Given the rise of racial hostility towards free African Americans and the exhaustion of the anti slavery movement in the early nineteenth century, was the back to Africa movement the best option for free blacks?
The answer to this question depends greatly on what criteria one is using to evaluate the options that free blacks had. Overall, though, I would say that going back to Africa was not the best hope for that population.
It is certainly possible to argue that going back to Africa was the best thing that free blacks could hope for around the time that the American Colonization Society arose in 1817. At this time, African Americans were still largely enslaved. Free African Americans would not be formally granted equal rights under the Constitution until the Fourteenth Amendment was written and ratified over 50 years later. In other words, free blacks were at the mercy of a white population that did not want them and was not willing to grant them anything like equality. In that situation, one could say that a “return” to Africa would be the best thing for blacks because they could govern themselves in a land where they would not be second class citizens (at best).
However, I would argue that going “back” to Africa was not really the best thing for free blacks. There are a number of reasons for this. First, it is somewhat odd to say that these blacks would be going “back” to Africa. Very few of them, if any, had actually come from Africa themselves. For the most part, the free blacks had no real connections to Africa and very little knowledge of how to live there. They were, for better or worse, Americans. Second, it was not at all clear that they would be able to thrive in Africa. Those free blacks who did settle in what became Liberia did not have an easy time at all. They had to contend with diseases with which they were not familiar, a climate unlike what they had grown up in, shortages of food and medicine and many other problems. For most, life in America would have been easier in a material sense. Finally, I would argue that going “back” to Africa was not the best thing for free blacks in a moral sense. Those African Americans who settled Liberia acted in many ways like a colonizing power. They were culturally different from the Africans among whom they settled and they typically felt that they were superior to those natives. This led to a situation in which the Americo-Liberians discriminated against and oppressed native Africans. In this way, going “back” to Africa caused free blacks to become the oppressors. This may feel better than being oppressed (as they were in America) but it is hard to argue that it is better.
Thus, I would argue that colonization was not the best option for free blacks. It was probably preferable to slavery, but it was not (in my view) preferable to life as a free black in the United States.