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Liberia historically linked to US Black Lives Matter movement

Alexander Wooley
By Alexander Wooley

Writer working full-time in international development

Posted on Tuesday, 27 October 2020 20:31, updated on Wednesday, 28 October 2020 09:37

A woman and two children walk past a mural in Monrovia
A woman and two children walk past a mural in Monrovia, Liberia. REUTERS/Luc Gnago

Black Lives Matter began as an American movement, but has now spread across the globe to be adapted to other countries, capturing local issues, sometimes with only passing reference to BLM in the US. But there is a trans-Atlantic population that is inextricably linked to the American experience, requiring attention and action, especially in any debates about reparations, restitution, recognition or historical reckonings.

Much of the media coverage since the movement erupted has focused on the “shared history and identity” of Blacks in the US, or those living anywhere in North America, including Central American and the Caribbean.

But it’s worth adding to this list the people of Liberia, created by white Americans, including some of the US’s most prominent leaders and institutions. Its establishment two hundred years ago had profound and long-lasting impacts not only on free-born Americans or ex-slaves who made the journey, but on the peoples who were already there.

And that influence is still felt today.

The birth of Liberia

In two years’ time, it will be the bicentennial anniversary of the American Colonization Society’s (ACS) founding of the colony of Liberia, in 1821-1822. The Liberia project was the brainchild of white politicians, mostly Virginians. Its mission was to found an African haven for freed blacks, from the US mostly, but also Afro-Caribbeans. It was mostly funded by a number of US state legislatures.

By 1867, and with funding from state legislatures, the society had shipped more than 13,000 emigrants to Liberia, often under the banner of ‘repatriation’.

The result was Liberia, a country whose flag and constitution were modelled on those of the US, with its capital named after US President James Monroe (hence Monrovia). Joseph Jenkins Roberts, its first president after it had declared its independent and republican status in 1847, was an African-American from Virginia.

Liberia’s first president Joseph Jenkins Roberts. (Story Liberia / Wikimedia Commons)

By 1867, and with funding from state legislatures, the society had shipped more than 13,000 emigrants to Liberia, often under the banner of ‘repatriation’, despite the fact that by this time the vast majority of slaves – former slaves and freeborn people of colour – had been born in the US. As scholars have pointed out, the ACS conflated African and African-American, in order to render the latter aliens in the land of their birth.

The ACS finally dissolved in 1964, coincidentally the same year the Civil Rights Act was passed in the US.

“Varying agendas”

The creation of Liberia attracted a range of supporters with varying agendas.

Some hoped the freed slaves would spread Christianity in Africa. But many simply couldn’t envisage a United States where whites and freed Blacks lived together.

There were even fears of a race war. Even supporters of Blacks within the ACS believed it was in their best interest to leave America, to have an independent country somewhere, dominated by African Americans.

Liberia’s establishment has elements reminiscent of early treaty relations with Native-Americans. The ACS along with the US Navy, established the colony with the point of a gun: through coercion and promises of trade.

READ MORE Colonialism: ‘France has to acknowledge the contradictions in its history’, Ayrault

The indigenous people on the west African coast had little concept of permanent ownership of land, and did not know they were agreeing to sell permanent property rights to the land that would become Monrovia.

Only the American side knew or understood this.

A new crop of ‘white’ elites

Those who journeyed to the new colony unfortunately brought with them, in addition to the superficial pomp of flag and founding documents, American values of the time. The newly arrived settlers, called ‘Americo-Liberians’ or, ‘Congos’, though just 5% of the population, established themselves as the elites, feeling the American culture they represented was innately superior.

The mimicry was cinematic dystopia: recently freed American slaves behaving like the slave masters they’d escaped, building plantation-style houses with verandahs and Greco-Roman columns, wearing hoop skirts, building Protestant churches and a vast Masonic Lodge that is still a landmark in Monrovia.

Former Masonic lodge palace in Monrovia, Liberia (By Kippster via flicker / Wikimedia Commons )

They forced indigenous people to labour in the fields or on plantations. For decades, a property qualification clause disenfranchised most indigenous Liberians from citizenship, voting, or positions in government. They could not marry Americo-Liberians.

On the plus side, the Americo-Liberians did take a hand in suppressing the slave trade, mounting expeditions against nearby slave barracoons.

Interestingly, indigenous Liberians racially categorised the new arrivals, cultural foreigners, as “whites.”
The Americo-Liberian domination only ended by a bloody coup in 1980.

A different type of ‘colonisation’

‘Colonisation’ tends to be associated with the nation-state, such as Britain, France, or Portugal. But much of the historic colonisation originated or was undertaken by corporations (like the East India Company) or other legal entities.

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The ACS Board in Washington, DC appointed white men until 1841 to head Liberia. The country formally declared independence in 1847, at the insistence of the ACS, becoming the first democratic republic on the continent.

A Liberian Family- from: National Geographic Magazine, Vol XVIII, November 1907.
(Digitalisat Internet Archive, Open Library [Book contributor:University of Michigan], Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons )
In retrospect, the ACS is perhaps an early example of an international NGO with questionable motives, values and intentions, armed with the will and resources to meddle in Africa. That in turn has led to a host of unintended consequences felt for over a century and for which its proponents absolve themselves.

US – Liberia ties

America’s responsibility to Liberia should not be viewed as something that starts and finishes in the 19th century after its independence.

Just look at its very inception. Alumni from the esteemed Princeton University were the driving force behind the founding of the ACS, including Congressman Charles Mercer and Reverend Robert Finley, then director of the Princeton Theological Seminary.

The university crops up again this year in late June, when its trustees voted to rename the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, and Wilson College, citing the former President’s racist views.

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Today, the main library on campus is named after Harvey Firestone (the Harvey S. Firestone Memorial Library), who owed much of his fortune to Liberia’s natural wealth. The Firestone Tire and Rubber Company has a long and troubled history in Liberia, dating back to the 1920s, with a litany of tales of violence and human rights abuses.

Liberia has sporadically experienced the worst of the US across its different sectors: the CIA’s mooted ties to convicted war criminal Charles Taylor; televangelist and conservative heavyweight Pat Robertson using aircraft intended for relief supplies to bring in diamond-mining equipment, and his deal with Taylor to lobby the US Administration in exchange for gold mines.

More recently, in the 2010s, modern-day charities like More than Me, operating with little oversight in the country, were accused of turning a blind eye to child rape in Monrovia’s slums by one of its leaders.

Recognition

Ties between the US and Liberia run deep, but the love tends to run only one way. To mark the bicentennial of the ACS’s creation of Liberia, America’s debt to that country’s citizens should be recognised.

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