Liberia has a unique history in the story of the development of the African continent with a long history of independent rule. As early as 1815 an African-American by the name of Paul Cuffee (or Cuffe), a maritime entrepreneur and Quaker, began to envision an African colony where free blacks could live, trade and build a life without the American system of slavery and legislated limits on black freedom. Though Cuffee died in 1817 he encouraged free African Americans to volunteer to settle in Africa. By 1817 several influential white Americans, including Henry Clay and John Randolph were supporting the venture known as the American Colonization Society (ACS). By the 1820 the ACS had sent its first group of immigrants to Sherbro Island in Sierra Leone. This site proved unfavorable and soon land at Cape Mesurado was purchased from Dey and Bassa peoples and the Sherbro Island colonists relocated. The new colony, called Christopolis, was governed by a representative of the ACS, which soon led to tensions. Later the name of the settlement was changed to Monrovia after American President James Monroe and the colony as a whole was formally called Liberia. Soon other American groups were organizing colonies of former slaves and free blacks in Liberia, independent of the ACS. The immigrants became known as Americo-Liberians and formed an elite Christian faith, American colonial society on the coast that had little in common with the tribal people of the interior. The social divisions would have significant repercussions in the future. Eventually, these American-founded colonies merged to form the Commonwealth of Liberia, adopted a constitution and appointed a governor in 1839. On July 26, 1847 the Liberian Declaration of Independence was signed and Liberian became a sovereign nation.
Among the white Americans who made it possible for African Americans to settle in Liberia was Emily Tubman of Augusta, Georgia and Frankfurt, Kentucky. Eventually gaining prominence as a philanthropist among the American Disciples of Christ, Mrs. Tubman gave 69 of her slaves the choice to go to Africa in the 1830s and the story goes that she even accompanied them on the first leg of the journey lest they be captured and sold back into slavery. Two of those who chose to go to Africa by way of Mrs. Tubman?s largesse were William Shadrach and Sylvia Ann Elizabeth Tubman. Their grandson, William Vaccanarat Shadrach Tubman (1895-1971) studied for the Methodist ministry and later entered public service. He served Liberia as the eighteenth President from 1944 until 1971.
The American Christian Missionary Society (ACMS), founded in 1849, chose Liberia as the recipient of some its earliest missionary endeavors. The Hopkinsville, Kentucky church purchased the freedom of Alexander Cross and provided him with an education. Together with his wife and young son Cross was sent to Liberia as only the second missionary of the ACMS in 1854. Son, James, died on the voyage across the Atlantic and Alexander, not taking the necessary precautions to become acclimated to the tropical weather of West Africa died within two months of arrival in Liberia. Alexander Campbell reported his obituary in the pages of the Millennial Harbinger. The hope for a mission in Liberia was abandoned.
It would be more than fifty years before the American Disciples would again venture into work in Liberia. Jacob Kenoly, born in Missouri in 1876 as the son of slaves, educated himself at Southern Christian Institute in Edwards, Mississippi in order to prepare for Christian service. With nothing but the clothes on his back and despite the lack of any financial backing Kenoly worked his way across the Atlantic in July of 1905 to Liberia working in the kitchen of a steamer. Building a log house Kenoly fought off disease and other difficulty in order to open a school for children. The Christian Woman?s Board of Missions, founded in 1874, became aware of his plight and adopted Kenoly as a missionary in 1907. Kenoly?s mission was cut short in 1911 when Jacob drowned while trying to catch fish to feed the children in his care.
Liberia enjoyed relative prosperity for nearly 125 years with a growing economy based upon rubber, iron ore, timber, and coffee which in turn helped to build a national infrastructure. One of President Tubman?s chief goals was education and he encouraged foreign investment. Much of that growth came to a halt in 1980 when Tubman?s successor, William Tolbert was assassinated during a military coup led by Samuel K. Doe. In 1986 the second republic of Liberia was established with Doe retained as head of state. Doe was toppled in 1989 leading to a civil war in which various ethnic factions, including Americo-Liberians and those of non-American descent fought for control. Tentative peace was achieved in 1995 with elections held in 1997 making Charles Taylor President of the third republic. Fighting broke out again in 2002 and continued until another tentative peace agreement was reached in 2003. Economic life in Liberia has come to a standstill, the infrastructure is in ruins and much of the population has been forced to revert to subsistence farming.
by Clinton J. Holloway