The 1931 Election: The Popular Candidate You Never Heard Of

Ballot Boxes at one of the polling places in Paynesville

Liberians just concluded elections on October 10th.  In the race for President, although no candidate got the required 50% plus for a first round victory, independent observers from ECOWAS, the African Union and the European Union lauded the process for being largely peaceful and transparent.  The stage is now set for the runoff election between the incumbent, President George Weah and his challenger, former Vice President Joseph Boakai.  To say that the first round was contentious and competitive would be a gross understatement. However, it was free and fair in the sense that every candidate was allowed to compete without hindrance. What a novel idea!

Elections in Liberia have come a long way since 1931.   Today you hear of free, fair and peaceful elections as well as international election observers.  These terms were unheard of during those early days.  So much political power was vested in the incumbent that he could use it in any manner to his benefit.  This was indeed what happened in the 1931 presidential election.  Although a very important story in our nation’s history, I don’t think you have ever read it in any Liberian history book.   The story of my grandfather, Momolu Massaquoi (Momo Fo, as he was affectionately called) is a compelling one which can be found in the Liberian Studies Journal (vol. XXX, no. 2, 2005 “An Indigenous Liberian’s Quest for the Presidency: Momolu Massaquoi and the 1931 Election”).   I am bringing it to you now because his boyhood friend and later political rival, President Edwin Barclay, had his name expunged from Liberian history. The two were once such good friends that Momolu even named one of his sons, Edwin only to be rewarded by Barclay with such an evil and despicable act. When Momolu died in 1938, President Barclay’s mean streak manifested itself again by his refusal to give him the proper burial befitting a former cabinet member despite pleas. Barclay also pursued Momolu’s children. Uncle Nat (Nathaniel Varney Massaquoi) and others were jailed but later freed in 1944 when President Tubman came to power. The new president corrected the injustice and brought Nathaniel into his cabinet.  Tubman knew Barclay was wrong and he declared at the time that Barclay’s action was tantamount to the “illegal arrest of peaceful citizens”.

 Momolu was educated in the segregated south at Central Tennessee College in Nashville, Tennessee during the 1890s.  He was an excellent student at that higher education institution established for free blacks.  He returned home following the death of his father and mother. 

At home, government sought his services in improving cooperation between the administration in Monrovia and the indigenous or local people.  He lived among the people and spoke their language.  He succeeded his mother and became the youngest ever King of the Vai people.  Government regularly sought his counsel on matters concerning the interior.  In 1912 he was asked to join the national government specifically to help improve the often hostile relations between the local people and the repatriate population.  He succeeded beyond expectation at this task.  With such success came considerable popularity for Momolu among the disadvantaged majority. He was educated, had international exposure as well as domestic experience working with the indigenous chiefs. In addition, Momolu was a teacher and principal at St. John’s in Robertsport, Cape Mount.  He was also a successful businessman.  He and his cousin Sandi Roberts built an elegant hotel on Ashmun Street.  The hotel was rented by government and became the Executive Mansion from 1910 to the mid-1950s (see attached). 

 For the first time in our nation’s history, an indigenous Liberian was poised to become president of Liberia. Because he was feared so much, politically, President King appointed him Liberia Consul General to Germany in 1922, a subtle move to send him far away from Monrovia and away from Liberian politics.  Momolu excelled at that position also becoming the first indigenous African Diplomat.  You can read about this in his biography (The First African Diplomat c.2004).  At the time, there was very little information on Liberia to promote trade and cooperation with Europe.  To fill that void, Momolu wrote “The Republic of Liberia” in 1926 (see attached a photocopy of the title page of that book).

Momolu returned from Hamburg, Germany in 1930 and expressed his presidential aspiration. This was at the time the League of Nations was investigating Liberia for condoning slavery over the Fernando Po crisis.  Momolu made it clear that his administration would thoroughly investigate the Fernando Po “forced labor” practice and hold all who engaged in and benefited from it accountable.  As a student in Nashville, he witnessed the public lynching of a black man while people gathered and cheered in 1892.  He noted that this had a profound effect on his life. You can see why he was disgusted by the Fernando Po practice. Candidate Barclay and the establishment would not have this kind of investigation.  With Barclay as president everything would be swept under the rug except for a few resignations.

          Momolu Massaquoi was the strongest candidate for president in 1931. Barclay knew this and did not want to take on the popular Momolu in a head to head competition for president.  He offered him any position in a Barclay administration if he would not run.  When Momolu declined, Barclay, who was acting President, succeeded in keeping Momolu off the ballot by filing a series of frivolous lawsuits against him.  The case went all the way to the Supreme Court where Momolu eventually won.  By then, the election was long over and Barclay had won handily against Thomas J. Faulkner.  Barclay knew what he was doing and he played his game well.

Had Barclay not interfered with history and Momolu Massaquoi had become President, who knows where Liberia would be today? In my opinion, a much better place.  You can see clearly from his public speeches the kind of leader he would have been.  As a young man in the United States, he spoke before several national audiences including the 1892 Chicago World’s Fair and the National Education Association (N. E. A.) in 1891.  He was proud of his race and consistently called for blacks to help in Liberia’s development.  He wanted skilled people not loafers. On July 26, 1921 he delivered the National Oration in Monrovia, calling for a true unification of all the various groups in Liberia.  The love of his people and improving their condition were always dear to his heart. He admonished his audience that in the absence of genuine reconciliation between the indigenous and the repatriate people, Liberia could never be successful as a state.  He was an excellent public speaker. The Toronto Globe also made that observation in its 21 page coverage after Momolu’s address to the N.E.A. in 1891. The Liberia ruling elite, however, seemed more interested in his delivery style than his candid assessment of life in the country. This was a mistake and a hard lesson we would learn decades later.  The Man was way ahead of his time.

Momolu was friends with Marcus Garvey, William E. B. Du Bois and others in the Pan African Movement.  As president, I have no doubt that my grandfather would have followed his life-long convictions and changed the trajectory of Liberia’s development and the country would be a better place for all today.

Momolu’s father was King Lahai of the GalIinas and his mother was Queen Famata Bendu Sandimanni of the Vai people in Liberia.  Her poster was one of several famous traditional leaders on display in Monrovia during Liberia’s Bicentennial celebration in 2022.  

Momolu had many children who went on to become successful citizens in various walks of life.  He still has one living daughter, Fasia Massaquoi, in Knoxville, TN.  You may be familiar with some of his children including Nathaniel Varney Massaquoi the former Education Secretary who was also one of UNESCO’s founding members.  The Massaquoi School in West Point, Monrovia is named after him.  One of his daughters, Fatima M. Fahnbulleh, was a former Dean of the College of Liberal Arts, University of Liberia where she established the African Studies Program.  Momolu also had other children who did not carry the Massaquoi name including Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Liberia, Eugene Shannon and Fasia Jansen, German singer and peace activist after whom a street was recently named in Bremen, Germany.  

Also, pertinent to this subject and that might be of interest to some is the YouTube video “TOP 5 INDIGENOUS LIBERIAN LEADERS” by Octavius Obey.