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  • Writer's picture@ Cynthia Adina Kirkwood

What Went Wrong in Liberia

Updated: Feb 23, 2023

Joseph Jenkins Roberts, the first president of Liberia, was born free in Norfolk, Virginia.


“Oh, would some power the gift to see us,

To see ourselves as others see us.”

Robert Burns

The young man who worked in the house called me “Missy”. He never made eye contact with me. And I could not penetrate his shield of servant, which frustrated me.

For four weeks, I researched the potential establishment of an agricultural school for the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Liberia. I stayed in Monrovia; the proposed school was in Bomi Hills, north of the capital.

Liberia is Africa’s first and oldest republic. It retained its independence during the European scramble of Africa from 1881 to 1914. However, I was unprepared for its social strata.

In 1821, Liberia began as a settlement of The Society for the Colonization of Free People of Color of America, commonly known as the American Colonization Society, whose purpose was to repatriate black people outside of the United States.

Paul Cuffe, a successful businessman, sea captain, whaler and Boston abolitionist laid the groundwork for the American Colonization Society, which was founded in 1816, but disavowed it. Born free, Cuffe’s father was Ashanti and his mother Wampanoag.

Cuffe advocated settling freed American slaves in Africa. He gained support from the British government, some free Black leaders in the United States, and members of Congress to take emigrants to the British colony of Sierra Leone.

In the late 18th century, thousands of Black Loyalists, those of African descent who had joined the British military in the American Revolutionary War with the promise of emancipation, claimed the protection of the British crown. The official Book of Negroes lists thousands of freed slaves whom the British evacuated from the United States and resettled in colonies, north to Nova Scotia or south to the Caribbean.

In 1787, the British Crown founded a settlement in Sierra Leone. It intended to resettle some of the Black Poor of London, some of whom were African Americans and Afro-Caribbeans. In that year, 400 Blacks and 60 whites reached Sierra Leone. Owing to tropical disease and warfare with the indigenous Temne, who resisted encroachment, only 64 settlers survived the move.

At the urging of British abolitionists, Cuffe sailed to Sierra Leone in 1810 to investigate the situation. He concluded that efforts should be made to increase production of exportable commodities and develop shipping capabilities rather than to continue to export slaves. Then, he sailed to England, where his ideas were well received by the abolitionist African Institution, of which William Wilberforce was a leader. The businessman made two more journeys to Sierra Leone to try to implement his recommendations.

The African Institution had succeeded the failed Sierra Leone Company, which focused on evangelism among the indigenous people. It aimed, first, to improve the standard of living in Freetown.

Several factors led to the establishment of the American Colonization Society in 1816. Since the American Revolutionary War, the number of freed slaves and their descendants was growing steadily from 60,000 in 1790 to 300,000 by 1830.

People are astute at creating stories and scenarios, which suit their purposes. Take, for example, the divine right of kings, which gave political legitimacy to an absolute monarchy. Ancient Roman emperors were born into their position of power.

In modern American times, slaveholders were scared. They feared that freed slaves would incite rebellion and encourage escape of their property, which was their wealth. Many believed that African Americans’ integration into mainstream American culture was out of the question. They felt that blacks needed to relocate elsewhere, out of the eye of white prejudice and their conscience. It seemed that many were conflicted in their opinions of slaves.

The father of the first president of Liberia was said to be a planter of Welsh origin. His son, Joseph Jenkins Roberts, was the second-oldest of seven children. His mother was the planter’s mistress, whom the father freed long before Roberts’ birth in Norfolk, Virginia. At nearly 20, Roberts emigrated with his mother, five of his six siblings, his wife and baby to Liberia in 1829. In Virginia, they were prohibited from living as full citizens with access to formal education, voting, bearing arms, gathering without supervision, and other constraints.

Roberts’s father must have been conflicted. The disappearance of his children from the American continent would not make things right for him . . . or them.

The presidents of the American Colonization Society tended to be Southerners. The first president was a Virginian, Bushrod Washington, the nephew of President George Washington and an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. The statesman Henry Clay, a planter and slaveholder, was president from 1836 to 1849. John H. Latrobe, of Maryland, served as president from 1853 until his death in 1891. Prominent supporters of the group included slaveholding Presidents Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe and James Madison, who was president in the early 1830s.

There were other places proposed for emigration of free black people: to land acquired through the Louisiana Purchase, creating a black reservation, and to Linconia, which is Chiriqui, Panama, today, and was President Abraham Lincoln’s plan at one time.

British Honduras, today Belize, also was a contender.

In July 1863, months after U.S. President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves, John Willis Menard boarded a small ship for Belize City, then the capital of British Honduras. Later to become the first African American elected to the House of Representatives, Menard represented Lincoln in his journey to determine whether the British colony was suitable for freed Americans, according to Smithsonian Magazine (March 6, 2018).

“American companies with business interests in the region made (British Honduras) one possible option for colonization,” according to Smithsonian Magazine. “While there, Menard noted the potential of the landscape for a colony of newly freed African Americans, but also worried over the absence of housing and proper facilities. Although Menard announced his support for a colony in British Honduras and wrote a favorable report to Lincoln upon returning in the fall of 1863, he worried about lack of support for such a project. As historians Phillip Magness and Sebastian Page write in Colonization After Emancipation: Lincoln and the Movement for Black Resettlement, ‘Menard, long among the most vocal supporters of Liberian migration, conceded that he was torn between resettlement abroad and working to improve the lot of blacks at home.’ ”

The American Colonization Society faced much opposition from African Americans, many of whose families had been in the United States for generations. Frederick Douglass, national leader of the abolitionist movement and former slave, commented on colonization:

“Shame upon the guilty wretches that dare propose, and all that countenance such a proposition. We live here, have lived here, have a right to live here and mean to live here.”

Representatives of the American Colonization Society negotiated for land that the Portuguese had named Costa da Pimenta, or Pepper Coast, hundreds of years before. In return, the locals received three barrels of rum, five casks of gunpowder, five umbrellas, 10 pairs of shoes, 10 iron posts, 500 bars of tobacco and other items. Guns and liquor. Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison opposed the society and the marketing of guns and liquor in Liberia.

The American Colonization Society and the emigrants believed their vision to be the right one. The American encroachers believed that the indigenous Liberians could be ignored in decision-making, and all would be well. Some African Americans, such as the Roberts’ family, wanted to convert the Kru, Grebo and other ethnic groups to Christianity.

On the first ship of emigrants, all three whites and 22 of the African Americans died of yellow fever. They also encountered resistance from the indigenous Liberians to colonization. This was not a good beginning.

In 1833, Roberts became high sheriff of the colony. He organized militias to travel to the interior to collect taxes from the indigenous peoples - taxation without representation - and put down their raids against areas under colonial rule. In 1839, the American Colonization Society appointed him vice governor. Two years later, Roberts was appointed the first black American governor of Liberia.

In 1846, Roberts asked the legislature to declare independence of Liberia but maintain cooperation with the American Colonization Society. The legislature called for a referendum, and voters chose independence. In 1847, Liberia was declared independent, and Roberts won the first presidential election. The indigenous Liberians could not vote in the election. The Americans brought their style of government with them, but they also brought prejudice.

The Americans formed a minority ruling elite, calling themselves Americo-Liberians. They believed themselves to be culturally and educationally superior to the indigenous Liberians, who could not speak unless spoken to first. The indigenous Liberians could not marry Americo-Liberian women. Even if educated, they were excluded from government, except for a token few. They did not enjoy birth-right citizenship until 1904.

Between 1822 and the American Civil War (1861-1865), more than 15,000 freed and free-born black people in the United States and 3,198 Afro-Caribbeans were relocated to the Liberian settlement.

Benjamin G. Dennis and Anita K. Dennis in In Slaves to Racism: An Unbroken Chain From America to Liberia wrote:

“Liberia was a conflicted nation because it was ruled by a conflicted people. The Americo-Liberians were a classic marginal people – socially and culturally. As a displaced people with no pride, they never found the self-worth they were looking for in Africa. ‘With God above, our rights to prove’ (from the Liberian National Anthem), they re-invented themselves in a myth of glory.”

Yes, Americo-Liberians were conflicted. But it seemed that their way of life was solidified, that it was untouchable. I met with the Minister of Education and other members of the government and talked about the rural school project. I explored Liberia with a fellow African American, a doctor who was volunteering at a public hospital, who had a car. I talked with the U.S. Ambassador William Beverly Carter Jr., who later became the first African American Ambassador-at-Large, at an Embassy reception about Liberia’s active role in international affairs. Liberia was a vocal critic of South Africa’s apartheid regime, and it helped fund the Organization of African Unity, which was founded in 1963.

But I do not remember speaking with anyone in Monrovia about the uneasy relationship between Americo-Liberians and the people of the other ethnic groups. The master-servant relationship was the elephant in the room.

Benjamin Dennis, the author of In Slaves to Racism, spent his winters at the Liberian consulate in Berlin, where his father served as a diplomat in the 1930s and 1940s. He spent his summers in Monrovia and in his father’s Mende village and his mother’s Gbande village. He describes himself:

“Because of my ties to one set of the Dennis’ in Monrovia, I am an Americo-Liberian. As a Mende and Gbande, I am a native/African-Liberian. In America, I was equally socially and culturally marginal – accepted and rejected by both Negroes/blacks and whites. As ‘everyman,’ I belong nowhere and yet, everywhere. I’m at home in both African traditional culture and modern Western culture.

“This is the viewpoint of a participant as well as a scholar. I am a black sociologist who has lived racism – an anthropologist who is a hereditary Mende chief.”

Dennis would have been the right person to help me interpret the attitudes of Americo-Liberians. However, he published his book in 2008, and I visited Liberia in 1979.

“Liberia is a classic example of the effect of racism and its perpetuation. The free Negroes and freed slaves who went there thought they were free. Instead, as Americo-Liberians, they remained captive to the effect of slavery and racism. In their longing for success and status, they “rose” by exploiting it on the basis of cultural inferiority. In an all-black nation, culture superseded race. The Americo-Liberians saw themselves as a superior cultural group. They saw natives as a collective inferior group.

“Under the influence of Americo-Liberian oppression and white missionary and business activity, natives were gradually made socially and culturally insecure. To fit into Americo-Liberian society, they had to follow Americo-Liberian ways. Even so, they were exceptions to the rule, that didn’t change the rule. Uncivilized or illiterate natives remained inferior. Like Negroes in America, Westernized natives/African-Liberians learned the wrong lessons from their masters. They essentially replicated the destructive cultural mentalities of the Americo-Liberians.”

"Less than one year after I returned home to Washington, D.C., there was a military coup in Liberia. I was not surprised. It was just a matter of time.

“Those two phone calls in the spring of 1980 wiped out my plans to return home. In the first call, I learned that President Tolbert, of the Americo-Liberian ruling elite, had been assassinated in the Executive Mansion by a group of security guards who were African-Liberians – Liberia’s disenfranchised majority. I was devastated.

“To learn more, I kept trying to tune in the BBC on my shortwave radio. Ten days later, in another call, I heard that African-Liberian soldiers had tied thirteen Americo-Liberian government officials to poles on the beach and machine-gunned them. One was a cousin, Cecil Dennis, the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Another was a former brother-in-law, Richard Henries, the Speaker of the House of Representatives. My uncle, C.C. Dennis, a prominent publisher in Monrovia, had been chained to the back of a pickup truck and dragged to his death.

“Two weeks later, a parcel of Liberian newspapers arrived. In gruesome photos taken at the beach, bullet-riddled bodies were slumped over the ropes that tied them to the poles. One of the articles said that Senator Frank Tolbert, the president’s older brother, spit at the soldiers just before they shot him.”

I had met many of those executed. It was tragic, and it was avoidable.

This gory rebellion was exactly what the slaveholders in the American Colonization Society wanted to avert happening on their plantations.

“When Westernized African-Liberians overthrew the Americo-Liberians in the Coup of 1980, they thought they were free. Instead, they remained captive to Americo-Liberian and white influence. Again, and even in an all-black nation, culture superseded race. In a modern tribalism based on Western values, Westernized African-Liberians "rose" by discriminating against and oppressing traditional African-Liberians.

“Liberia’s Coup of 1980 overturned one hundred thirty-three years of Americo-Liberian rule established solely for their benefit. And Liberia has never been the same. Samuel Doe, the Krahn master sergeant, who led the group that shot (President) Tolbert, took control and later became president in 1986.”

Liberia spiraled down into anarchy and two civil wars. It was not until 2005 that there was a fair democratic election. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a U.S.-educated economist and former Minister of Finance, became president. The daughter of a Gola father and a Kru/German mother, most agree that she was culturally Americo-Liberian, according to Wikipedia. Sirleaf was the first elected woman head of state in Africa.

In 2006, the government established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to address the causes and crimes of the civil wars.

In 2018, George Weah, a Kru and celebrated former football striker, was sworn into office after an election. He cited fighting corruption, improving living conditions and increasing literacy as his platform.

However, Liberia has a long way to go.

In 2011, the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) was U.S.$297, the third-lowest in the world, according to the World Bank. Historically, the Liberian economy has depended heavily on foreign aid, foreign investment and exports of natural resources such as iron ore, rubber and timber.

Dennis wrote:

“Racism can only end in futility for all concerned. . . . Racism has the power to destroy not only individuals, but societies and nations. . . . What would Liberia be today if the Americo-Liberians had garnered the cooperation of the natives and enrolled them in nation building? What would the United States be if Negroes had been fully assimilated?”

The time for reckoning in the United States is now.

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