Columbus, Ga. (WRBL) — Paul Yarwaye says escaping to Columbus as a Liberian civil war refugee was a big change 14 years ago, but he says he still found familiar sights of home.
“You will find Caldwell, there is a [town called] Caldwell in Africa, in Liberia there, and you will find buildings. The structure of the building is almost the same as the old buildings they have here,” Yarwaye explains to News 3’s Mikhaela Singleton.
Yarwaye is on the advisory board for a project dedicated to exploring the Chattahoochee Valley’s long, and often forgotten, history and connections with Liberia.
Columbus State University researchers are working with Azilia Films on the “Liberia Migration Project.” In the 1860s, just after the Civil War ended, former slaves faced a difficult decision — whether to stay or leave the United States.
“Nationally, we were seeing folks getting the right to vote, citizenship, we outlawed slavery, so there was a time of great opportunity and excitement,” explains CSU Geography Professor Amanda Rees.
“On the other hand, you’ve got this — what’s now being called the first American terrorist group — the Ku Klux Klan coming in and wreaking havoc specifically in this community and in other communities as well,” Rees continues. “So you’ve got this excitement over a new moment in American society, but you’ve also got this radical, violent sort of crack down and desire to take away the very basic elements of citizenship that people had just won.”
Rees says her combined research with Azilia Films shows more than 500 men, women and children of African descent fled from Columbus and Eufaula to head to Liberia. They also took their unique Chattahoochee Valley culture with them.
“What I found fascinating, I’ve been to Liberia and been to some of these communities. A lot of the Chattahoochee Valley families are still there. They persist in these small towns named ‘Fortsville’ or named after people here in our area,” says Matt McDaniel, the Azilia Films creative director.
McDaniel, Rees, and CSU students are now looking for anyone local with ties to those who left.
“We’re really eager to find, to listen, and welcome people to listen to their stories so we can better understand the impact of that large movement. Five hundred folks is a lot of people to lose from a relatively small area,” Rees says. “It makes up more than five percent of the people across the nation who were part of this remigration project back in the 1860s.”
They also hope to reconnect families who’s ties have been lost and forgotten over time.
“To me, I think it would be really amazing if you’ve got families that have been separated by an ocean and a century and a half, but who are interested in reconnecting would like to do so. I get goosebumps thinking about it. I hope we’re able to do that, because what a cool way to end our film,” McDaniel says.
“A lot of people want to know where they came from. What is their background? You know, when I talk to some white people, they will tell me, ‘I’m from England, I’m from Ireland, I’m from Germany.’ The black people here, when you talk to them, they will say, ‘Well, I’m from Alabama.’” Yarwaye says. “There is a sadness there. Slavery was terrible, but all we can do now is find good. Improve people, bring them together, and improve Liberia and here [Columbus].”
There will be two Liberia Migration Project: History Harvests for folks to meet the team and learn more about the migration.