History: Liberia, Africa

Historically, in the mid 1800s, freed slaves voluntarily emigrated to Liberia with the American Colonization Society in search of a home where they could be truly free. Learn more history here!

By the dawn of the 19th century, many American states within the Union were considered slavery-free states, and slaves from below the infamous Mason-Dixon Line risked their lives to reach this new Promise Land. But with few skills and no education, ex-slaves found themselves living in poverty in the large cities and contributing to a swelling black underclass. Conservative white Americans lambasted these masses of freed slaves as instigators of class revolution that would abolish slavery forever. Liberals decried the ex-slaves' deplorable living conditions. African-Americans simply wondered what freedom really meant in a country that always considered them third-class citizens. But all three groups longed for a solution to what appeared an intractable situation - a growing number of freed slaves unable to effectively integrate into 19th-century American society.

The idea of "╦ťrepatriating' African-Americans to Africa originated with Robert Finley, a white Presbyterian minister from New Jersey. Finley felt that freed slaves in America had little hope of integrating into society and would be able to improve their lot by returning to their homelands. Although Finley's motives were primarily charitable, pro-slavery conservatives eager to exile black revolutionaries agreed with him. The result was the establishment of the American Colonization Society -- an organization tasked with handling the emigration. The Society's first president was Bushrod Washington (nephew to President Washington). Other prominent officers and members included Henry Clay, Francis Scott Key, James Monroe and Daniel Webster. Leading African-Americans thoroughly disenchanted with America, such as Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, also became leading members. A majority of freed slaves, however, did not approve of the emigration scheme, arguing that they were fully American and had a duty to fight for those still enslaved.

The American Colonization Society raised funds for its venture through membership subscriptions, but also won backing from the US Congress. The first ship, the Elizabeth, sailed in 1816 with eight-eight voluntary emigrants, three white company officials, and supplies. The ship landed off the coast of Liberia where the new immigrants immediately began to construct their new settlement. But after three weeks, twenty-two African-Americans and all three white officials died of yellow fever. The second ship, the Nautilus, soon arrived with new passengers and fresh supplies [www.pbs.org; "Africans in America: Brotherly Love Part III 1791-1831]. The land occupied by the American Colonization Society in Liberia was not void of native inhabitants when the emigrants arrived. Much of the area was under the control of the Malinke tribes who resented the expansion of these settlers. In addition to disease, poor housing conditions and lack of food and medicine, these new emigrants were also forced into armed combat with the natives.

During these formative years, white administrators from the American Colonization Society ran the Liberian colony. But as the colony expanded and became more self-sufficient, colonists were given more and more control in running the colony. In 1841, Joseph Jenkins Roberts became the first black governor of the colony. Under Roberts, the colony drafted a constitution based on the US Constitution and achieved the status of an independent republic in 1847. The new Liberian flag adopted Old Glory's red and white stripes with one white star over a blue rectangle in the upper left corner. Britain was the first to recognize the new country in 1848. The United States delayed its recognition of Liberia until 1862 over concerns by southern states of a black ambassador from Liberia residing in Washington.

The biggest challenge for the fledging nation was the establishment of its boundaries. The colony had consolidated mostly along the coast with its capital at Monrovia. Much of the country's interior was unexplored territory occupied by hostile Malinke. Large loans from Europe and the United States added to the Americo-Liberians might, and slowly they began to dominate large tracks of the country. In exchange for such cooperation from the US, Liberia allowed the US military to use its land as a base from which to fight the Germans in World War I and the Axis Powers in World War II.

Although Americo-Liberians had been denied their freedom in America, many did not think to extend their new liberty to the native Malinke. Liberians treated many Malinke like second-class citizens and denied them voting rights under their US-based constitution. Natives were also used as forced labor until an admonishment from the League of Nations in 1931 halted the practice. The indigenous population and women received the vote as late as 1951. ["Liberia." Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2000]

Although aligned to the US democratic principles, Liberian politics has been more totalitarian. Over the years, presidents such as William V.S. Tubman and William R. Tolbert, Jr. of the True Whig Party suppressed opposition called the Reformation and United People's party. Under Tolbert in the 1970s, the country moved strengthened ties with Soviet Russia while concurrently experiencing labor and economic troubles. In 1980, the muzzled opposition called for Tolbert's resignation. The army sealed the deal with a coup d'etat that ushered Master Sergeant Samuel Doe into power. With Tolbert and many of his cronies executed, Doe suspended the constitution and consolidated his power. The economy subsequently plunged.

By 1989, the opposition flared again, this time under the leadership of Charles Taylor and his rebel group called the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL). The NPFL took control of most of the countryside, and Taylor's army of 10,000 inflicted widespread violence. Other opposition groups such as the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL) and the United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy (ULIMO) also consolidated and took up arms. As several small armies competed for power, the West African peacekeeping troops called ECOMOS were sent in to restore order. Order was far from restored as ECOMOS, in an effort to simply defend itself, was drawn deeper into the war. During the 1990s, ECOMOS was finally successful in bringing the competing factions to the negotiation table. By 1997, elections were held under international scrutiny. Charles Taylor was declared the overwhelming victor and his party, the National Patriotic Party, gained the majority of seats in the legislature. At the top of Taylor's agenda was to heal the wounds of the country's civil war that he helped to start eight years prior.

In the mid 1800s freed slaves voluntarily left the United States in search of a home where they could be truly free. But as they landed on Liberia's shores, disease and hostile natives made the creation of a new life difficult. Totalitarian regimes threatened the economic and democratic future of the nation. And in this country which ex-slaves had hoped to make a center of their new civilization, civil war has now killed 150,000 Liberians and displaced 1 million more.

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