Category Archives: Liberia

“One thing it ain’t, is black and white”

From Mississippi in Africa: The Saga of the Slaves of Prospect Hill Plantation and Their Legacy in Liberia Today, by Alan Huffman (Penguin, 2004), pp. 104-106, 278-280:

At first glance, Delores’s lineage is difficult to discern. Before now we have spoken only on the phone, after I was given her number by her niece, Laura “Butch” Ross. During my research into the story of Prospect Hill, I have often conducted first interviews on the phone rather than in person, and sometimes have found myself deliberating whether the person I am speaking with is descended from slave or slave owner, because many have similar accents and frames of reference. I wait for their perspective to reveal itself through some telltale sign—a verbal marker such as the use of “aks” in place of “ask” by blacks, or a reference to “faithful slaves” by whites. Sometimes the clue lies in what is left out of their account. The prevailing white version of the story of Prospect Hill always includes the slave uprising, but the prevailing black version never does. In many cases my assumptions have turned out to be entirely wrong, and I might be deep into a conversation before I know for sure.

In Delores’s case, neither her speech nor her perspective gave her away on the phone. Finally she said, “I’ll just be frank with you, it was kind hard growing up in the South with a black mother and a white father.”

After greeting me at the door and inviting me in, Delores launches into one of the more curious genealogies that I have come across.

“I’ll tell you, Roots, the best movie ever made, don’t have nothin’ on the Ross family,” she says. “We’re all over the place. Go way back, all over the place. Here some of ’em started out in Africa, come to Mississippi, then end up back in Africa. And a whole lot of ’em—black, white, you name it, been right here all along—and I’m talkin’ a long, long time.

Delores’s hair is long, wavy, and black, carefully molded with pomade, her skin midway between black and white. Her house is a catchall sort of place, with furniture from the 1960s and 1970s, potted plants and vases of plastic flowers, and every available surface crowded with memorabilia and framed photos of people, both black and white. Many area residents have a tendency to reduce key figures in local history to archetypes and stereotypes—good guys and bad guys, everything black and white, but not Delores. She listens patiently to a summary of the history of Prospect Hill, then leans back on her sofa and takes a long drag off her cigarette. She is unpretentious and self-possessed, and has no qualms about entertaining my questions about her family history—in fact, she relishes the opportunity.

“One thing it ain’t, is black and white,” she says, and blows cigarette smoke toward the ceiling….

“Here, pass me that picture there, Butch,” Delores says, and Butch hands her a framed photograph from among the group clustered on the coffee table. “That’s Thad Ross, my daddy,” Delores says, and passes the photo to me. “He was a descendant of Isaac Ross.” The photo looks to have been taken in the 1930s. A white man is seated on a sofa beside a dark-skinned girl with a black woman seated in a chair nearby. There is no mistaking they are a family. “It was taken down in Jefferson County,” she says. “That’s my father there. The girl is Jimmie, my sister, Butch’s mother. The lady’s Queen Esther Polk, Jimmie’s mother.”

The photo would be right at home in many family albums across the South but for the mix of skin colors. There are many people of mixed race in this part of the country, but they are usually the result of clandestine encounters. Racial mixing is rarely documented for posterity, particularly by members of prominent white families like the Rosses….

Delores points to a group of framed photos on the mantel, and adds, “That’s all my family up there.” She goes down the line, naming names. Most of the faces are black, but some are white, and others are in between. She pulls out her albums and shows me snapshots of blacks and whites intermingling unself-consciously—fishing on a lake, visiting in someone’s living room, gathering for a graduation….”

“Isaac Ross was a unique fella during that time,” James [Belton] says, in typical understatement. “He went along with slavery but his slaves were not slaves in the traditional sense. I doubt seriously if you would find anything written about the slaves before 1870, when blacks were first included in the census. But from word-of-mouth, folklore, what was passed down from generation to generation, it is apparent they were not like other slaves. I was told, you know, that some of those Beltons actually attended Oakland College. They were not free, per se, but they were educated.”

Before the Civil War, Oakland College was a private school for planters’ sons, and Isaac Ross sat on its board. Today it is Alcorn State University, which was founded in 1871 as the first land-grant college for blacks in the United States.

Most historical accounts note that many Prospect Hill slaves were taught to read and write, and that they all enjoyed relative freedom within the confines of the plantation. Ross never sold any slaves, and it appears he kept them sequestered from the slaves on neighboring plantations. When Isaac Ross Wade took over as master of the plantation, however, they were treated like any other group of slaves, James says. “By the time of the burning of the house, from what I gather, all of the slaves but a few were extremely bitter. Isaac Ross had treated them like relatives, and the truth is, a lot of them were relatives. The Belton ladies who worked around Prospect Hill were very light—you couldn’t hardly tell ’em from white ladies, my father said. But after Isaac Wade contested the will [that freed the slaves and offered them emigration to Liberia], they weren’t getting the treatment they had gotten during Ross’s lifetime, and resentment just built up. That was how they came to set fire to the house.”

Why did any of the slaves choose to remain behind when the majority emigrated to Liberia? James has a ready answer. A few were not given the option of being repatriated, he says, “most likely because they were just bad apples, like you have in any community.”

The others, he says, may have been wary of traveling to a distant, unknown land. But Mariah was different. Belton believes she chose to remain behind because her two sons, Wade and Edmond, had fled Prospect Hill to escape being lynched in the aftermath of the uprising, and perhaps she knew their whereabouts.

It may have been the grief she was keeping within over what had happened,” he says. “She knew her sons did not go to Liberia, and perhaps she thought, ‘For me to ever see my sons again, I have to stay in the area.’ So she was sold to Walter Wade and transferred to Rosswood with her son, William. He was my great-grandfather.” He digs through the stack of papers on his kitchen table and pulls out a photo of the young man, which looks to have been taken around the 1850s, with an inscription that identifies him as a carriage driver….

James still has a lot of questions, but most of them concern the genealogical riddle. He has organized the documents pertaining to his family and Prospect Hill on a CD-ROM, complete with images of the portraits of Isaac Ross and his wife, and of tombstones in the graveyard, and he plans to give a presentation on the subject at the next Belton family reunion. Since 1984 the Beltons have held reunions, often several times a year, at various locations. Last year the event drew more than 4,000 people, he says. “I had to get my facts in order,” he says of his Prospect Hill presentation. “I don’t like to lose history, and the first time I mentioned all this at the Belton reunion, the whole place went quiet. People’s mouths dropped. They said, ‘A white man did that before the Civil War—in Mississippi?’ They didn’t believe me. One fella who did believe the story said, ‘Man, you need to get in touch with Spike Lee. It’s make a great movie.’

“There’s a lot about our history people don’t realize,” he says, “Like that a lot of blacks in the South owned slaves.” In his view, the story is complicated, and it is shared. “Some of the white Rosses have helped me put a lot of information together, and the white Beltons, too,” he adds.

When I mention what so many have said about the story not being simply black and white, he smiles. He says there are a lot of gradations between any two extremes, and cites as an example the quasi-ward system that he remembers as a child, which was similar to that which exists in Liberia today.

“It was basically the same way here,” he says. “It wasn’t like slavery, but I grew up with a stepbrother and -sister, who Dad took in and raised ’em, and they worked for the family. They were like family, and they were less fortunate, and they worked for us. I see a lot of that—people who are less fortunate, maybe because they’re darker-skinned, and they weren’t given the same opportunity.”

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Filed under language, Liberia, migration, slavery, U.S.

Early Liberian Colonists vs. Indigenous Peoples

From Mississippi in Africa: The Saga of the Slaves of Prospect Hill Plantation and Their Legacy in Liberia Today, by Alan Huffman (Penguin, 2004), pp. 45-48:

In creating its Liberian colony in 1820, the American Colonization Society used as a template the colony of Sierra Leone, immediately to the west on the coast of West Africa. Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, had been founded thirty years earlier by English philanthropists as a home for freed British slaves, many of whom had originated in America but had won their freedom by fighting for the crown during the American Revolution. West Africa was chosen for the colonies for several reasons, but primarily because it was known as the “slave coast” and was the general area of origin of large numbers of slaves, including the majority of those who ended up in the Americas. Historians estimate that approximately sixty million Africans were captured as slaves in West Africa from the first recorded slave sale in 1503 to the end of the trade in the mid-nineteenth century. Of those, an estimated forty million died before arriving at their destination.

Until the establishment of the two colonies, the territory that would become Liberia had been held by indigenous tribes, many of which were (and in some cases continued to be) active in the slave trade. In hindsight, it was a recipe for disaster….

In January 1820 the society’s first chartered ship, the Elizabeth, set sail from New York for West Africa with three society agents and eighty-eight emigrants aboard. The ship first landed in Freetown, then made its way along the coast to the future Liberia, where the colonization effort got off to an inauspicious start. Within three weeks all of the society’s agents and twenty-two of the immigrants had died of fever. The survivors were evacuated to Freetown. Undeterred, the society organized two more voyages and began buying additional land, sometimes under threat of force, from tribal chiefs along the coast. According to historian [Mary Louise] Clifford, U.S. officials struck a deal with indigenous tribes that allowed the tribes’ active slave trade, which would have meant that as freed slaves were arriving to settle in Liberia, new slaves would have been setting sail. The colonization society board rejected the deal, however. A compromise that gave the coastal region only to the immigrants, and apparently made no mention of the slave trade, was accepted, but when the immigrants actually landed they met armed resistance and so moved farther down the coast, where they were again attacked. Some escaped to Freetown while others remained trapped within crude, hastily built fortifications. Only a small group persevered….

By the end of 1822 a tenuous peace was negotiated between the settlers and the tribes. Soon after, colonization society officials rebuked the immigrants for what they considered to be a poor effort at self-sufficiency. Clifford wrote that the settlers considered farming too closely akin to the slavery they had known in the United States, yet they had few other economic options aside from trade, which was dominated by the tribes.

To engender a sense of purpose, and because the colonization society was having difficulty finding leaders who would remain in place, the group named the colony Liberia and sought to regiment its government on the local level. The colonists began bartering for more coastal land and eventually took control of most of the valuable slave trading ports. By 1830 more than 2,500 immigrants had arrived in Liberia from the United States, and the next year the state of Maryland incorporated its colonization society, distinct from the American Colonization Society, and appropriated money for its own colony.

Even as the colonization effort was getting on its feet, opposition in the United States grew. The concept of colonization was challenged by both white abolitionists and free blacks who argued that African-Americans had earned a stake in the United States, and that repatriation was tantamount to deportation. Those concerns would still be echoed in 1851, when Frederick Douglass, in a speech to the Convention of Colored Citizens, attacked colonization, saying, “But we claim no affinity with Africa. This is our home … The land of our forefathers.” African-Americans, he said, “do not trace our ancestry to Africa alone. We trace it to Englishmen, Irishmen, Scotchmen, to Frenchmen, to the German, to the Asiatic as well as to Africa. The best blood of Virginia courses through our veins.”

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Filed under Britain, Liberia, migration, Sierra Leone, slavery, U.S.

End of the Americo-Liberian Aristocracy, 1980

From The Fate of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence, by Martin Meredith (PublicAffairs, 2005), pp. 545-548:

In his book Journey Without Maps, an account of his travels in Liberia in the 1930s, the English writer Graham Greene recorded that ‘Liberian politics were like a crap game played with loaded dice’. It was a game that Liberia’s ruling elite – the descendants of some 300 black settler families from the United States who set up an independent republic in 1847 – played among themselves with considerable relish. For more than 100 years – from 1877 to 1980 – Liberia was governed under a one-party system in which the same party, the True Whig Party, controlled by the same elite group, held office continuously, dispensing patronage, deciding on public appointments and retaining a monopoly on power – a record equalled by no other political party anywhere in the world. Elections were nevertheless taken seriously, if only to determine which family – the Barclays, the Kings, the Tubmans – emerged on top. ‘The curious thing about a Liberian election campaign,’ wrote Greene, ‘is that, although the result is always a foregone conclusion, everyone behaves as if the votes and the speeches and the pamphlets matter.’ However, he added, the system was more complicated than it seemed. ‘It may be all a question of cash and printing presses and armed police, but things have to be done with an air. Crudity as far as possible is avoided.’

As members of a ruling aristocracy, the Americo-Liberians, as they called themselves, were immensely proud of their American heritage. They developed a lifestyle reminiscent of the antebellum South, complete with top hats and morning coats and masonic lodges. They built houses with pillared porches, gabled roofs and dormer windows resembling the nineteenth-century architectural styles of Georgia, Maryland and the Carolinas. They chose as a national flag a replica of the American Stars and Stripes, with a single star, and used the American dollar as legal tender.

Just like white settlers in Africa, the Americo-Liberians constructed a colonial system subjugating the indigenous population to rigid control and concentrating wealth and privilege in their own hands. Despite their origins as descendants of slaves from the Deep South, they regarded black Liberians as an inferior race, fit only for exploitation. The nadir of Americo-Liberian rule came in 1931 when an international commission found senior government officials guilty of involvement in organised slavery.

When other West African states shed colonial rule in the 1960s, the Liberian system stayed much the same. Liberian law stipulated that only property owners were entitled to the vote, so the vast majority of indigenous Africans were effectively left without one. Small numbers were assimilated into the ranks of the ruling elite: ‘country boys’ adopted by coastal families; girls selected as wives or concubines; ambitious ‘hinterlanders’ climbing the ladder. During the 1970s a few were co-opted into government. Local administration in the ‘hinterland’ was largely run by indigenous officials. But essentially Liberia remained an oligarchy where 1 per cent of the population controlled the rest – some 2 million people.

The last of the line of Americo-Liberian presidents was William Tolbert, the grandson of freed South Carolina slaves who had served as vice-president for twenty years. A Baptist minister, he attempted a series of cautious reforms, abandoning the top hat and tail-coat traditions favoured by his predecessor, William Tubman, selling the presidential yacht and abolishing a compulsory ‘tithe’ of 10 per cent of every government employee’s salary that went to the True Whig Party. But much of Tolbert’s efforts were also devoted to amassing a personal fortune and promoting the interests of family members in the traditional manner. One brother was appointed minister of finance; another was chosen as president of the senate; a son-in-law served as minister of defence; other relatives filled posts as ministers, ambassadors and presidential aides. The crap game of Liberian politics was as highly profitable in the 1970s as in the 1930s.

Economic development in the 1960s and 1970s helped underpin the system, as well as provide new opportunities for the elite’s self-enrichment. The mainstay of the economy had initially been rubber. In 1926 the Firestone Tyre and Rubber Company leased a million acres for ninety-nine years at six cents an acre to meet the American demand for car tyres. But iron ore exports from massive, high-grade deposits in the Bomi hills then overtook rubber as the major source of foreign investment and government income. By 1970 Firestone and the Liberian Iron Mining Company were providing the government with 50 per cent of greatly increased revenues. A third source of income came from registration fees from the world’s largest ghost fleet of ships: Liberia possessed only two ships of its own, but allowed more than 2,500 vessels plying the seas to fly Liberia’s flag of convenience without the bother of inspection, for a suitable fee.

Liberia ‘s economic advances, however, served only to highlight the growing disparity between the ostentatious lifestyle of the rich elite and the overwhelming majority of impoverished tribal Africans. In 1979 – the same year that Tolbert spent an amount equivalent to half the national budget while acting as host to an OAU heads of state conference – demonstrators took to the streets in protest against a 50 per cent increase in the price of rice, the staple food of most Liberians. The price increase had been authorised by Tolbert in the hope of encouraging local production. But since one of the chief beneficiaries was the president’s cousin, Daniel Tolbert, who owned the country’s largest rice-importing firm, it was seen as another move to enrich the elite. On Tolbert’s orders armed police and troops opened fire on the demonstrators, killing dozens of them.

In the following months Tolbert struggled to contain a rising tide of discontent, colliding not just with the poor but with a new generation of the educated elite. He allowed the formation of an opposition party, but when opposition politicians called for a general strike, he had them arrested on charges of treason and sedition and banned the party.

On the night of 12 April 1980 a group of seventeen dissident soldiers led by a 28-year-old master sergeant named Samuel Doe, scaled the iron gate of the president’s seven-storey Executive Mansion, overpowered the guards and found Tolbert in his pyjamas in an upstairs bedroom. They fired three bullets into his head, gouged out his right eye and disembowelled him. His body was dumped in a mass grave along with twenty-seven others who died defending the palace. Ministers and officials were rounded up, taken before a military tribunal and sentenced to death.

Amid much jubilation, watched by a crowd of thousands laughing and jeering and filmed by camera crews, thirteen high-ranking officials were tied to telephone poles on a beach in Monrovia and executed by a squad of drunken soldiers, firing volley after volley at them. A great shout arose from the mob. ‘Freedom! We got our freedom at last!’ The soldiers rushed forward to kick and pummel the corpses.

Thus the old order ended.

Thus begins the chapter entitled “Blood Diamonds,” in which the barbarism only gets worse and worse. Few societies have solved the problem of how to overthrow recalcitrant aristocrats without descending into a period of barbarism that only serves to unduly enhance nostalgia for prerevolutionary times, as Theodore Dalrymple observes in his retrospective on Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

The Russian satirical writer Vladimir Voinovich satirized Solzhenitsyn’s Russian nationalism by depicting someone resembling him having his employees flogged in Vermont. This satirical scene, in fact, made a profound criticism of Solzhenitsyn’s political thought. Voinovich was alluding to the fact that, were it not for the horrors of Bolshevism, the pre-revolutionary Russian political tradition would be regarded as so brutal that no sensitive person of good will could be a Russian nationalist. As it was, the Bolsheviks regularly killed in a few minutes more people than the Romanovs managed in a century, giving pre-revolutionary Russian history the retrospective luster of decency, wisdom, and compassion that it did not in the least deserve. For Voinovich—and the distinguished historian of Russia Richard Pipes—Leninism had its roots in the Russian tradition as well as the Marxist one. This meant that Solzhenitsyn, while absolutely right in his uncompromising attitude to Marxist-Leninism and all its works, belonged in the category of Dostoevsky: a brilliant seer who would nevertheless have made a very bad guide.

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Filed under democracy, Liberia, nationalism, Russia, slavery, U.S., war