Tumult and Transition in "Little America"

Americans created Liberia as a homeland for freed slaves. But a quarter century of civil war over festering ethnic animosities has renewed questions about the U.S. role in the African nation

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On a balmy January day in 2001, Maurice Pelham, a descendant of Mississippi slaves and a Liberian citizen, was looking for familiar faces in a stack of old photographs at the NationalMuseum in Monrovia, the country’s capital city. Even then, before the latest round of chaos and carnage that led to President Charles Taylor’s resignation this past August, the museum was nearly empty, a decaying husk.

Looters over the years had stripped away all but a few artifacts. Among the surviving items were several testifying to the nation’s unusual historic ties to the United States—an American flag, a mural featuring Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, and several photographs of old Liberian houses that closely resemble antebellum plantation manor houses, down to their tall-columned entryways.

Pelham’s ancestors first settled in this region of West Africa in the 1840s, following a confluence of American political currents whose effects are still being felt in Africa and the United States today. For nearly five decades, starting in 1820, some 13,000 freed American slaves and their families colonized the region as part of a privately organized repatriation effort. Having given itself a name reflecting the settlers’ liberation, Liberia declared itself an independent nation in 1847—Africa’s first. But this experiment in nation building would take some surprising turns, the most ironic being the former slaves’ attempts to subjugate the indigenous people.

As was plainly evident in several photographs that Pelham was poring over that day in Monrovia, many of the original settlers, known as Americo-Liberians, assumed some of the ways of Southern plantation owners and slaveholders. Americo women are pictured wearing hoop skirts while the men sport long-tailed coats and top hats. Like Southern gentry, they set up plantations, joined the Masons and planted collard greens and okra. Pelham, who appeared to be in his late 40s, broke into a wide grin when he found a photograph from the 1890s of a formally dressed woman from the same Mississippi plantation as his ancestors. But his gladness faded as soon as he spotted another artifact—a boot that once belonged to Roosevelt Johnson, a tribal faction leader whose supporters committed numerous atrocities against citizens throughout the 1990s. Scowling, Pelham turned to the curator. “Why do you have the boot of Roosevelt Johnson?” he demanded.

For a long, uncomfortable moment, the two men stared at each other. Finally, I tried to defuse the tension. “It’s part of history,” I said.

“Exactly,” the curator said, turning his back to us.

Pelham, motioning for me to follow, stalked out the door. The freighted exchange was a telling sign of the tensions between Americo-Liberians, who dominated national affairs for 150 years despite making up less than 5 percent of the population (currently 3.3 million), and indigenous Liberians, who belong to some 16 ethnic groups. Since 1980, civil wars have killed perhaps a quarter of a million people and created a million or so refugees. This past summer, more than 1,000 civilians died from hunger, disease and wounds after a rebel force seized Monrovia and forced Taylor into exile in Nigeria. A new, transitional government led by Charles Gyude Bryant, a businessman and chairman of the Liberia Action Party, was scheduled to take over last month.

When Taylor and other African leaders called for U.S. troops to restore peace during the summer’s siege, many Americans were puzzled—not only by the request but by the rather uncommon sight of Africans waving the Stars and Stripes. By mid-August, the United States—“Liberia’s oldest friend,” as the State Department says—sent advisors and 200 marines to Monrovia as part of a multinational force organized by the Economic Community of West African States and backed by the United Nations. Monrovia’s request was only natural, considering the U.S. role in founding the nation and its support of previous regimes. “Here we have a country that was modeled after the United States, which was founded by freed American slaves, and they needed help and they called out to us,” says Roger Davidson, a historian and Liberia expert at Coppin State College in Maryland. Debra Newman Ham, a specialist in African history at MorganStateUniversity in Baltimore, agrees. “So many of the Liberians I know have been longing for help from the United States for over two decades,” she says.

The recent crisis can be traced to the nation’s origins, Davidson and other historians say. “The way the Americo- Liberians lived—building these grand houses for which they needed labor and servants, trying to live like the wealthy people back home, oppressing some of the indigenous people, whom they saw as heathens—that was enough, over the years, to cause this destabilization.”

The idea of relocating freed American blacks predated the American Revolution, but was first seriously proposed in 1800, following a thwarted Virginia slave uprising that resulted in the hanging of some 35 slaves. Virginia delegates called upon President Thomas Jefferson to purchase lands “where persons obnoxious to the laws or dangerous to the peace of society may be removed.” Jefferson initially proposed a joint effort with Great Britain, which had already started a colony for former slaves in Freetown, Sierra Leone, but rising tensions that would eventually culminate with the War of 1812 stalled Jefferson’s proposal. The idea was revived after the war, when Paul Cuffee, a free black sea captain, transported freed American slaves to Freetown.


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