Baltimore because he was black only strengthened his beliefs and goals. He concluded that America was too racist to treat blacks as full Americans. He therefore became a strong advocate of the colonization of black Americans in West Africa just before his death on September 7, 1817.

Culp, Daniel Wallace(1845–?) - Educator, editor, minister, physician, Chronology, Edits Works by Black Writers [next]

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