“Co-Opting the Border: The Dream of African American Integration via Baja California” examines the emergence and fall of Little Liberia, an African American community in Baja California, Mexico. The Little Liberia community members saw possibilities for facilitating change in the social and economic system of the United States by existing outside its borders. The manuscript combines African American history, Black studies, and borderlands history themes and methods.
Established in 1917 by elite members of the Los Angeles Black community, and later joined by wealthy African Americans from Oklahoma, the community's initial goal was to change social and economic racial inequality in the United States by becoming an agricultural source for California while its members physically lived in Mexico. Its founders envisioned the border as a resource that could enable African Americans to gain access to U.S. markets and economic networks while dwelling in a nation that would not subject them to the injustices of the U.S. racial order.
As time went on, the community’s leaders also proposed an African American-Mexican co-owned bank, a sanatorium, a hotel, and local trade systems to supplement cross-border commerce. The community, however, eventually succumbed to pressures from international politics emanating from the Mexican Revolution and U.S.-Mexico relations, and from economic challenges and internal mismanagement of the community, which led to its eventual closure a decade after it began. A few members, however, lived out the rest of their lives in Baja California or kept contact with Mexican political leaders for decades after the experiment ended.
The Lower California Mexican Land and Development Company’s community, nicknamed Little Liberia, provided African Americans the opportunity to work together with Mexicans in Baja California to enact social change. Little Liberia community members built on other movements at the time, such as Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, that attempted to connect Blacks socially, economically, and politically throughout the world. Little Liberia’s creators interpreted the border as a malleable space that could allow physical and economic mobility, while circumventing the negative effects of the United States’ racial system. The ways these African Americans envisioned the border between the United States and Baja California, the social and political relationship between the two locations, and the community member’s roles as Americans in Mexico drastically differed from the White filibusters in Mexico in the last half of the nineteenth century. This shift in thinking may not just be one of racial difference, but also of changing ideas about the border between California and its Baja counterpart.