Born a slave in Newton County, Georgia on March 16, 1843, Henry Adams was originally named Henry Houston but his name was changed at the age of seven when he and his family became the property of the teen-aged Nancy Emily Adams. His enslaved family was relocated to Louisiana in 1850 and lived there until 1861. They were hired out to a planter named Ferguson.
He was 18 years old when the Civil War began.
Unlike most enslaved people, Adams was able to acquire property. He started a successful peddling business.
In 1866 at the age of 23 he enlisted in the U.S. Army. Adams was discharged in September 1869 after rising to the rank of quartermaster sergeant. Adams learned to read and write in the Army, providing him a measure of self-confidence that encouraged his leadership of other ex-slaves once he returned to civilian life.
During this period Adams also traveled to New Orleans to meet with black delegates who advocated emigration from the United States to Liberia. These leaders, who called themselves the Colonization Council, were convinced that African Americans would never have full citizenship rights. Persuaded by their ideas, Adams joined the organization.
In 1877, during one of the Council’s meetings, Adams made his first public speech advocating the emigration of African Americans from the South. The Colonization Council then drew up a petition and circulated it at their subsequent meetings. According to Adams, over 98,000 men, women, and children signed the petitions. In September 1877, Adams sent the petition to President Hayes, but was denied federal funds to help the migration. Support for the movement began to wane as members of the Colonization Council lost interest, fell into deeper poverty, and returned to their farming jobs.
Testimony of Henry Adams regarding the Negro Exodus
In 1870, I believe it was, or about that year, after I had left the Army—I went into the Army in 1866 and came out the last of 1869—and went right back home again where I went from, Shreveport; I enlisted there, and went back there. I enlisted in the Regular Army, and then I went back after I came out of the Army. After we had come out a parcel of we men that was in the Army and other men thought that the way our people had been treated during the time we was in service—we heard so much talk of how they had been treated and opposed so much and there was no help for it—that caused me to go into the Army at first, the way our people was opposed. There was so much going on that I went off and left it; when I came back it was still going on, part of it, not quite so bad as at first. So a parcel of us got together and said that we would organize ourselves into a committee and look into affairs and see the true condition of our race, to see whether it was possible we could stay under a people who had held us under bondage or not. Then we did so and organized a committee.
. . . We just wanted to see whether there was any State in the South where we could get a living and enjoy our rights. . .
The people was still being whipped, some of them, by the old owners, the men that had owned them as slaves, and some of them was being cheated out of their crops just the same as they was there.
. . . Sometime in 1874, after the white league sprung up, they organized and said this is a white man's government, and the colored men should not hold any offices; they were no good but to work in the fields. . .
We first organized and adopted a plan to appeal to the President of the United States and to Congress to help us out of our distress, or protect us in our rights and privileges. And if that failed our idea was then to, ask them to set apart a territory in the United States for us, somewhere, where we could go and live with our families. If that failed, our other object was to ask for an appropriation of money to ship us all to Liberia, in Africa; somewhere where we could live in peace and quiet. When that failed then our idea was to appeal to other governments outside of the United States to help us to get away from the United States and go there and live under their flag.
After the appeal in 1874, we appealed when the time got so hot down there they stopped our churches from having meetings after nine o'clock at night. They stopped them from sitting up and singing over the dead, and so forth, right in the little town where we lived, in Shreveport. I know that to be a fact; and after they did all this, and we saw it was getting so warm—killing our people all over the whole country—there was several of them killed right down in our parish—we appealed . . .
We had much rather staid there [South] if we could have had our rights . . .
In 1877 we lost all hopes . . . we found ourselves in such condition that we looked around and we seed that there was no way on earth, it seemed, that we could better our condition there, and we discussed that thoroughly in our organization along in May.
We said that the whole South—every State in the South—had got into the hands of the very men that held us slaves—from one thing to another and we thought that the men that held us slaves was holding the reins of government over our heads in every respect almost, even the constable up to the governor.
We felt we had almost as well be slaves under these men.
In regard to the whole matter that was discussed, it came up in every council. Then we said there was no hope for us and we had better go . . . Then, in 1877 we appealed to President Hayes and to Congress, to both Houses. . . . . Mighty few ministers would allow us to have their churches [for meetings]; some few would in some of the parishes . . .
The largest majority of the people, of the white people, that held us as slaves treats our people so bad in many respects that it is impossible for them to stand it. Now, in a great many parts of that country there our people most as well be slaves as to be free. . . There ain't nothing too mean for them to do to prevent it; nothing I can make mention of is too mean for them to do . . .