In our selection this Tuesday of Central Bank Governor Dr. J. Mills Jones as PERSON OF THE YEAR, we stressed the fact that the vast majority of Liberians live in abject poverty in their own country, while only a few Liberians and most foreigners, including Lebanese, Indians and Fulas, are very rich. We also mentioned a handful of Liberians in business, but not in the mainstream or leaders in their particular lines of business. Every aspect of business, with the probable exception of rubber, is dominated by foreigners.
That brings us to this big one—RUBBER—which has over the years put a lot of money into the pockets of a few Liberians, making some very rich. The exceptions, of course, are the big rubber concessions, Firestone, Liberia Agriculture Company (LAC), Salala Rubber Corporation (SRC), Cavala Rubber Company (CRC) and the Guthrie Plantations.
We fortunately have quite a few Liberians who are rubber planters and have over the decades done well for themselves and their families.
The first Liberian to make serious money from rubber was James (Jimmy) Francis Cooper, the first Liberian to start planting the highly lucrative crop. He was Secretary of the Interior under President C.D.B. King in 1926 when Harvey S. Firestone started his rubber plantation along the Farmington River in what is now Margibi County.
Jimmy Cooper was the grandfather of many, many Coopers, including former Deputy Agriculture Secretary Sam Payne Cooper, geologist Bismark Cooper, Journalist Chauncey Cooper and former Chief Justice of Liberia Henry Reed Cooper. Mrs. Mildred Cooper Reeves, former General Manager of the Liberian Bank for Development and Investment, now a CBL Governor, is Jimmy Cooper’s great granddaughter. Young Carrine Richards Barnes, a leading Liberian architect, who currently supervises the renovation of the Executive Mansion, is also a granddaughter of Jimmy Cooper.
As Secretary of the Interior, Jimmy Cooper was the man to whom Harvey Firestone turned to recruit workers to run his highly labor-intensive rubber plantation. Most of these workers initially hailed from Montserrado, Bong, Lofa and later Nimba counties.
In appreciation for the Interior Secretary’s invaluable help, Mr. Firestone encouraged Jimmy Cooper to plant rubber, too. And Mr. Cooper was not selfish. He got other Liberians involved in the rubber industry. The Daily Observer once found in the United States Archives a letter from Louis Arthur Grimes, Attorney General under President King, Secretary of State and later Chief Justice under President Edwin Barclay and President W.V.S. Tubman. In that letter, Mr. Grimes thanked Jimmy Cooper for encouraging him (Grimes) to plant rubber. President King, too, planted rubber in Lower Careysburg (King Farm) and so did his successor, President Edwin Barclay, whose rubber farm was near the Firestone Hydro in the same Farmington community.
An American researcher and author came to see the Daily Observer publisher little over two years ago and told him what he thought of Mr. Firestone leading Liberian officials into planting rubber. “This,” said the author, who has probably now completed his book on the American rubber industrialist, “was the genius of Harvey Firestone.” By encouraging most Liberian officials, past, present and future, to plant rubber and make money, Mr. Firestone got all of these officials on his side, convincing them that they, too, and not Firestone only, could become rich from rubber. That immediately brought all of these Liberian decision makers to his side. Tubman, who succeeded E.J. Barclay as President in 1944, also became a big rubber planter—with farms both in Totota, Bong County, and in his native Maryland County (Bonike near Pleebo).
The Speaker of the House in the 1930s, Benjamin Greene Freeman, became the leading rubber planter in Careysburg, followed by his brother, father of “Ben III,” former Liberian Ambassador to La Cote d’Ivoire, and also by J.D. Jackson, the Ureys and others.
Ben Freeman, like Henry B. Duncan and R.S.S. Bright, jumped out of the box and invested in real estate on Benson Street, Monrovia (old Defense Ministry) and Payne Avenue, Sinkor. Freeman’s successor as Speaker was Richard A. Henries, who also planted rubber in Bong and Bomi Counties. All of these lawyers (Freeman, Henries, etc.), became, of course, Firestone lawyers, too, further entrenching Firestone in Liberian political culture.
Many members of President Tubman’s first Cabinet also planted rubber. These included Tubman’s first and second Vice Presidents, Clarence Lorenzo Simpson and William Richard Tolbert, Jr.; and first Treasury Secretary, William E. Dennis, Sr., who made money from rubber in Borlorla, near Kakata.
Following his resignation from government in 1954, Mr. Dennis was four years later succeeded by the highly educated Charles D. Sherman.
Mr. Sherman, too, became a major rubber planter. He joined many other leading families to plant rubber on the Bong Mines road, in the heart of the Liberian rubber belt. These included his eldest brother Arthur, former Director of the Bureau of Mines and Geology, John Lewis Cooper, many other Coopers, Mrs. Thelma Reeves, ex-wife of former Secretary of State Gabriel Lafayette Dennis, and Mrs. Sara Frances Maximore Beysolow, wife of Circuit Court Judge J. Daniel Beysolow. The Beysolows were parents of former Commerce Minister Miata Beysolow, her brother Kona and other siblings.
Colonel Isaac Whisnant, a senior official in the Liberian Frontier Force (now Armed Forces of Liberia), was also a rubber planter; so was Tubman’s first Public Works Secretary Henry B. Duncan, and Interior Secretary J. Samuel Melton. All three men—Whisnant, Duncan and Melton—built their farms on the road leading to Salala.
Speaking of Firestone and the future, something else happened. In 1959 the University of Liberia graduated its first specialists from the College of Agriculture and Forestry. In the class were two young men who emerged as rubber planters, Elfrick K. Porte, first son of Albert, and Charles Edward Cooper, grandson of Jimmy Cooper and son of Jimmy’s first son Jesse.
Firestone wasted no time in approaching Charles Edward to offer him a job as one of the first Liberian Superintendents on the Firestone Plantation. But the young man told the Firestone management he was not interested, because he already had plans to take over his grandfather Jimmy and Edward ‘s father Jesse’s farms. But Firestone was undeterred. They immediately approached President Tubman, seeking his intervention. The President sent for Charles Edward and gave him an offer he could not refuse. So Charles Edward joined Firestone and remained there until 1990 when the civil war broke out.
Of course, Charles Edward worked his father and grandfather’s farms part time and even started his own. Then the war. Today, Jimmy Cooper’s farm is no more. Its unattended trees have been lost to the rapacious charcoal producers.
It was this very serious love affair between Firestone and Liberian officialdom that over many decades consistently kept Firestone workers’ wages low. Many feared that if Firestone increased its wages, local rubber planters would lose their workers to Harbel, the Firestone capital named for Harvey and his wife Annabel.
That kept Firestone workers partially impoverished for generations. And many of them are still poor, though unlike workers on many leading Liberian rubber plantations, Firestone workers do have reasonably good housing, educational and health facilities.
“Rubber King of the World”
In the early 1930s a Liberian teenager named Harry Lyons Morris returned home as the eldest of his siblings to be with their mother, Mrs. Maude Morris, at the funeral of his father, John Louis Morris. Mr. Morris, who served in many Cabinet positions during the King administration, was also a small rubber planter. Morris Farm opposite the Cocoa Cola Factory was his first farm. He also had a small farm in Kakata, near the Du Bridge.
Being the eldest, Harry, then a junior in high school in the USA, did not return to complete his studies. Instead, he remained at home to help take care of his mother and siblings. It was during that period that he took over his father’s rubber farms, then later planted his own.
Harry worked very hard and grew the biggest rubber plantation of any single planter.
By the mid-1950s Mr. Morris was acclaimed “the Rubber King of the World.”
Mr. R.S.S. Bright, once Secretary to President Edwin Barclay and later Liberian diplomat in the USA and at the United Nations, also planted rubber, on the Firestone Road in Kakata. He, too became a major rubber planter who, unlike Mr. Morris and other planters, invested heavily in real estate in the prime diplomatic enclave of Mamba Point. In this initiative, Mr. Bright followed the example of Henry B. Duncan, who built the initial buildings that now house the Mamba Point and Cape Hotels, both owned by Lebanese.
A few other rubber planters, including Arthur and Charles Sherman, also heavily invested in real estate, though not in the Mamba Point area.
Harry Morris’ farm, now run by his son Bill, is still the largest in Liberia and probably the world owned by one family. Bill has moved the farm one step further. He now processes his own rubber, and no longer needs to sell rubber to Firestone. Morris rubber is shipped directly to foreign markets.
This is a significant development that could, with the infusion of more capital, pave the way for the manufacture of rubber products in Liberia.
We end this piece on Liberian rubber on a painful note. Liberia is no longer Africa’s leading producer of natural rubber. We understand it is now La Cote d’Ivoire, which also holds first place in coffee, cocoa and oil palm production on the continent.
It is not known when Liberia will start investing again in tree crops and help Liberian rubber, coffee and cocoa planters to reestablish their farms. Rubber trees throughout the country were destroyed during the 14-year civil war by illicit and rapacious tapping and cutting down of the trees for charcoal production.
For special and strategic reasons, both the Firestone and Morris plantations were left intact during the war.
In the case of Morris Farm, it is because son Bill remained on the plantation throughout the war. Thank God for a son who looked after his father’s business.