Long before slavery was abolished in the United States, Lott Cary bought his freedom and became the first American missionary to Africa.
He helped found Liberia and established the first missionary Baptist church on the African continent.
Cary was born about 1780 in Charles City County. An only child, he lived on a plantation with his parents and his grandmother, who was devoutly religious.
When Cary was 24, his master sent him to Richmond to work as hired slave labor in the Shockoe tobacco warehouse.
His hard work earned a promotion to a supervisory position. In that capacity he earned more than the regular wage that slaves were required to give over to their owners. Cary began to save as much as he could. His goal: to buy freedom for himself, his wife and his two children.
Cary was baptized at the racially-mixed First Baptist Church in 1807 after hearing a sermon based on the third chapter of John.
He yearned to read the passage himself, so he learned the alphabet by studying the Bible. With help from his co-workers and a white business owner who attended his church, Cary learned to read and eventually to write.
In 1813 Cary bought freedom for himself and his two children. The price: $850. His wife had died some time earlier. He would later remarry.
About 1815 Cary became a minister. He learned about efforts to expand Christian missions in West Africa. He helped create the Richmond African Missionary Society that year.
Four years later, he was accepted for foreign service by the predominantly white Baptist General Convention.
On Jan. 23, 1821, Cary and 27 other colonists sailed for Africa on a ship chartered by the U.S. government.
Before he left, he said:
”I am an African, and in this country, however meritorious my conduct and respectable my character, I cannot receive the credit due to either. I wish to go to a country where I shall be estimated by my merits, not by my complexion; and I feel bound to labor for my suffering race.”
Cary and his group made the passage to West Africa and colonized Liberia (which means ”Place of Freedom”). Cary established Providence Baptist Church and was its pastor.
He set up schools and served as Liberia’s health officer.
In September 1826, he was elected vice agent of the colony. In August 1828 Cary became acting governor of Liberia when the previous governor died after designating Cary his successor.
Cary was killed in an accidental explosion of gunpowder as he prepared to defend the colony against an attack by African natives in November 1828.
His mission and memory have been kept alive through the work of the Lott Cary Baptist Foreign Mission Convention based in Washington.
The church he founded in Monrovia celebrated its 175th anniversary last year. Cary’s great-great-great grandson, Ned Cary, traveled to Liberia in January 1996 to inaugurate the yearlong celebration.
Ned Cary, a native of James City County, has founded the Lott Cary Historical Foundation and hopes to build a memorial near Cary’s birthplace.
A highway marker, erected in 1993 at state Route 155 and Lott Cary Road in Charles City, honors the missionary.