Tumult and Transition in "Little America" | History | Smithsonian

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

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

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.

In December 1816, a group including Francis Scott Key, Daniel Webster and Henry Clay convened to form the American Colonization Society (ACS). George Washington’s nephew, Bushrod Washington, was the group’s first president. Among the supporters were Andrew Jackson and James Monroe, who would serve as president of the United States from 1817 to 1825. (Monroe would reportedly call the colony “Little America,” and Liberia’s capital would be named after him.) Clay, the Kentucky statesman known as the Great Compromiser, supported the society for seemingly pragmatic reasons, saying that because of “unconquerable prejudice resulting from their color,” freed slaves “never could amalgamate with the free whites of this country.”

With its stated goal of creating an African-American homeland, the ACS seemed philanthropic in nature. Some members believed that black Americans would be more successful in Africa, while others sought to convert Africans to Christianity. Yet the ACS also served the anxieties of many slaveholders, who feared retaliatory uprisings and worried that blacks would gain economic and social clout if slavery were abolished. “Slaveholders ultimately dominated the colonization effort,” says John Singler, a professor of linguistics at New YorkUniversity, who has lived and worked in Liberia. (And, indeed, while some abolitionists favored colonization, others opposed it as just another form of discrimination.) Though many of the settlers would be free-born African- Americans, others were freed from slavery only on the condition that they emigrate.

The society—and other colonization groups—opened chapters in several states, including Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania. In 1819, the U.S. government gave the ACS $100,000 to underwrite a settlement in Africa. West Africa was proposed as the logical destination. For one thing, it was nearest to America’s East Coast. For another, most of the estimated 60 million Africans sold into slavery between 1503 and the mid-1800s had come from West Africa. Another reason, says Elwood Dunn, a political scientist at the University of the South in Tennessee and an aide to former Liberian president William R. Tolbert Jr., was the British foothold in neighboring Sierra Leone.

The colonization society’s first chartered ship, the Elizabeth, set sail from New York in February 1820 with three ACS agents and more than 80 emigrants aboard. Their start was inauspicious. Within five months after their departure, all three ACS agents and 22 of the immigrants were dead of fever; the survivors were evacuated to Freetown. But the ACS organized more voyages and, sometimes holding tribal chiefs at gunpoint, bought large parcels of land.

The settlers found themselves in a region that was home to tribes speaking some 20 languages. Both the low-lying coast and the upland bush of the interior were sparsely populated, but, says Dunn, “These were not people encountering outsiders for the first time.” In fact, he adds, some tribes had negotiated with slave traders and other European traders for centuries and “had gotten quite sophisticated in the ways of the West.” For their part, the American settlers tended to regard the tribespeople as unlettered and inferior.

The settlers patterned the nation after the United States’, forming a government with a bicameral legislature, a judicial system and, beginning in 1847 with the election of Joseph Jenkins Roberts, a president. The Liberian flag was red, white and blue with bars and a single star. The national motto, still in effect, is “The love of liberty brought us here” (a sentiment, of course, that affronted the native majority).

Typical of the pioneers were the ancestors of Charleston Bailey, a Monrovia resident in his 80s whose great-grandparents immigrated from Georgia to Liberia. The first Liberian Baileys cleared plantations from the bush and cultivated native crops as well as American staples, including rice, sweet potatoes, cassava, cabbage and eggplant. Bailey’s grandfather was killed in settlers’ early clashes with locals. “The tribes wanted settlers to go back to America, but the settlers conquered them and they surrendered,” Bailey told me two years ago.

Though outnumbered, the settlers managed to dominate because they were well organized and backed by the American military. The mere presence of a U.S. ship offshore was often enough to defuse a potential conflict, says Dunn, adding, “American officials had set up the place and passed the power to settlers.”

Americos abused their growing power, historians tend to agree, by denying indigenous people the right to vote and relegating them to subservient roles—field hands, house ser servants and, in some cases, forced laborers. In 1930, the League of Nations reported that the Liberian government was pressing thousands of tribesmen to work on coffee plantations on the Spanish-held island of Fernando Po (now Bioko), in the Gulf of Guinea, about 1,100 miles from Liberia. Liberian president Charles D.B. King, calling the league’s accusation “malicious propaganda,” resigned in December 1930, along with his vice president, Allen Yancy. In 1931, the league described Liberia as “a Republic of 12,000 citizens with 1,000,000 subjects.” As Lester Walton, minister plenipotentiary at the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia, wrote at the time, “Forced labor, vicious exploitation of the natives by the [Liberian Army], unjust and excessive fines are some of the contributory factors to occasion resentment and dissatisfaction, impelling many natives to reluctantly settle in Sierra Leone.” Liberia’s new president, Edwin Barclay, largely resisted the League of Nations’ recommended reforms, but, responding in part to pressure from the United States, which refused to recognize his administration until 1935, Barclay did oversee a ban on forced labor.

Meanwhile, industry was moving into Liberia, in some cases adding to tensions between settlers and indigenous people. In 1926, the Firestone Tire & Rubber Company negotiated a 99-year lease on one million acres of Liberian land for rubber plantations at six cents per acre. Firestone built roads, schools and hospitals and extended telephone lines. Still, the company couldn’t shake the criticism that it shortshrifted workers’ wages.

Singler, a critic of the company’s activities in Liberia, says, “Over the years, Firestone developed a tradition of taking from Liberia, but virtually no tradition of giving to the country, least of all to the thousands of [rubber] tappers whose labor it used.” An attorney who once represented Firestone in Liberia, Gerald Padmore, a Liberian and a former deputy finance minister under Tolbert, disputes that the nation got nothing out of the relationship. “The initial deal in 1926 was highly favorable to Firestone, but the Firestone investment was useful for both Liberia and the United States,” he says. In any event, rubber became the nation’s main cash crop, and Liberia became one of the world’s leading suppliers of the material.

In 1942, the U.S. military built RobertsInternationalAirport in Monrovia to serve the Allies’ North Africa campaign and, in 1944, began constructing a shipping center, Freeport, also in Monrovia. Franklin Roosevelt’s visit to Liberia in 1943 confirmed, for many Liberians, the nation’s close ties to the United States. About 5,000 U.S. troops were stationed in Liberia during World War II.

After the war, Liberia’s rubber industry boomed, thanks in part to new agreements with Firestone and investment by the United States, which gave millions to agricultural development and construction of roads, hospitals and municipal buildings. By the early 1970s, Liberia was also the world’s 11th largest producer of iron ore. Liberia, says Newman Ham, was trying to make itself “into a modern nation, able to compete on some level with the world economy.”

But the source of revenue for which Liberia is perhaps best known today is registering foreign ships, a practice that began after World War II. Flying a Liberian “flag of convenience” assures shippers low fees and taxes and minimal regulation. Liberia claims the world’s second largest commercial fleet, behind Panama, with some 2,000 registered ships generating $18 million annually. But the program has prompted controversy. In 2000, the U.N. accused Taylor of using registry revenue to facilitate the flow of illegal arms to guerrillas in Sierra Leone. The International Transport Workers’ Federation has called upon shippers to register fleets elsewhere.

Liberia would endure its own version of African nationalism. While other African nations sought to extricate themselves from colonial rulers, ethnic Liberians sought greater control of their affairs. In 1944, President William Tubman, who is generally considered to have been progressive, opened the legislature to tribal representatives for the first time. In 1951, women—though only Americo women— voted in their first presidential election. Tubman’s Unification Policy, claims Padmore, “was a genuine effort to open the country up so that the leadership of the country reflected the diversity of the people.” William Tolbert, a Baptist minister who assumed the presidency upon Tubman’s death in 1971, went further and included tribal leaders in local and national governments. But indigenous people still didn’t have a full say. Tolbert’s liberalization was opposed by the settler-run True Whig Party, then Liberia’s only political party, which had ruled virtually unchallenged since 1869. Most party leaders still viewed the indigenous population as untutored masses to be brought gradually into line. “Even though things were opening up, they were still far from reconciliation,” says Newman Ham.

The conflict exploded into the open in April 1979, after Tolbert’s administration proposed an increase in the price of rice. When protesters demonstrated, Tolbert called out the army and the police, who killed 41 people and injured about 400. Rioting and anarchy ensued in Monrovia, part of what Newman Ham describes as an outbreak of “rebellion and overthrow.” In April 1980, a master sergeant in the Liberian Army, Samuel K. Doe, a member of the Krahn ethnic group, led a small band into the executive mansion and killed Tolbert in his bed. They rounded up 13 top Americo leaders and executed them on a Monrovia beach. Doe, not yet 30, thus ended 133 years of Americo-Liberian political domination. In October 1985, he emerged the winner of a special election for president, which many considered fraudulent.

Dunn, who had functioned in Tolbert’s cabinet and had been out of the country at the time of the coup, returned to Liberia hoping the new government would bring about reforms. “It became clear in a few months that this wasn’t going to happen,” Dunn recalls. Instead, Doe turned into a ruthless dictator. “Far from seeking to right the wrongs, it quickly turned into a revolution of entitlement,” says Joseph Saye Guannu, a historian at the University of Liberia and a former ambassador to the United States. “Power was there to be personally enjoyed. Soldiers began to run around in Mercedes Benz cars.” Thousands of Americos, including Dunn, fled the country, with many ending up in the United States.

To the bewilderment of the settler community, the U.S. government provided some $500 million to the Doe administration from 1981 to 1985. Chester Crocker, assistant secretary of state for African affairs under Reagan, says today that the aid had been promised by the Carter administration and that Reagan officials simply tried to make the best of a bad situation. “The United States had an obligation to Liberia,” Crocker says. “It had vested intelligence and commercial interests and an infrastructure there, and cutting off aid could lead to regional destabilization and increasing Soviet and Libyan involvement.”

Dunn, too, suggests that the aid was part of a larger U.S. effort to prevent Soviet influence, recalling that the USSR had an embassy in Monrovia, and Liberia had made overtures to Castro’s Cuba. “This was in the midst of the cold war,” Dunn adds. “The United States was concerned that if it didn’t support this fledgling government, the country could veer to the left.” But Doe’s well-financed military could not staunch growing public dissatisfaction with his regime. In 1985, a former ally, Thomas Quiwonkpa, mounted an unsuccessful coup and was subsequently killed. Then, on December 24, 1989, Charles Taylor, Doe’s former procurement chief and the leader of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, launched an assault from Côte d’Ivoire.

Within six months, Taylor had gained control of much of the country, except Monrovia, where the Economic Community of West African States intervened and prevented the capture of the city. In September 1990, Doe was executed by guerrilla forces loyal to warlord Prince Johnson, who had split with Taylor. West African peacekeeping forces established an interim government in Monrovia, but Taylor’s rebellion devolved into ethnic conflicts among tribal factions. (Intertribal strife, in fact, would play an increasingly large role in destabilizing the nation.) Over the next six years, an estimated 200,000 Liberians, most of them descendants of indigenous groups, died of malnutrition, diseases, injuries or wounds stemming from the civil war. Hundreds of peacekeepers lost their lives. Dozens of conferences were held in an effort to impose peace. In 1997, there were national elections, monitored by a group representing West African nations and other observers. By then, Liberians, weary of the fighting, feared that Taylor would make the country ungovernable if he lost. He won in a landslide.

“Unfortunately, once Taylor found power he began to think like Doe,” Dunn says. While most Liberians suffered under extreme poverty—the average annual income has been estimated to be less than $200, and national unemployment has hovered above 70 percent, the world’s highest rate—Taylor grew wealthy exploiting Liberia’s gold, diamonds and timber. He also bought arms, some of which he used to foment rebellions in neighboring countries. In 2003, a U.N. tribunal indicted Taylor for alleged war crimes committed in support of rebel forces in Sierra Leone. Meanwhile, most Liberians had neither running water nor electricity. Most schools were closed. There was no garbage pickup and no sewage system. Those who had jobs were seldom paid. Hundreds of thousands of Liberians sought refuge in Ghana and other West African nations.

One of Taylor’s rivals was a rebel group calling itself Movement for Democracy in Liberia. In the summer of 2003, it succeeded in ousting government forces from the city of Buchanan, in southeastern Liberia. But it was another rebel group, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, that seized the capital and drove Taylor from the country.

“The general consensus is that this is a failed state,” Jacques Paul Klein, the top U.N. representative in Liberia, told the Washington Post in September. “Now we have to rebuild the state,” he went on, adding, the “situation will get worse before it gets better.”AU.N. mission of up to 15,000 peacekeepers was scheduled to reach Liberia in October. In early October, U.S. Marines stationed in Monrovia pulled out, while some troops remained in Senegal on emergency standby, said a Department of Defense spokesman, Navy Lt. Daniel Hetlage. He added that the U.S. military expects to send an as-yet-undecided number of troops to Liberia to support the U.N.’s peace mission. At the same time, the U.S. State Department projects that $125 million to $165 million in aid will be sent to the U.N.’s Liberia mission over the next year, says agency spokesman Steve Pike. Meanwhile, thousands of Liberians are reportedly hiding in the bush, with scant food, water, shelter and medicine.

Singler, the NYU linguist, takes the long view, and says if Liberia is viewed as a failure, as the U.N.’s Klein suggested, the United States bears some responsibility, because it “basically dumped people there without the tools they needed, so how could they succeed?”

Maurice Pelham, who had stormed out of the museum in Liberia at the mere sight of a warlord’s boot, says that despite the past two decades of strife, Liberians have shown that they can prevail against historical odds. “Sometimes we get sick of being here ourselves,” he told me over lunch at a Monrovia café two years ago. “But we feel we have an obligation. A responsibility.”

His family, he said, “left America as slaves, [believing] we needed to do something with ourselves in Africa. They had to do something on their own. We still consider ourselves Liberians, but we know where we come from.”

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus