Chief Alfred Sam (18?-1930s), a Gold Coast merchant and a pioneer pan-Africanist, was the first black African in the 20th century to attempt to settle Afro-Americans in Africa.
He was born at Appasu, in what was then the West Akyem district, but nothing is known of his family or the date of his birth. He was educated at the Basel Mission School at Kyebi, the capital of Akyem Abuakwa, and took to trading. His title ‘Chief’ was a courtesy title often taken by Gold Coasters who travelled to Britain or the U. S.
Chief Sam, who for sometime had been engaged in the export of rubber and other goods to America, as well as in the import business, in February 1913 formed the Akyem Trading Company Ltd., incorporated under the laws of South Dakota, in the United States. The object of the company was to open up trade between West Africa on the one hand, and Europe and the United States on the other, to develop Africa industrially for the benefit of Africa and the world, and to encourage the emigration of the best Afro-American farmers and mechanics from the United States to different parts of West Africa, “so that the knowledge of practical and modern agriculture may be quickened by contact.” The company’s shipping line was known as the Ethiopian Steamship Line, a precursor of Marcus Garvey’s Black Star Line, which Kwame Nkrumah was later to adopt as the name for Ghana’s national shipping line after independence.
Chief Alfred Sam, who was in regular correspondence with Herbert Macaulay, the “father of Nigerian nationalism,” claimed, among other things, in one of his letters to Macaulay, that he owned land in the Gold Coast which the would-be settlers could use. This commercial venture was to demonstrate the capacity of Africans to take an active part in their own economic, moral, and spiritual development. Sam had an excellent response from Afro-Americans, who, during this period, felt themselves more insecure than ever in American society. Chief Sam’s venture was thus regarded as a favorable opportunity for the salvation of the black American, providing an opportunity for him to immigrate to a distant supposed homeland, and to reject America as his country. By early 1914, a party of 500 black Americans was ready to sail to the Gold Coast with Sam. The organ of the movement, the African Pioneer, explained and illustrated in its columns the soundness of the Back-to-Africa scheme.
After several difficulties had been overcome, Sam’s liner, the S. S. Liberia, left for Saltpond in the Gold Coast on July 3, 1914, with about 60 ‘delegates,’ who included carefully selected men and women, some of them trained cooks, mechanics, and lumbermen. The ship’s cargo consisted mainly of lumber, cement, lime, flour, agricultural implements, and household goods valued at about $15,000. Sam’s party visited the port of Bathurst (now Banjul), in Gambia, where on December 22, 1914, they held a meeting to explain the objects of the Back-to-Africa movement, urging the necessity for the mental emancipation of the African. In Freetown, Sierra Leone, the emigrants were invited to various social gatherings, the most important of which was the one arranged on December 23 by members of the local Anti-Slavery and Aborigines’ Protection Society.
By late January 1915, the Liberia had arrived at Saltpond, where the returning Afro-Americans were given a friendly reception by the local Africans. By May 1915, however, the much-discussed Back-to-Africa movement had begun to fail because of official restrictions, shortage of food, and poor planning on Sam’s part. The attempt to settle at Akyem, the supposed destination in the hinterland, failed. Similarly, a petition to the Gold Coast Aborigines’ Rights Protection Society (ARPS) to entertain the movement as concerning “national affairs for development of this country of our race in general,” and to assign tracts of land to them and to future Afro-American immigrants to the Gold Coast, seems to have received no favorable response. By September 1915, amid great disappointment, the Back-to-Africa movement collapsed and with it the hope at that time for a 20th-century return of Afro-Americans to Africa. When his venture failed, the Afro-Americans returned to the United States. Sam also returned to the U. S., where he died in the 1930s.
Sam in his lifetime was regarded as a black Moses sent by God to deliver the black American from his New World bondage and send him to an African Canaan. Most of the Afro-Americans he had attempted to settle in the Gold Coast came from Oklahoma. His Back-to-Africa movement constituted an early demonstration of pan-Africanism in practice. In the 1920s, Marcus Garvey of Jamaica, a more flamboyant character, was to follow in Sam’s footsteps by establishing his Universal Negro Improvement and Conservation Association and African Communities League, generally called the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNLA), which flourished in the United States from 1919-26.
S. K. B. Asante
W. Bittle and G. Geis, The Longest Way Home: Chief Alfred Sam’s Back to Africa Movement, Detroit, 1964; J. A. Langley, Pan-Africanism and Nationalism in West Africa, 1900-1945, London, 1973. See also the Herbert Macaulay Papers, Ibadan University Library, Ibadan, Nigerra; Aborigines’ Rights Protection Society Papers, Ghana Regional Archives, Cape Coast
This article was reprinted from The Encyclopedia Africana Dictionary of African Biography (In 20 Volumes). Volume One: Ethiopia-Ghana, Ed. L. H. Ofosu-Appiah. New York: Reference Publications Inc., 1977. All rights reserved.