A brief history of Liberia, West Africa and the United States
Hope against great odds is what prompted the United States to create Liberia in the early 19th century. Hope is what first brought freed slaves to Liberia. Resting on West Africa’s Atlantic shoreline, Liberia has a longstanding association with the United States and the Methodist Church. About the size of Pennsylvania, Liberia is home to 28 tribes, belonging to 16 ethnic-linguistic groups. “It is a country of almost impossible social, religious & political complexity” (Helene Cooper).
Named after liberty itself, Liberia was founded in 1822 by free Black Americans. Upon arrival, some of the local Africans, were unwelcoming. Europeans purchased their slaves from Africans who caught and enslaved other Africans. The settlers first put down in Sierra Leone, London’s own sanctuary for free blacks and freed slaves. Representatives of the American Colonization Society (ACS) and the U.S. Navy “negotiated” with the Liberian natives for Cape Mesurado, one of the few sheltered inlets on the coast. The area was re-named Monrovia, for U.S. President James Monroe.
“War between native and settler punctuated Liberia’s first century,” says historian James Cistern. “The native Africans of the coast felt they had been forced at gunpoint to give up Monrovia and they did not like the fact that the fiercely abolitionist settlers kept interfering in the lucrative business of smuggling slaves. (The international trade had been outlawed by America and Britain more than a decade earlier.)”
In 1847, Liberia’s founding fathers created a republic with a Declaration of Independence from America, with exclusive language towards the native Liberian people. Descendants of the free Black Americans established a two-tier system with two very distinct classes. The American blacks were the rulers and the native Liberians became the ruled. The native Africans largely became the laborers, household help and underclass.
TIME’s Aryn Baker writes: “The new immigrants, who came to be known as ‘Americoes,’ set up a society largely modeled on that of the antebellum South, taking local natives as servants, and, eventually, as slaves who could be ‘leased’ out to work on the country’s lucrative rubber plantations. That early legacy of inequality laid the foundations for the revolutionary forment that eventually led to a sequence of brutal civil wars beginning in 1989 that ended only in 2003.
To the Settlers, the Liberians appeared as an “unvariegated mass with their elaborate beaded jewelry, Fanti clothing and incomprehensible language” (Helene Cooper). Far from simple, though, these were richly diverse and complicated people, with dynamic histories and cultures unique to their tribes.
The Americoes, asserted their control over the country, establishing in Liberia an antebellum way of life similar to that in the American south (from which they had fled). “They built one-room schoolhouses and clapboard churches. They put on frock coats and petticoated dresses, and cooked up the foods they knew from home. A few even set up plantations on the frontier where, from the columned porches of their manses, they issued orders to the natives tilling their tobacco, coffee, and cotton fields.” (Cistern)
The Christianity the settlers delivered to Africa was altered dramatically by the native Liberians, who were applying it in their perspective, to their own history and culture.
“Liberians seized on the robust Christianity of gospel hymns, prayers and beliefs that the Americans had brought with them from the land of slavery. The suffering of Jesus Christ and the enslavement of the ancient Jews were things American slaves had intuitively understood. The delivery of his people by Moses, the selling into slavery of Joseph by his brothers, the throwing of Daniel into the lion’s den, captured the imagination of the slaves in America.” (Helene Cooper)
Liberia remained poor and in debt to outsiders—but they did survive.
“A forgotten backwater”—frozen in time—Liberia suddenly came to life after World War II. An automobile-hungry world could not get enough of the country’s iron ore deposits and plantation-grown rubber. For the first time, Liberia knew real prosperity and established something of a middle class. These were the decades of fancy debutante balls at the Ducor Hotel, summer vacations in Europe, and secret conclaves at the grand Masonic Temple—the largest in Africa, where the real business of government occurred.” (James Ciment, Another America: The Story of Liberia and the Former Slaves Who Ruled It.)
William Tubman, the grandson of Georgia slaves, was a brutal autocrat but an inclusive modernizer as well. He integrated the native masses into the republic, such as it was, and sent them to school. Thousands went abroad on scholarships, mostly to the United States, where they studied law and earned engineering degrees. And, after a fashion, Tubman foresaw the future. “I’m committing political suicide,” he once said, half-jokingly. “These boys will come back experts, and I know nothing but the Bible.” (Cistern)
In the decade after he died in 1971, Liberia found itself increasingly torn by political factionalism. The old Americo-Liberian guard was not ready to give up power and influence to an increasingly restless native majority. They organized new political parties and held anti-government rallies.
In 1980, a young master-sergeant named Samuel Doe led an elemental force of native enlisted men of the Armed Forces of Liberia. They broke into the Executive Mansion and murdered William Tolbert—Tubman’s successor and the last in a 130-year line of Americo presidents.
Then, the so-called liberator quickly became the oppressor. Barely literate himself, Doe brought in radical intellectuals to run the government. But they soon had a falling out with the soldiers who held the real power. As autocratic as Tubman, Doe lacked the old man’s political skills; the main thing that kept him in power was lavish Cold War military aid from the Reagan administration.
In 1989, the brutal reign of Doe was brought to an end by Charles Taylor, the “megalomaniacal son of an Americo judge and Gola mother, raised by a rebel army” (Cistern). What resulted was 14 years of a brutal and devastating Civil War.
Approximately 250,000 people were killed and almost 1 million more were displaced into refugee camps in neighboring countries. It was a war that introduced the rest of the world to child soldiers.
In 2003, a movement known as Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, consisting of Christians and Muslims, pressed President Charles Taylor into attending peace talks. They made their silent presence felt through months of peace talks in Ghana.
“They have guns, but we have God” was their mantra.
It was a daring and dangerous uprising – especially considering the levels of raging violence and retribution that observed no bounds of humanity – but the women saw no alternative.
“Whether or not we do this, we were dying,” Lindorah Howard-Diawara, national director of the West African Network for Peace, said.
In August 2003, the Civil War in Liberia finally ended. But there was no electricity or running water.
Schools that had been shuttered for years stayed closed. The capital city of Monrovia had no infrastructure. Social norms had disintegrated. An entire generation had seen nothing but war.
The road back to civilian rule has been a difficult one. But those who survived the filthy agonizing and degrading trauma of the Civil War were finding it difficult to cope with the aftermath.
The activism of women certainly contributed to the 2005 election of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first woman elected head of state on the continent. In 2005, 75% of the 1.35 million registered voters elected Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (Harvard-educated, global bureaucrat) as President.
Exhausted and traumatized, Liberians finally found peace with the competent government under the grandmotherly “iron lady”. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, whose Nobel Prize Peace Prize in 2011 testified to her commitment to building a new and more inclusive democracy in Liberia.
Perhaps the most important concern is the future of Liberia’s children. As Christians, we are called to care for the orphans and widows. An example of this care is the Bishop Judith Craig Children’s Village (School & Orphanage) outside of Monrovia, Liberia. “Bishop Judith Craig conducted a stout defense of children’s rights. In a spirit that joined black and white, men and women, old and young together in the implementation of the Lord’s work, Bishop Judith Craig, had an unwavering hope in the future of the youngest generation of Liberia.” (Dr. Emmanuel Bailey)
In 1991, Methodist Revered Emmanuel F. Bailey, a native of Liberia and who served churches in the United States, returned home. He spent three months searching for family members. What he found were 800 orphans living in a United Methodist school building. During his stay, he observed that apart from the homeless condition, many of the Liberian children showed remarkable resilience and hope in the face of their horrible experiences.
Rev. Bailey shared his concern & hope for the children with leaders of the Annual Conferences of the United Methodist Church. From that consultation came the dream of building a children’s home to provide a safe, wholesome, Christian atmosphere for these orphans. The road to reconciliation begins with the children.
“In a country with 26 languages and many tribal groups, this blending of children and adults from diverse backgrounds can model Christian community and the vision of a peaceful future for Liberia.” (Rev. Bailey)
“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” James 1:27
Liberia has a long-standing association with the United States & the United Methodist Church. The United Methodist Church in Liberia started in 1833. The founder of the Liberian Methodist Church was a black minister from Baltimore, the Reverend Daniel Coker.
Kenneth L. Christler, Michigan Christian Advocate, April 3, 2000
Helene Cooper, Madame President: The Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Simon & Schuster, March 2017
James Ciment, Another America: The Story of Liberia and the Former Slaves Who Ruled It, Hill & Wang, August 2013
Dr. Emmanuel Bailey, Former President of the Liberia Methodist University
John Diaz, fellow, International Reporting Project, San Francisco Chronicle